Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Marvellous is popular

This weekend saw the launch of Black Lightning, our aggressively lo-fi new zine celebrating the Marvellous in popular culture. In issue 1 we present our cheerfully plagiarised manifesto "The Marvellous is Popular", alongside other delights including edible teeth, limbs on the loose, and a long-overdue appreciation of Jackie Chan as popular cinema's greatest poet.

Most Surrealists are understandably reluctant to evangelise for the movement, but we believe that the practice of occultation – the refusal to seek fame or success, or to turn one's work into commodities for the cultural market – should not, must not, mean a denial of the powers of the popular imagination. Some of us have perhaps been a little too fond of repeating the mantra that "Surrealism will never be a mass movement" when the late-night TV schedules (especially, in the UK, on Five and ITV4), the cheap grab-bags in mainstream comic shops, the world of straight-to-DVD movies, and even the pick-and-mix sweet stands in pound shops and supermarkets, all attest to the public's unconscious but insatiable appetite for the Marvellous. How can convulsive beauty be regarded as a minority interest, when Prison Break averages over 9m viewers a week in the US alone, and Harper's Island is broadcast in almost 40 countries? How can hypnogogic landscapes be regarded as Surrealists' special domain, when Igglepiggle and his friends are at play in Night Gardens all over the world, every night of the week? We know scores of Surrealists who lionise the silent films of Feuillade and the Gothic paroxysms of "Monk" Lewis, but outside of SLAG's own meetings we never hear any paeans to T-Bag, Michael Scofield, John Wakefield or Henry Dunn. We find this neglect inexplicable, and with Black Lightning we want to go some way towards putting it right.

If Surrealists these days are sometimes too quick to dismiss current popular culture – especially when it's made for TV, especially when it's from the US – then conversely, of course, the public is usually too quick to consign Surrealism to the gallery, arts cinema or prestige documentary. Friends and acquaintances learning that we are Surrealists are more likely to ask us our opinions on Buñuel, Švankmajer and indeed (sigh) David Lynch than on DC comics or Wilkinsons sweets. We cede to no-one in our love for Buñuel and Švankmajer, or for that matter for the other "classic" Surrealist heroes like Fantômas, the Marx Brothers or Looney Tunes cartoons. But the Marvellous is popular remains our watchword in the face not only of (some) Surrealists' disdain for TV's plebeian pleasures, but also of (most) people's assumptions that Surrealism is for art buffs and cinéastes, or that poetry is none of their concern. Poetry is everyone's concern, always and everywhere – and we Surrealists can help to bring that concern to consciousness by highlighting the extent to which poetry is, if not exactly commonplace, then at any rate present, and alive, and astonishingly beautiful whenever its black lightning flashes, which is still more often than most people think. The entertainment-industrial complex undoubtedly seeks to stupefy the public's imagination into consumerist docility. But as it grubs down towards the audience's lowest common denominator, it must inevitably also grub down into our unconscious commonwealth – of beauty, terror, desire, passion, and the longing for freedom. In that sense the entertainment industry is constantly sowing the seeds of its own destruction, and Surrealists can help to germinate them in the heart of every consumer.

We are optimists, but not idiotically so. Of course we know that the overwhelming majority of commercially-produced popular culture is irredeemable shit; of course we will never stop repeating that poetry must be made, and not merely consumed, by all. But the dialectics of culture, even under the depredations of the most advanced form of consumer capitalism – especially then – means that sometimes, at least, the slickest and/or stupidest productions are also those which fail most conspicuously to conceal the raw bones of desire moving behind the screen. Poetry, like lightning, must ever appear, to some men hope – and to other men, fear!

Special thanks to our friends in the Leeds Surrealist Group for their help with the distribution of Black Lightning no. 1.
To receive a copy of Black Lightning no.1, email us.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to get a look at this, but your e-mail isn't working for me. I'm at davidghouser at gmail dot com.

Pearl Handel said...

We've just sent you an email David. You might want to keep an eye on your junk folder in case it gets diverted.

CernunnosTrismegistus said...

On the topic of the ever tired David Lych association - how does one explain to someone why David Lynch isn't a Surrealist and his films aren't generally Surreal?

I was reading one of the articles on the Icecrawler blog the other day that was about the difficulty of defining Surrealism and the inaccuracy of supplying an enumerated "academic" paramter. However, most people just aren't willing to accept that Surrealism in involves a sensibility for recognizing the Surreal, not a straightforward classification.

I can say "Surrealism is not a specific genre" or "simply having dreamlike or nightmarish imagery and non-linear narrative struture doesn't make Surrealism" but I have a hard time speaking in anything other than negatives. I can tell people that qualifying Surreality involves an understanding of poetic investigation among a myriad other things, but most people would take this as something far too vague or a subjective, oligarchical decision made only by Surrealist groups. I guess one could just say "who cares if they don't understand? Surrealism resists institutionalization," but if we want to do something about the misuse of the word "Surrealism," it seems important that one can explain in layman's terms why at least certain so-called Surrealists like Lynch, Jodorowsky, and even Cocteau or Michel Gondry(!) don't qualify.

Merl Fluin said...

Come on, this is rather easy, isn't it? What distinguishes Surrealism from these other things you mention is (a) the pursuit of the Marvellous and (b) the determination to both change life and transform the world through revolutionary means.

Of course, you're then left with the task of "explaining" the Marvellous – pointing out examples, as we are trying to do with Black Lightning, is probably easier and more effective than trying to "explain" it – but if you find yourself having the Lynch/Jodorowsky/Cocteau/Gondry conversation with someone who is genuinely interested and not just jerking your chain, then it's worth the effort. And framing it in terms of the Marvellous, rather than arguing over the correct use of the term "Surrealism" (which I mostly couldn't give much of a rat's arse about these days), gets away from that oligarchical danger you allude to as well (and also makes the conversation more open and interesting – for example, I do find some of Jodorowsky's films genuinely poetic in the full sense of the term).

CernunnosTrismegistus said...

Thanks for the response. I have tried this somewhat, but I guess I've been too stuck in the mentality of trying to set parameters on Surrealist film. Once I started getting deeply interested in Surrealism and its history (initally through Bunuel and Lautreamont), I had this sense that the films of Lynch weren't genuine Surrealism, but more of an imitation of the "nightmare" sensibility found in Un Chien Andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon. It wasn't something I was able to define or enumerate in words, but just this suspicion, and perhaps I should simply rely on that more.

The problem I find when speaking to most cinemaphiles who have an interest in strange films is that they can correctly identify Bunuel and Svankmajer as Surrealist filmmakers, but will classify pretty much any early 20th century experimental film, any anarchic comedy (such as Monty Python films), and any quirky fantasy film as a Surrealist film. People are looking for external genre markers that seem to classify what is though of as Surrealism - bizarre or dreamlike imagery particularly with odd juxtapositions, absurd or non-sequitur humor, weird creatures, confusing or non-linear plots. It's hard to explain that Surrealism just shouldn't be thought of as a genre (especially since art history "defines" Surrealist paintings within a specific era and genre).

I realize a discussion of the marvellous SHOULD be a dialogue with disagreement and more questions, but when it comes down to why Bunuel and Svankmajer are Surrealist filmmakers while Jodorowsky and Lynch are not, the best I can support this is the fact that the first two were/are members of Surrealist groups consciously making films with the Surrealist tradition in mind. Is this adequate? I know it's more proper to speak of Surrealism as something in film (as Svankmajer once said in an interview), but can a film made by someone non-affiliated with a Surrealist group be completely Surrealist? There are about a million other questions that pop into my head with this, but perhaps it's all null.

If you're interested, though, I'd like to have a more in-depth discussion on what ways certain pseudo-Surrealists like Lynch and Jodorowsky might sometimes achieve the marvellous. I'm sure it's been done to death, but I have a few specific questions. I figure this comments section is probably an inappropriate venue for such a dialogue.

Merl Fluin said...

Our group email address appears in our blog profile.

Shibek said...

I've been meaning to thank you for Black Lightning which I received in the mail last week! Cheers, Shibek