Thursday, August 29, 2013

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali gained fame as an avante-garde, surrealist Spanish painter.  But few realize he had a lifelong relationship with movies including working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Dali was a surrealist concerned with depicting imagery found in dreams instead of waking life.  He introduced the world to his fascination with melting clocks in his painting "The Persistence of Memory." Though the image suggests Einstein's theory of relativity, Dali claimed the clocks were inspired by the sight of "Camembert cheese melting in the sun."

When Dali was 17, he attended an art academy in Madrid.  He befriended the surrealist artist Luis Bunuel and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca.  In 1929, Dali & Bunuel made the film Un Chien Andalou ("The Andalusian Dog").  This was Dali's first film.  He wrote the screenplay while Bunuel directed.

Un Chien Andalou incorporates images seen in Dali's paintings: a disembodied hand, ant infestation, a decomposing donkey and eyeballs morphing into clouds. The film utilizes fades and dissolves between shots as an effort to undermine traditional editing techniques of the time.  Un Chien Andalou placed Dali in the heart of the surrealist movement and established film as a vehicle for the movement's goals.

In 1930, Dali & Bunuel collaborated on their second film L'Age D'Or.  The film's prologue shows a scorpion killing a rat.  The film focuses on two lovers who are kept apart by the hypocritical value system of bourgeois society and the Catholic church.  The film reflects the growing unease of Europe sparked by the rise of the political right.  When the film screened in Paris, an anti-Jewish group rioted and destroyed paintings exhibiting with the film.  After a ten-day run, the movie was banned in France for forty years.

In 1935, Dali's next film idea was called The Surrealist Mysteries of New York. Dali imagined scenes of violence at famous Manhattan locations like Fifth Avenue, Radio City Music Hall and the Natural History Museum.  He claimed to be inspired by the gangster films Little Caesar and Public Enemy.  Dali sketched out illustrations for the film which appeared in the magazine The American Weekly.  The movie was never made.

Dali was a huge fan of the Marx Brothers.  He wrote that Animal Crackers was "the summit of the evolution of comic cinema."  To Dali, the Marx Brothers "concrete irrationality" and "comic mayhem" was in perfect sync with the tenets of surrealism and Dada.  Dali particularly praised Harpo for his "persuasive and triumphant madness."

In 1936, Dali met Harpo in Paris.  They became immediate friends and Dali began working on a Marx Brothers film project called Giraffes On Horseback Salad.  The story revolved around a Spanish aristocrat exiled in America who falls in love with a mysterious surrealist woman.  The woman befriends the Marx Brothers and brings them into her world of fantasy and dreams.  Dali's storyboards were filled with surrealist imagery: melting watches, cyclists and a lobster telephone.  Dali wanted Harpo to have the starring role.  Groucho objected and the film was never made. In parting, Dali gave Harpo a harp strung with barbed wire.  Harpo played along and sent Dali a photo of himself playing harp with bandaged fingers.

In 1940, Twentieth Century-Fox hired Dali to design a three-minute nightmare sequence for the Fritz Lang film Moontide.  Dali's job was to visually describe lead actor Jean Gabin's hallucinatory descent into an alcoholic nightmare.  Dali's drawings included a behemoth sewing machine and a brothel slaughterhouse. Just before production, Pearl Harbor was attacked and Fox abandoned the project as too pessimistic.  A tamer version of the film was made in 1942 without Dali and Lang.

In 1944, Alfred Hitchcock was making plans for his movie Spellbound.  Ingrid Bergman plays a therapist who treats Gregory Peck, an amnesia patient accused of murder struggling to recover his memory.  Freudian psychoanalysis was in vogue at the time and Hitchcock approached Salvador Dali to design a key dream sequence in the film.  (Surrealism embraced psychoanalysis.)  Hitchcock felt Dali's crisp artistic precision represented a better experience of a dream state then the typical blurred imagery conventions of the time.  "I was after the vividness of dreams," Hitchcock said.  "Dali's work is solid and sharp with long perspectives and black shadows."

Dali was hired by Vanguard Films for $4,000 to "create, draw and paint all sketches and/or designs required in connection with the 'Dream Sequence' in Spellbound."  Dali produced over 20 minutes of footage which was ultimately cut down to three-minutes.  The resulting sequence contains familiar Dali imagery: floating eyes, scissors, playing cards, a faceless man, table legs resembling women's legs, a man falling off a building and shadowy wings.

Several signature Dali ideas did not make it into the final film.  Dali proposed to attach images of eyes on the backs of cockroaches.  He wanted 15 grand pianos suspended over a ballroom filled with dancers.  He also wanted to include a scene of ants crawling over Ingrid Bergman. Hitchcock had to explain to Dali that you can't have live bugs crawling on the world's most famous film actress.

In 1946, Dali attempted a collaboration with Walt Disney.  The idea was for an animated short feature followup to Fantasia.  Dali recognized the surrealist imagery that filled Disney's movies: dancing skeletons, skull islands, clock-swallowing crocodiles.  Disney was interested in avante-garde, experimental animation and Dali was the perfect partner.

Production with Disney began in 1945.  Dali created a large number of sketches and designs.  17 seconds of animation was completed but the film was put aside in 1946 when Disney ran into financial problems.  Remarkably, Roy Disney (Walt's nephew) unearthed the dormant project in 1999 and brought it back to life.  Using Dali's original storyboards, the film called Destino was finally completed in 2003. True to Dali's artistic life, images included melting clocks, marching ants and floating eyeballs. (6" x 7", black ink print)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

On The Right Track

Recently I was asked to come up with a T-Shirt Woodcut Design for a North Hollywood Literary Festival.  The email from the festival sponsors requested something that "depicts the journey  of the creative writer in these modern times when so few people read."

My initial brainstorming elicited depressing ideas like a writer committing Hari-kiri with a fountain pen, the Greek character Sisyphus rolling a massive tome in a cart up a hill, a man drowning from the weight of typewriter tied to his leg.  I rejected these early concepts as too dismal and cliched.  Plus, who the hell uses a typewriter or fountain pen these days anyway.

I finally found inspiration after traveling to Downtown Los Angeles with a friend.  We took a walk beside the Los Angeles River across from Dodger Stadium and I noticed a homeless man writing in a journal.  He wore a tattered suit and his shoes were scuffed and torn.  He had an umbrella thought it was the heart of summer.  He evoked the spirit of Kerouac and Woody Guthrie and Henry Miller.  In an instant I knew the Woodcut Image I wanted to carve.

The festival sponsors asked that I write a short essay explaining how the image embodied the modern writer.  Here is what I submitted:

The Man is walking the train tracks into the unknown.  He takes his journey slowly, focusing on each step, unsure where the tracks will lead.  His face is turned away from us emphasizing his anonymity. He wears his best suit--his only suit--as he carries his meager belongings on his back.

His umbrella shields him from the unrelenting sun and the birds who attempt to drop turds on his beloved fedora.  The only people who notice him are the wayward souls who live beside the tracks. Some view the Man as a wayward soul as well.  But his journey is not dictated by whim.  This is his destiny.

He walks on the wooden railroad ties.  This protects his shoes from damage and prevents footprints. He understands that good walking leaves no path behind.

He has faith his internal compass will kick in at some point.  As he walks, his legs grow tired and heavy.  Sometimes he becomes angry at his plight.  He persists until he feels wings upon his back lifting him and easing his gait.

He always believed he would recognize his destination when he got there.  Now he's sensing there is no place to get to.  He is already there.  He is the road and the knower of roads. (6" x 7", black ink print) (special thanks to Steven Tash and his awesome reference photos) (