2016 Film Essays

Vaguebande: Luis Buñuel’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’ (1929)


I’ve never been fond of the phrase “free spirit.” Most often, it’s used as a patronizing term by practical individuals to identify with apparently less rational thinkers, or to easily label one’s behavior or decision-making without having to explore personal intent, background or influences. You’ll hear “free spirit” at funerals, and you’ll hear the words at family gatherings when that seemingly aloof college student or single adult drifts away from the accepted norms of familial routines. Oh, you know he (or she) is a free spirit. The problem, however, is that a so-called free spirit isn’t necessarily free or spiritual like some would like to believe — but rather a complex individual that needs to scratch a certain itch, someone willing to act, to commit, when dream logic takes over. In other words (and to explain the essence of this column), a free spirit surrealist such as Luis Buñuel isn’t the same as a free spirit vagabond. And a free spirit vagabond isn’t the same as a free spirit vaguebande, nor do they sound the same. But they do walk their own path. Vague Visages was born out of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, as the groundbreaking 1929 surrealist short paved the way for La Nouvelle Vague and independent American directors like John Cassavetes.

Ants in a hand. The slicing of a human eyeball. The visuals of Un Chien Andalou may not connect with the average person when described in conversation, but even so, such images once connected the dreaming minds of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, two Spanish artists working outside the creative boundaries set by the intellectual bourgeoisie of late 20s Paris. The nonsensical narrative was never intended to please “the system,” yet some ate it up anyway, unaware that Buñuel was ready to launch actual rocks at the people he thought may wag a disapproving finger. But that’s the beauty of the cinema: one collective viewing can transcend the experience of an isolated solo endeavor into the surreal, where no one’s there to approve the madness or to explain the unexplainable.


In the film, Buñuel communicates the passion and pain that derives from our nightly endeavors into the dream world, and through the now iconic eye-slit of the opening scene, he reminds that we must awaken ourselves to not only experience his vision, but to connect with the essence of our own mental trappings. As the cloud cuts through the moon and Buñuel cuts through the viewer’s subconscious, one can choose to walk away, but somehow it seems worthwhile to stay, which is what makes the film so powerful and relevant today at only 16 minutes in length. Un Chien Andalou reminds that when someone chooses to walk out of a film, the act says more about that particular person than the film itself.


Whenever I hear someone boast about a decision to leave a film before completion (especially a film critic), I think about Buñuel and Un Chien Andalou. I think about college or high school students experiencing the film for the first time and whether or not they are horrified, mesmerized or perhaps disinterested. Today, we’ll be watching a grotesque, non-linear short film from the 20s about sexual assault, vehicular homicide and eyeball slashing. Students walk out. But the ending may remind you of ‘It Follows’. Students turn around and sit. And that’s all it takes. You can’t blame one for walking out of Un Chien Andalou today (or ending a stream!), but the film undeniably presents a beautifully strange point of reference for how one processes a cinematic experience. Like any film, one single image can change everything. One single emotion can knock you on your ass. One commits to the experience. One chooses to stay.


Almost 90 years after its release, Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou exudes a raw, surrealistic mentality and creative aesthetic that one doesn’t have to fully embrace in their own lives to appreciate, yet those band of outsiders that do follow in the footsteps of Buñuel (or the road less traveled) need not apologize to skeptical intellectuals for walking their own path and keeping a set of rocks in their pocket, if only for a constant reminder of where they came from, who they are and where they desire to go.

Dedicated to Michael Hoppe (December 15, 1987 – March 18, 2016)

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder/editor of Vague Visages. He graduated from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) in 2004 with bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History, and from 2006 to 2012, Q.V. (Quinn) lived in Hollywood, California. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.