Salem Surrealist Night is Surreal

So, Friday night was “Surrealist Night” at the Peabody Essex Museum. They’ve been running an exhibit of surrealist artworks by Man Ray and Lee Miller, which had parlayed into one of their themed summer parties. I guess they realized they had a pretty good opportunity (and some damn freaky art to boot) to spill that over like a Dali clock into their Haunted Happenings offerings.

After accidentally drinking some flies in a glass of old wine I’d been served in a local eatery, I sprinted to the museum when I realized the event had started half an hour prior. Reeling from a slight sense of tipsiness and the fact that the refund from the cafe made me a few dollars heavier, I was ready for a night of weirdness.

I arrived a bit late, when the surreal cartoons by Max Fleischer were being shown. You have to leave things in the cloakroom here (and it’s free!) – I had to explain to the seemingly snooty but actually quite adorable cloakroom bloke that I really did want to check my umbrella instead of just leaving it in the rack. When asked why, it was a perfect opportunity to display the ridiculous LED lights on it and then admit that a previous roommate had in fact stolen my last one. It was also hard to explain this with a straight face while drunk and smelling of fly-wine.

I was unfortunately on my own that night, so trying not to look like a homeless lush with rain-frizzed hair was proving difficult in my stupid fly-wine stupor. Worse so when everything had already started, and the surreal games portion was technically over (although the tables were still out), and most of the tables were full. I did spot one empty one, but it was covered in leaflets and might have belonged to the group of people milling about the beer and wine table.

Speaking of which, I casually strolled over, acting normal, thinking I’d be proper posh and have some surreal-looking wine. I chose something called a Merlot. It was a red wine, and since red wine just tastes like grape juice, I sat down in the non-tabled row of seats and tried a swig. It did taste like grape juice, but…grape juice that had been left round the back of the radiator for a few weeks, and had done a few blueberry-scented rigamortis farts.

The worst thing about trying not to look drunk alone is trying not to look like a complete pleb while swallowing a wine you don’t like in a museum full of people who were probably weaned on Moscato. As well as doing the first one.

The cartoons weren’t as surreal as I thought they were, but after seeing some slightly possibly racist donkeys and a chess piece trying to rape Betty Boop (who starred in not one but two cartoons), I was ready for the short live-action films.

Though they were from the 1920s, I didn’t see anything as messed up as this, but there was a program mentioning synopses. Which was useful. Let’s look at them:

Ballet Mecanique (Mechanical Ballet) (1924)

Fernand Leger

Does this need a synopsis? Wow, her smile is creepy. Why is there a KFC commercial from the 1980s in the list of “related videos”? Where AM I?

Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast) (1928)

Hans Richter

This one uses stop-motion animation ,and is full of jumping black bowler hats. Well, they could have been red, but the movie’s in black and white. Either way, the little bastards keep leaping out of reach each time the protagonist tries to get at them. That’s probably why the Nazis destroyed the original score.

Symphonie Diagonale (Diagonal Symphony) (1924)

Viking Eggeling

When I watched this I realized two things:

  • The director has a really wicked name
  • I had no idea this guy created the whirly swirly Windows Media Player visualizations
  • I really like bullet points
  • This is actually 4 things, not 2, but that’s thanks to surrealism, which is cheaper than drugs.


Speaking of which, it was onto the next movie:

Anemic Cinema (1926)

Marcel Duchamp

After the first 45 seconds or so I realized I had reached the 30-second mark to look at a white wall and trip out, but it didn’t quite work (I guess the museum needed to get people high off of expensive mini wines instead of free videos). At least the guy sitting in front of me tried to re-enact the spirals with his hand and a very sharp-looking pen.

Disappointed that it didn’t come with a free bunny, I turned my attention to trying to read the “puns”,  none of which  I understood. The phrases were in spiral-y motion and didn’t stay too long on the screen, unlike the needless lazy expository prologue text in modern cinema that seems to spend an interminable amount of time on the screen, forcing us to read it.

Much of the screen was blocked by the dowager hump of a tiny old lady who inexplicably stood up in the front row for a few minutes. This resulted in several people playing “Wimbledon head” while trying to read a fast-spiralling pun. Which was in French, by the way.

Les Mysteres Du Chateau De De (1929)

Man Ray

Well, this one was probably going to give me nightmares in place of this video, thanks to the creepy faceless faces. Again with French title cards, I felt that anyone who didn’t understand French would not get any of the loose context that was tying the piece together. Which is fairly important when you’re stringing together so many disparate images that would just seem quite orphaned on their own (and, by today’s standards, pretentious). But it had a cool French chateau, a swimming pool and adorably hip French flapper fashions that almost distracted me from the Vivienne Westwood-haired old lady creepily massaging the neck of her teenage-looking male companion.

During the short films, the Devil’s Music Ensemble, a chamber music group, were playing along. But, unlike their previous years’ appearances (playing the original score of films like Nosferatu and Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari), they were playing “original” music of their own, which meant everyone had to trust them to get the mood exactly right, since you’re relying on just the score to tell you how to feel, like a musical laugh track, when you’re watching a 90 year-old French silent surrealist film.

In the end, I appreciated the irony that most of the surreal things that happened that night had almost nothing to do with the films themselves. And it was wickedly fun to freak people out by turning on the LED lights on my umbrella while the museum members were still reeling from the spirals.


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