Simon Collings

stories, poetry, reviews

Is David Lynch a surrealist?

I’ve just published a review essay on the documentary Lynch/Oz, which was released last year. The film, which claims that the key to understanding David Lynch’s work is The Wizard of Oz, offers little if any fresh insight into Lynch, but does raise some issues worth examining. Among these is the question of Lynch’s ‘surrealism’. Lynch has been described as a ‘popular surrealist’, Pauline Kael started the trend, and as an artist displaying ‘his own personal brand of surrealism’. Claims of this kind are repeated in Lynch/Oz. But what does this have to do with the body of ideas shared by artists identifying as Surrealists from the 1920s on? In the second half of my piece I consider whether Lynch’s films do in fact exhibit a surrealist sensibility.


The Surrealists and cinema

I have recently been researching an essay on David Lynch and looking at the response of the Surrealists to cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result I came across a couple of gems.

In an article published 3 May 1929 in the journal Merle, Robert Desnos recalls the delight of watching the serial film Les Mystères de New York, which he’d seen as a teenager and which had recently been re-screened in a Paris cinema.  The series starred Pearl White (image below), who Desnos describes as ‘the archetype of the heroine who overpowers the hearts of those murderous Don Juans.’ According to Desnos, she dominated the dream-life of countless male cinema goers who were in love with her.

Les Mystères de New York was a French adaptation of a US series Exploits of Elaine. You can watch episode 10 of the US original here, and there are two episodes of the French version (2 and 14), half-titles in French, here and here. Viewing these fast-paced films with their zany plots it’s easy to see what appealed to Desnos. These were not highly polished or arty films. They were ‘naive in their mise en scene, in their scenarios, the cinematography mediocre’. But they were, Desnos says, ‘before everything totally passioanate.’ (For Desnos’ article see Les Mystères de New York, in Nouvelles Hébrides et autres textes 1922-1930, Gallimard, 1978.}

The second film I’d recommend watching is Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935), which Andre Breton considered a ‘triumph of Surrealist thought’. The film tells the story of two people, Peter (Gary Cooper) and Mary (Ann Harding), who as children were very close. Years later they meet again. She is married but they both realise they have never loved anyone but each other. After a fight with the husband, Peter is convicted of murder and imprisoned for life. But the lovers discover they have the ability to meet in a shared dream world. The last third of the film is particularly captivating.

In ‘As in a Wood’, an essay published in 1951, Breton wrote:

What is most specific of all the means of the camera is obviously the power to make concrete the forces of love which, despite everything, remain deficient in books, simply because nothing in them can render the seduction or distress of a glance or certain feelings of priceless giddiness. The radical powerlessness of the plastic arts in this domain goes without saying (one imagines that it has not been given to the painter to show us the radiant image of a kiss). The cinema is alone in extending its empire there, and this alone would be enough for its consecration. What incomparable, ever scintillating traces have films like Ah! le beau voyage or Peter Ibbetson left behind in the memory, and how are life’s supreme moments filtered through that beam!

(Le beau voyage is the French title of a 1927 silent feature directed by Robert Z. Leonard called A Little Journey. This doesn’t seem to be available to stream.)


I have three short prose pieces in the latest issue of Cafe Irreal which has just been published. A big thanks to Greg and Alice, the editors, for their continuing support. In the first story a man at a party turns into a horse owing to a typing error. The second piece features wheelbarrows full of a caustic foam turning up on people’ driveways. In the third an elderly man finds the park bench he usually sits on occupied by strangers. This is the fifth time I’ve had work published in the magazine.


Issue 77 of the British poetry magazine Tears in the Fence, which has just come out, includes two short prose piece by me. Here’s one of them:


After my mother died she became much younger, had more energy, and always seemed to be smiling. She was the age she’d been when I was eight and my sister ten, which meant I was now much older than her and at last in a position to ask her the questions I’d never had the courage to put to her in life. ‘Was she happy when we were children?’ I wanted to say. Still, something held me back.

Tears in the Fence is a print journal so you’ll need to subscribe if you want to read the other one.

This is a very strong issue with fine poems by Michael Farrel, Cole Swenson, Peter Larkin, Giles Goodland, Lucy Ingrams, Olivia Tuck, Steve Spence, Jeremy Hilton, Louise Buchler and many others. There are also lots of reviews in the magazine, including two by me.

Blue eyes

I’ve just had three new poems published in Litter magazine. The poems form a sequence featuring a tapir and an armadillo. Thanks to the editor, Alan Baker, for publishing these.

The true story of Dr Moreau’s island

The scandalous story of what was really happening on the Pacific island where Dr Moreau had his secret laboratory are revealed in my latest piece of short fiction, published today in International Times.

Encountering ‘the other’

The Fortnightly Review has just published my essay on the documentary film A Letter from Yene by Manthia Diawara which can be viewed on MUBI. Diawara is an important film scholar who has written on both Black American and African cinema. He was born in Mali, but is now based in New York.

A Letter from Yene is an environmental film, but one which poses searching questions about the way we think about ‘solutions’, and how we represent ‘the other’. It focuses on a small fishing village in Senegal where Diawara owns a house. Towards the end of the essay I draw some parallels with Jean-Luc Godard’s final film The Image Book.

More short prose

The challenge in sustaining an illusion of eternal youth is the topic of my latest piece of microfiction, La Permanence. The story was prompted by a conversation with a woman who works for an upmarket hotel chain. It is published today in the Stride. Big thanks to the editor Rupert Loydell.

Another triumph for Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes uncovers a wholly new aspect to the Jekyll and Hyde case in my latest piece of microfiction just published in International Times.: This is a companion piece to a story I wrote few years ago, ‘The Rue Morgue Murders’, in which Holmes unpicks the conclusions of Poe’s amateur detective M. Dupin, ‘The Rue Morgue Murders’ is in my collection Why are you here?

Homage to Perec

I have a short prose piece in this week’s International Times – a lipogram written without using the letter ‘e’: The story is a homage to the French writer Georges Perec who created an entire novel – La Disparition – avoiding the use of ‘e’. in Perec’s book a series of characters – who all turn out to be related – are hunted down and assassinated by the agent of a shadowy Turkish clan. The identity of the assassin is only revealed at the end. The character’s are haunted by a sense of something ‘missing’ which they can’t put their finger on – which is of course the letter ‘e’. In French the letter ‘e’ sounds like ‘eux’ which translates as ‘they’. Perec’s parents were Polish Jews who emigrated to France in the 1920s. His father was killed fighting in the Second World War and his mother died in a Nazi concentration camp, probable Auschwitz. The absence of the letter ‘e’ (eux) has been interpreted as a reference to Perec’s parents.