They call it "a bimonthly social screening series," which might sound a little ominously medical, but clearly the San Francisco Film Society and SF360's Film+Club is on to something good.
Testing again the durable old idea that cinema works best by being greater than the sum of its parts, the club has a treat in store this Tuesday evening. What could be better live-entertainment fodder, it asks, than the obsessive subconscious mind of a sexually frustrated priest, as surreally probed by a lesbian feminist avant-gardist? Answer: Setting it all to music by arty post-punk trailblazer and Siouxsie and the Banshees co-founder Steven Severin. Good answer.
We're taught to believe that Surrealism in cinema began with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou, but that momentous film had a less well-known formal predecessor in The Seashell and the Clergyman, an uneasy collaboration between poet-playwright-theorist Antonin Artaud and proto-feminist filmmaker Germaine Dulac. Both movies made a difference to modern consciousness -- the former has ants erupting from a hand and an eyeball sliced open by a razor blade; the latter cleaves a military man's head in two and tears off a woman's blouse to reveal her breasts. Which would you rather watch?
In any case, The Seashell and the Clergyman is at least enduring enough to have become the centerpiece of Severin's recent Music for Silents project, which also includes scores for six contemporary silent shorts. Artaud and Dulac's penetrating vision seems especially well suited to illuminating the inky darkness of Severin's sonic depths.
"I demand phantasmagorical films!" Artaud once said; this one, he explained, "does not tell a story but develops a series of mental states which are deduced from each other as thought is from thought."
As a scenarist, Artaud was not easy to work with. It takes rare confidence for a Surrealist to accuse a director of ruining his script. But that's how it went between him and Dulac, who reportedly arranged the production of The Seashell and the Clergyman to occur while Artaud was too busy (acting in Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, among other things) to interfere. Consequently, the disgruntled writer may or may not have instigated the riot that disrupted Seashell's 1928 Paris premiere.
Later, the British Board of Film Censors famously sniffed, "The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable."
Since then, reception of The Seashell and the Clergyman has warmed. "Watch this while listening to Massive Attack," someone says on YouTube. Better: Watch it live with an original dedicated score by a musician without whom there would be no Massive Attack.
"It's got it all," Severin recently told SFFS. "A rampant man of the cloth, a besieged heroine, murder, chase scenes, a dream world and even a flash of nudity. It's like it was made for me."
Steven Severin: Music for Silents is Tuesday, January 12, 8pm at Mezzanine in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit sffs.org.