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On Film: surreal meets slapstick

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The surreal side of Buster Keaton and the slapstick aspects of Luis Bunuel will come into focus when University of Chicago film professor James Lastra pairs Keaton's 1927 comedy College with Un chien andalou, the surrealist classic that Bunuel and Salvador Dali made two years later. This juxtaposition kicks off the series "Luis Bunuel: Master of Surrealism," which runs at the Film Center Fridays and Tuesdays through May 7 and includes lectures by Lastra at the Tuesday evening screenings.

As a critic for the journal Cahiers d'arts Bunuel championed Keaton, hailing College for its "fashionable inhumanity." Lastra spots links between the Keaton and Bunuel films. Though superficially they share only a boy-meets-girl motif, they also both reflect a profound anxiety about modern life. "The raw material for Un chien andalou is the detritus of all culture," says Lastra. "It can be seen as an attempt to come to grips with the catastrophe of modernity." Yet "NOTHING in this film SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING," proclaimed Bunuel in 1947's Notes on the Making of "Un chien andalou." Infamous for its opening scene of a man slicing a woman's eye with a straight razor, the film amalgamates high and low art and played at the Paris cinema Studio 28 for eight months alongside popular Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett comedies.

In College, Lastra sees Keaton's knack with props--as coxswain of a rowing crew, the aspiring athlete straps a broken rudder to his backside to win a race--as his way of "living the surrealist ideal of reenchanting the mundane world, of discovering the marvelous in the everyday.

"The persistence of the term 'surreal' always struck me even though that movement has been written out of the history of modernism," Lastra continues. "They were the first organized group of intellectuals to take film seriously."

Lastra will speak at the 6 PM screening of College and Un chien andalou (with live piano accompaniment by David Drazin) on Tuesday, January 29, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Other screenings, with recorded music, are Friday, January 25, at 8:30 and January 29 at 2. Tickets are $8; for more information call 312-846-2800.

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