Dream catcher

In cinema, Salvador Dalí found the ideal medium for exploring the sleeping mind

"I don't believe cinema can ever become an artistic form," bitched the 75-year-old Salvador Dalí. "It is a secondary form because too many people are involved in its creation. The only true means of producing a work of art is painting, in which only the eye and the point of the brush are employed." Anyone fond of Shakespeare, Beethoven or Rodin might disagree with the second part of Dalí's sweeping statement. But who would baulk at his denunciation of cinema, given the current preponderance of uninspired, and increasingly self-aggrandising, film-makers?

Yet, as Tate Modern's scintillating exhibition "Dalí and Film" shows, the painter had not always been so dismissive. Born in 1904, he had grown up a lover of the silent shorts that Hollywood of the 1910s and 1920s turned out by the tonne. He adored Tom Mix, the silver screen's first cowboy, and worshipped the rather suaver charms of Adolphe Menjou (upon whose ludicrously well-tended moustache Dalí's twin-antennaed model was surely based). But what really spoke to him were the silent comedians. Harry Langdon, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd - Dalí came of age loving them all. In Saint Sebastian, his one-man manifesto of 1927, he argued that Buster Keaton was "true Pure Poetry" in motion. A couple of years later, he told the admiring critic Sebastià Gasch that while most of what passed for art was "horrible", we "are all in agreement about . . . the quintessence of Buster Keaton's hat".

What Dalí liked about Keaton et al was their crazed logic. He was amused less by their hapless stumbles than by the Alice in Wonderland-style preconditions for such pratfalls. Sometimes, he found these in unexpected places. Most people who have digested Cecil B DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932) would describe it as a three-course Roman costumer, salted by the succulent ham of Charles Laughton and sweetened by the vision of Claudette Colbert bathing in asses' milk. Dalí, however, came away from the picture declaring himself bowled over by this reel of "hallucinatory celluloid", these "images of delirium, chance and authentic dreams", as if the fire in front of which Laughton's Nero fiddled had melted those flaccid watches in Dalí's masterpiece The Persistence of Memory (1931).

Looking at one thing and seeing another is, of course, one way of describing the "paranoiac-critical method" that made Dalí's name. Those rocks nuzzling an egg which transmogrify into a head-in-hands Narcissus; that face which becomes a fruit dish as you look at it; those amorphous shapes that are at once a pair of human figures and the cupolaed towers of a distant township - Dalí's most singular images burrow deep into your mind.

Whether the images themselves were, as Dalí claimed, dredged from the depths of his id is rather more moot. "The difference between a madman and me," he said, "is that I am not mad." And nor was he. All his working life he paid homage to Sigmund Freud for having opened up the landscape of the mind, but the bulk of Dalí's pictures are less windows into his subconscious world than reflections of his painterly genius: the perverted classicism that could make the most fantastical images - phosphorescent busts of Lenin on the keyboard of a baby grand, the wrenched-out ball of an eye floating viscidly in a battleship-grey sky - seem as empirically seen as anything in his beloved Vermeer.

Some of the most potent of Dalínian (the term is the great egotist's own) reveries are to be found in the cinema. Still images, even still images as drenched in psychic discharge as those by the young Dalí, can only ever be snapshots of a dream. For a conscious journey down Sigmund Freud's "royal road to the unconscious" you need moving pictures. Dalí's remarks about DeMille's sword-and-sandals epic might have been babble, but his central insight about the cinema as an arena for dreams was far from misguided.

For all its mainstream emphasis on the banalities of realism, no other art form has ever been able to give such concrete expression to the abstract conjunctions of our sleeping lives. In 1868, when the Lumière brothers were still in short trousers, the French prose poet and surrealist-before-the-fact Lautréamont defined beauty as "the chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella". Thirty years later, the movies made such encounters possible.

The great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein suggested that what counted in cinematic art was not the single image, but the movement from shot to shot. Film's ability to juxtapose diverse images was, he argued, the visual equi valent of Hegel's dialectic: thesis (first image), antithesis (second image), synthesis (meaning engendered in the spectator's mind). How much did Dalí know of - let alone understand - Eisenstein's ideas? Probably not much. None theless, just as his double-edged, paranoiac- critical paintings can be seen as blueprints for Soviet montage, Dalí's work for the cinema takes the theory way beyond anything Eisenstein himself ever conceived.

The core of that work remains the two pictures Dalí co-wrote in the late 1920s with Luis Buñuel, whom he had befriended at the University of Madrid. The first was Un chien andalou (1929), a 15-minute film which, nearly eight decades on, retains its power to baffle and outrage. Who is that man cycling around Paris dressed as a nun? How to explain those ants swarming out of a hole in his hand? Why, when the girl of his dreams turns him down, does he take it upon himself to drag a pair of pianos laden with dead donkeys about her house? And how, above all, to get a handle on the series of images that opens the film, described with hallucinatory clarity in the original scenario by Dalí and Buñuel:

Once Upon a Time . . .

A balcony at night. Near the balcony a man sharpens his razor.

The man looks through the window and sees . . .

A small cloud moving towards the moon, which is at its full.

Then the head of a young girl, her eyes wide open.

The blade of the razor approaches one of the eyes.

A small cloud now moves across the moon.

The blade of the razor moves across the girl's eye, slicing it open.

No subsequent film - not The Exorcist (1973), with its abstract expressionist vortices of viridian vomit; not John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) with its ravenously aggressive beast turning gloopily inside out - has anything like Un chien andalou's supercharged gross-out capacity. Even Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), whose churning mosaics of shattered spectacles and tumbling prams had hitherto seemed the last word in imagistic tumult, was rendered a timid academic exercise overnight. Little wonder the Russian begged Dalí and Buñuel (unsuccessfully) for a walk-on part in their follow-up film, 'Âge d'or (1930).

Opinions differ as to quite how much influence the painter had on 'Âge d'or. Despite its eminently Dalínian theme of the sex-crazed couple repeatedly being denied their pleasure - by cops, clerics, class and conscience - the film fights shy of the wrenching violence that Dalí deemed flesh heir to. Such bodily trauma was what Alfred Hitchcock sought from Dalí when he commissioned him to design the dream sequence for Spellbound (1945). With its images of blank-visaged heavies and scissors shearing through eyeball-festooned curtains, Spellbound never satisfied Dalí. Wilfully or not, Hollywood habits had chastened his anguished vision. Yet something of it lingers in the film's smaller moments: the close-up shot of a girl clawing an asylum warder's hand, the reference to another inmate's having bitten off her lover's moustache. Not the least of the Tate show's pleasures is the chance it affords of looking at Dalí's sketches and draft designs for Hitchcock and others.

Dalí also worked with Harpo Marx, whose lunatic abandon even the unpredictable artist seems to have envied. Having met Harpo at a party in Paris in the summer of 1936, Dalí made him a Christmas present of a harp, strung with barbed wire, and with teaspoons and forks for tuning knobs. Delighted, Harpo telegrammed Dalí to say he would be "happy to be smeared by you" if ever the artist found himself in California. The next month Dalí arrived, brushes and easel in hand. The resultant painting is lost, but the Tate has a monochrome pencil-and-ink study of Harpo at his instrument that is at once exquisite and excruciating. How the same hand could have drawn Harpo's trench coat - those whipping, tensile lines! - and the comedian himself - that saccharine smile, those dewy eyes! - is one of the abiding mysteries of modernity. Mercifully, Dalí and Harpo's collaborative scenario, Giraffes on Horseback Salad, came to nothing.

Nor did much else come of Dalí's cinematic connections. A mere 15 seconds or so are reputed to exist of Destino, a project on Greek myths that Dalí worked on for Disney Studios. Buñuel never acted on the letter from Dalí which told him how he could "show" a woman's genitalia on screen by fading from an image of a mouth turned sideways to one of a feather-shawled cleavage. And there is, thankfully, no evidence that Dalí ever realised his ambition of putting a bomb inside a swan and filming the subsequent explosion in slo-mo. Forget slashed eyeballs; how big an audience could a mashed-swan movie muster?

In the end, one suspects, the cinema's need for crowds was what led Dalí to abandon it. Though he was always on the make (André Breton sagely pointed out that Dalí's name was an anagram of Avida Dollars), his talent was far too weird to navigate mainstream cinema. And then the modernist art market took off, and Dalí found he could make a fat living from painting while dissing the form he had grown up loving.

"The best cinema," he once declaimed, "is the kind that can be perceived with your eyes closed." As anyone unfortunate enough to catch sight of Dalí's fawning Portrait of Laurence Olivier in the Role of Richard III (1955) at Tate Modern will attest, the same goes for the worst paintings. Happily, there are enough wonderful pictures - moving and still - on show here to make Dalí's kiss-ass kitsch seem . . . well, surreal.

"Dalí and Film" is at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 9 September. For more information visit: http://www.tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent