Even the weirder artists of the twentieth century have been attracted to the allure of Hollywood filmmaking, and Salvador Dali was no exception. In the fall of 1941, the surrealist painter hosted a masquerade party at Pebble Beach during one of his regular visits to the town. Called "Surrealism Night in An Enchanted Forest," the fundraising event, intended to assist European refugee artists, brought out a number of stars, including Bob Hope and Ginger Rogers. It was here, the story goes, that Dali became attached to a major studio production called Moontide. The great German emigre Fritz Lang was hired to direct the movie, and asked Dali to create a three-minute nightmare sequence for the film. Unfortunately, after the incident at Pearl Harbor later that year, Twentieth Century Fox deemed the project too bleak. Lang was replaced, and Dali's nightmare sequence went with him.
Although inspired by the movies, Dali didn't always have the easiest time making them. He would get another chance to inject his hallucinatory vision into American cinema with the hypnosis scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, but it's his unrealized projects that truly indicate the scope of the painter's ambition. So many ideas, such little time. Dali: Painting and Film, a breathtakingly unique exhibit currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, surveys Dali's completed cinematic works in addition to tidbits from the ones that never came to fruition. Marvelously structured to show how his paintings were intentionally cinematic, the exhibit contains all the obvious highlights from Dali's movie career alongside lesser-known productions. The importance in film history of his collaborations with Luis Bunuel remain uncontested; two large screens in separate rooms showing Un Chien Andalou (where the opening eye splicing retains its original gross-out impact) and L'Age D'Or attest to that. Fewer visitors, however, might know about Dali's collaboration with the Marx Brothers on a deliriously strange movie that sounded too good to be true.
It was: Alternately titled Giraffes on Horseback Salad and The Surrealist Woman, the concept came about after Dali publicly expressed his love for the Marx's Animal Crackers ("the summit of the evolution of comic cinema," he wrote). Dali befriended Harpo in 1936 and wanted to cast him in the lead role as Jimmy, a Spanish aristocrat living in America, where he pursues a mysterious female character. The exhibit contains Dali's English language script and his preliminary drawings, which include the ubiquitous flaming giraffes one can find lingering throughout numerous Dali landscapes.
Those paintings, by the way, make up a great deal of the exhibit as well. It's impossible to tire of unequivocal masterpieces like The Persistence of Memory (the melting clocks look rather small up close), but most of Dali's works clearly demonstrate his fascination with the moving image. The shadow of an unseen figure appearing on a tarp, for example, implies the theatrical experience. Of course, you can only go so far rationalizing a Dali painting before surrendering to the overwhelming absurdity of it. His greatest paintings present unspeakably strange visions and yet generate an odd sense of familiarity, which explains his cross-over appeal. He could have unleashed something spectacular with his screenplay Babaouo (published in 1932 and also included in the exhibit) if it ever became a movie. The plot has a randomness to it, even though the offbeat adventures of a man trying to find his troubled lover seem, at first, pretty straightforward. Along the way, he has a series of Kafkaesque encounters akin to those in Martin Scorsese's After Hours (but Dali's script is wackier; in one scene, the protagonist's taxi driver randomly climbs a tree and puts on an Indian headdress).
Destino inspires similar curiosity. Dali began working on the animated project while under contract for Walt Disney Pictures for eight months in 1946, but only managed to complete fifteen seconds before heading off to place his focus elsewhere. Disney released a completed version of Destino in 2003 (which screens at MOMA in a room with original Dali sketches). The newer film integrates computer animation, suggesting Dali might have enjoyed the prospects of twenty-first century technology. The guy truly aged with the times: His experimental film Chaos and Creation documents his 1963 appearance at the Convention on Video Communications in New York, and the 1977 documentary Impressions From Upper Mongolia uses photorealistic techniques to examine microscopic reality.
Dali kept up with American counterculture (the exhibit has a screen test he did for Andy Warhol) but never became a beatnik or a hippie (in fact, he sympathized with fascism). The artist existed in his own world and stayed in it until his death in 1989. Part of the appeal offered by his work comes from the effort involved in trying to understand him without going mad in the process. It makes you wonder how much crazier the world would have been if all his film projects were finished. While you're wondering, MOMA's got the fragments.
'Dali: Painting and Film' runs at the Museum of Modern Art June 29-September 15. View the online exhibition here.