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Surrealism in Modern Entertainment

Rocky Mountain Highway

Philip Cheney, Rocky Mountain Hightway (1937). This painting depicts a mountainous landscape disappearing into the distance, criss-crossed by an expanding network of highways. View full image

Surrealism and bio-surrealism can be characterized by their disorienting juxtapositions of objects and settings. Through these juxtapositions, these styles point toward timely issues, such as climate change, that slip beneath the wider societal radar. Though certain contemporaneous sources had pointed toward an increasingly mild climate and researchers were beginning to discover the nature of bacteria and infections, such as tuberculosis, the ability of pieces in the New Deal Gallery to address topics related to public knowledge and information surrounding climate change and biology was limited due to limited knowledge on these topics. However, the work in the New Deal Gallery reflect a certain awareness of climate issues in their portrayals of humanity’s relationship with nature through the juxtaposition of industrial influences upon the land alongside stunted landscapes.   

Take, for example, Philip Cheney’s Rocky Mountain Highway (1935) which depicts a mountainous landscape covered by an intersecting network of highways, dating to a time when transportation was just beginning to become integral to the function of American society.  This complex system of highways can be seen as an imposition upon the planet’s surface, especially in the context of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie's II,” (pictured below) painted seven years previous to Rocky Mountain Highway. O’Keeffe’s painting of the same mountain range offers a view of these mountains before the imposition of highways and roads upon the landscape.  The juxtaposition between these two works reflects the impact and intrusion of human technology upon the Earth; whereas O’Keeffe’s landscape seems undisturbed and peaceful, Cheney’s landscape seems altered and imposed upon. These differences in landscape due to the portrayal of human impact reflect the basic tenets of the Gaia Theory. The Gaia theory, named for the Greek goddess of the Earth, argues that “living organisms and their inorganic surroundings have evolved together as a single living system that  greatly affects the chemistry and conditions of the Earth’s surface” (Gaia). The theory poses Earth as a self-regulating organism, which maintains a system that controls temperature, atmosphere, and overall habitat; human technologies, as depicted in Cheney’s painting, are thus intruders upon this organism, disrupting the overall function and homeostasis of the planet.

Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie's II (1930) View full image

Recent surveys and studies expand the scope of the New Deal works and other art into the realm of modern interpretation, facilitating a new sense of bio-surrealism; this ability to apply bio-surrealism to the New Deal paintings speaks to the longevity and applicability of the surrealist style. For example, biological research continually reveals new discoveries about the dynamic aspects of microbial life and how microbes, in the words of science journalist Ed Yong, “rule the world,” in a very literal sense. These discoveries have shown that all beings exist are constituted as a multitude of microbes which operate as both offensive and defensive agents, and in the process facilitate the evolutionary process and environmental reproduction.  However, fearful perceptions of microbes as dangerous agents of infectious disease — which have been perpetuated before and since the 1930s rhetoric surrounding the adaptable and seemingly-conscious nature and malignant nature of tuberculosis — still perpetuate the narrative surrounding microbial life, leading to an ignorance of the interconnected and dynamic functions of these agents of nature.

The combination of an expanding awareness of microbial life with the fear of the dangerous aspects of these agents has lead to the formation of a new manifestation of bio-surrealism in contemporary film and media through renderings of “microbes-gone-wrong.” This new bio-surrealism can be found in a myriad of zombie-apocalypse movies, such as World War Z and 28 Days Later, which depict the spread of deadly, cannibalistic disease through biting and sharing of fluids.  Additionally, films depicting the spread of epidemics, such as Contagion, give classic examples of the representation of microbes in modern entertainment. In Contagion, a global pandemic explodes after a chef fails to wash his hands, thus introducing a new and extremely deadly communicable virus to one of his many customers.  This virus was introduced to the human population through an infected pig, which was in turn infected by a bat carrying the disease; however, the film makes it clear that the original carrier of the disease, the bat, would not have communicated the disease had it not been displaced from its natural habitat due to the human influence of deforestation. The film thus utilizes the awareness of microbial function and a fear of disease to create a narrative reflective of humanity's current deepest fears: an untreatable pandemic triggered by climate disaster.  Like Cheney's Rocky Mountain Highway, this narrative reveals the imposition of human action and technology upon the Earth and reflects how this imposition could potentially be harmful.  Certain bio-surrealist films, such as The Day After Tomorrow, are more explicitly focused upon this human intrusion upon the natural function of the Earth, as they utilize, incorporate, and take creative measure with research and commentary surrounding climate change. The surreality of this film arises in images of tidal waves rising behind the Statue of Liberty and destroying New York City and the mass-freeze of major monuments due to a drastic cold front.  Dramatic as these images may be, they are distinctly reflective of subconscious fears to do with the effects of human action upon and abuse of the Earth.  These modern representations of bio-surrealism thus not only emphasize humanity's growing separation from nature but emphasize that if we ignore the consequences of this separation and refuse to take action, we, as a species, will suffer deeply.

Despite these many representations of the growing fear of climate change through bio-surrealism, Lisa Margonelli, in her TED Talk on "The Political Chemistry of Oil," argues that while these modern representations bring attention to the impending catastrophe, they fail to inspire action. These films are capitalizing on the sublimity and surreality of the images portrayed, while failing to show the role of the individual, as opposed to humanity in general, in "the supply chain." The supply chain is the chain of thoughtless and detached consumerism that the individual participates in, thus, perpetuating our own separation from nature and impending climate disaster.  Margonelli urges us to remove ourselves from the distractions of the movie theater and, instead, begin to become aware of the reality of the seeming surreality portrayed in these potential catastophes.

Works Consulted

—Gaia Theory. "Overview." Gaia Theory, Gaia Theory Model and Metaphor for the 21st Century, 0AD, Web version available here.

—Margonelli, Lisa. “The Political Chemistry of Oil.” TED, TED Talk, June 2010, Web version available here.

—O'Keeffe, Georgia. “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Bacdk of Marie's II, 1930.” Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Web version available here.

—Yong, Ed. “The Microbes Within Us.” YouTube, The Royal Institution, 13 Oct. 2016, Web version available here.