La Fórmula Secreta

Surrealism, Eisenstein & The Search For Meaning

Dylan Brennan

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La fórmula secreta (1964-1965), very much a collaborative effort between director Rubén Gámez and writer Juan Rulfo, constitutes a fractured, delirious and irreverent vision of rural and industrial Mexico clashing against the backdrop of an increasingly globalised (Americanised) world. Winning the first Mexican experimental film prize in 1965, La fórmula secreta, has long sat at the forefront of Latin American avant garde filmmaking. This short essay charts the influence of Surrealist cinema and Eisensteinian montage techniques, both vital when attempting to gauge both meaning and affect of the smashed, multi-cultural mirror of La fórmula secreta that can only be reassembled in the bewildered mind of the spectator.

La fórmula secreta was conceived and produced in the mid sixties by artists with no formal connection to the Surrealist movement and, though clearly inspired by Surrealism, was not born from the peculiar ‘recherches expérimentales’ of Éluard and his companions. For this reason, despite its similarities with what Jean Goudal defines as the only four‘truly surrealist films’  [LEtoile de mere, La Coquille et le Clergyman, LAge dor and Un Chien andalou ],[1] La fórmula secreta, cannot be considered a ‘pure’ Surrealist film for reasons of time and place. Nevertheless, despite not evolving directly from the Surrealist Paris of the 1920s, La fórmula secreta is, in reality, deeply Surrealist in nature. 

The Surrealist film that is most closely related to La fórmula secreta is, without doubt, Un Chien andalou. This is not only because of Un Chien andalou’s privileged status as being undisputedly Surrealist and its position as a marker for all subsequent Surrealist films. The films share overlapping concepts such as the importance of dreams (in the conception of Un Chien andalou and as a narrative catalyst in La fórmula secreta), the presence of androgyny, dead animals, gore, eroticism and irreverence towards the church. However, what sets La fórmula secreta apart is the inclusion of specifically Mexican socio-political totems and the inclusion of Rulfo’s two coherent monologues which disrupt the film’s rhythm and introduce a strong element of social commentary. 

The overtly political tone of La fórmula secreta echoes that of L’ Âge dor. Dalí was horrified by Buñuel’s completed treatment of L’ Âge dor claiming that his own ‘authentic sacrilege’ had been replaced by a primary anticlericalism and over-explicit political message. Nevertheless, official Surrealism and political involvement went hand in hand at the time of L’ Âge dor’s first screening to such an extent that the Surrealists published their “Manifesto of the Surrealists concerning L’ Âge d’or”to accompany screenings in 1930 in which the connection between Surrealism and a love of societal upheaval were made glaringly obvious. By referencing what Robert Short refers to as ‘The Battleship Potemkin’s indomitable call to revolution’,  the Surrealists actively sought to associate L’ Âge dor and Un Chien andalou (as their perfect filmic manifestations of Surrealism) with political upheaval and radical Marxism. By joyfully prophesying the time when ‘capitalist society is annihilated’, the Surrealists (in line with Breton’s Second manifeste du surréalisme (1929) which, as well as championing the role of Freudian analysis, was hugely political in tone and explicitly linked to Marxism ) made clear (for those who had still not realised) that Surrealism was intrinsically linked to political and societal subversion.

Naturally, La fórmula secreta suffers from the same problem that afflicts all Surrealist films i.e. it is a film. Despite Goudal’s insistence that ‘surreality represents a domain actually indicated to cinema by its very technique’, the unwieldy nature of film production greatly inhibits the ‘psychic automatism’ of Breton’s definition. Automatic writing requires far less planning and organisation (and, of course, resources) than film production and automatism is essential to Surrealist production. In the words of Robert Short:

Part of the trouble was that Surrealism meant automatism – absolute fidelity to the voice of the unconscious unsullied by rational intentionality. And filmmaking cannot do without forethought, rehearsal and a certain technical expertise.

Nevertheless, when devising their cinematic epitome of Surrealism, Un Chien andalou, Buñuel and Dalí sought a way around this problem by insisting on only drawing upon irrational images of free association to supplement their dreams of the slit eye and the ants from the hand, respectively. Any sequence or image that had been ‘derived from remembrance, or from their cultural pattern or if, simply, it had a conscious association with another earlier idea’ was discarded immediately as the collaborators ‘accepted only those representations as valid which, though they moved them profoundly, had no possible explanation.’When it comes to interpretation of Un Chien andalou it is worth examining Buñuel’s contradictory affirmations. For instance, Buñuel explains that:

The plot is the result of a conscious psychic automatism, and, to that extent, it does not attempt to recount a dream, although it profits by a mechanism analogous to that of dreams.

So, the film is not the description of one particular dream but a world built around free associations with two remembered dreams as starting points. Buñuel’s attempts to express the (im)possibility of interpreting the film are clearly paradoxical. Buñuel, immediately after a robust assertion that ‘nothing symbolizes anything’, immediately re-opens the door of interpretation by adding that ‘the only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.’

The subversive political instinct of the Surrealists sits uncomfortably with their devotion to psychic automatism and often leaves their work open to criticism. For example, if one takes the Buñuel/Dalí assertion that nothing in Un Chien andalou should be considered a symbol for anything, then one must not consider the scene depicting a seminarist dragged and bound across the floor as an act of anticlericalism. However, it is simply not conceivable that, in twentieth century Western Europe this would be viewed as anything other than, at least, politically irreverent. While the artists may claim that the incongruous juxtapositions were simply the result of absurd associations in the Dada tradition, (and this is, of course, entirely plausible) the conscious decision to include this scene (and exclude others) is a conscious decision to include a scene that would clearly cause controversy and be interpreted as anti-clerical. In addition, when one considers Buñuel’s assertion that the symbols of the film may be interpreted via psychoanalysis one is presented with a clear paradox: symbols that mean both ‘absolutely nothing’ and ‘possibly something’ at the same time. Perhaps, therein lies the allure of Un Chien andalou.

In light of the above, Dalí’s disgust with the more obviously political commentary of L’ Âge dor is surprising. The links between Surrealism and political subversion were clear and their second collaboration manifests itself as a logical progression towards a bolder version of their previous film. So, La fórmula secreta, while, not a film of ‘official’ Surrealism, is more closely related to the Surrealist movement than at first seems apparent. The beginning of La fórmula secreta depicts a patient being fed Coca-Cola through a drip and what follows are a series of dream/hallucinations. The primacy of dreams is central to Surrealist methodology and inextricably linked to psychoanalysis. In this way, through its use of the dream/nightmare scenario and evocation of the Lacanian theory of the mirror, La fórmula secreta is deeply surrealist (if not ‘Surrealist’) in nature. Furthermore, in light of ‘official’ Surrealism’s deeply rooted connections with politics, La fórmula secreta is, perhaps, even more closely related to the Surrealist movement because of its overt politicism.

Dreams (and their Freudian interpretation as symbols of wish fulfilment) are central to Surrealism and psychoanalysis and, therefore, La fórmula secreta can be seen as an invitation to psychoanalyze the Mexican.[2] For example, an early section of the film revolves around a sexual encounter between a corn-flour packer and the transforming corpse of a dead co-worker. As well as recalling the androgynous figure of Un Chien andalou this scene also calls to mind Philippe Soupault’s scenario for his L’indifference:

[...] suddenly there appears beside me a man who changes into a woman, then into an old man. Just then another old man appears who changes into a baby then into a woman...I get up and they all disappear.

When isolated and analyzed within a Freudian conceptual framework, Gámez’s sequence points towards notions of repressed homosexuality. A later section also features the phenomenon of the changing figure. A boy who walks up some steps to deliver meat (more than meat, what he carries on his back is a large carcass, almost half a cow) is alternately depicted carrying the flesh and his (possibly) father and mother. Having previously shown images of animal slaughter and bloodstained images of erotica, the scene (with its death-blood-sex-murder-father-mother-corpse trajectory) takes on a  perceivable Oedipal quality. However, these scenes must not be analyzed as divorced from the whole and must be explored with reference to Gámez’s dizzy tapestry of symbolic imagery. Beginning as it does with the spectacle of the intravenous dripping of Coca-Cola into the blood stream of an anonymous patient, almost the entirety of La fórmula secreta can be viewed as a series of dreams or hallucinations brought about by this bizarre procedure. In La fórmula secreta they manifest themselves as a relentless clash of symbols of Mexican identity with symbols of the United States of America and globalisation. So, while the presence of dreams and Surrealist-influenced imagery point towards the subconscious, in reality, one does not need to dig deep beneath the psyche to interpret Gámez’s clash of obviously stereotypical symbols. In the words of Standish:

The transfusion of Coca-Cola that is given to a patient at one point obviously alludes to slavish imitation of the US lifestyle and to the ravages of imperialism, but much of the film amounts to a parody of Mexican stereotypes, a critique of a people whom Gámez saw as lacking initiative and imagination.

While lacking a traditionally coherent linear argument, the film is rife with easily assimilated symbolic imagery as almost everything symbolises something. Gámez exerts an element of control over possible interpretation by choosing easily recognisable symbols. If meanings are to be found, they are found in interpreting the relentless collisions of symbolic imagery and it is at this point worth recalling Eisenstein’s ideas on the art of montage.

Eisenstein, in his essay “The cinematographic principle and the ideogram” uses the Japanese writing character (or, hieroglyph) as a metaphor for ideational montage. Similarly to Maya glyphic script, the combination of two Japanese characters serve to create a third meaning or concept and ‘by the combination of two “depictables” is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable’. With reference to the Japanese writing system, Eisenstein uses the following ‘equations’ to further explain this point:

          Dog + mouth = “to bark”

          Mouth + child = “to scream”

          Mouth + bird = “to sing”

          Knife + heart = “sorrow”

For Eisenstein, images are volatile chemicals that react with each other when combined and ‘from the collision of two given factors arises a concept’. He goes on to compare the effect of montage sequences to the dynamics of an internal combustion engine:

If montage is to be compared with something, then a phalanx of montage pieces, of shots, should be compared to the series of explosions of an internal combustion engine, driving forward its automobile or tractor: for, similarly, the dynamics of montage serve as impulses driving forward the total film.

In this way, the concept is to be found in the sparks that fly when two images collide. Perhaps a more appropriate twenty-first century metaphor for Eisenstein’s theory of colliding images can be found beneath the Swiss-French border, the home of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Large Hadron Collider where physicists examine the unpredictable results of colliding streams of sub-atomic particles at high energy. In a similar manner to ideational montage, Williams notes how Surrealists would experiment with the unpredictable effects of decontextualising everyday objects:

[...] the Surrealists would circulate random objects among themselves, posing irreverent questions about their function...These games...were created as ways of separating the object from its functional connection to a context in order to create new associations emanating from the concrete density of the thing itself.

Inevitably the notion of directorial control surfaces at this point. The unpredictability of spectator interpretation is a problem difficult to resolve. If the concept is produced by the collision of images, surely the interpretation of the concept must reside with the spectator as the filmmaker has no control over the interpretation of these concepts. The extended montage sequences of La fórmula secreta can be compared to the collision of sub-atomic particles and the potentially chaotic results. However, while the effect on the spectator of image-collision is naturally unpredictable, the choice of subject matter is a way of steering interpretation so that ‘the choice of the material and the calculation of the mindset of the viewer are equally part of the gauging of the ‘affect’ of film’.With regard to La fórmula secreta, the ‘choice of the material’ is, naturally, of vital importance when analysing meaning. From start to finish the film is peppered with images that can be considered as quintessentially Mexican: the Torre Latinoamericana, the chillies in the market, the eagle soaring through the main plaza, jaripeo, representations of Roman Catholicism etc. These national symbols are constantly jockeying for position with images of modernisation (machinery etc.) and images of globalisation which are almost exclusively represented by quintessential symbols from the United States of America: hot-dogs, baseball caps, Hollywood movies and, of course, Coca-Cola. 

Originally titled ‘Koka-Kola en la sangre’ (Coca-Cola in the bloodstream), La fórmula secreta, by drawing on the principles espoused by the original Surrealist filmmakers (dreams, strange Dadaist juxtapositions and political irreverence) and the ideas of Eisenstein ideational montage, succeeds in representing Mexican society as more of a blizzard of broken images than a heap. As each shard smashes against another, the resulting sparks of meaning glint differently in each spectator’s eye.

p.s. Difficult to find before the internet age, La fórmula secreta is currently available on YouTube:


Eisenstein, Sergei, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, Translated and edited by Jay Leyda, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1949.

Goudal, Jean, “Surrealism and Cinema”, in The Shadow and Its Shadow, Edited, translated and introduced by Paul Hammond, City Lights Publishers, San Francisco, 2001.

Paz, Octavio, El laberinto de la soledad/ Postdata/ Vuelta a el Laberinto de la Soledad, Fondo de Cultura Económica (FCE), Mexico City, 2000.

Ramos, Samuel, El perfil del hombre y la cultura en México, Editorial Planeta Mexicana, Mexico City, 2001.

Short, Robert, “Un Chien andalou and L’ Âge d’or”, booklet included in the DVD Un Chien andalou/L’Âge d’or, British Film Institute, 2004.

The Age of Gold:  Bunuel, Artaud: Surrealist Cinema, Solar Books, Chicago, 2008.

Standish, Peter, A Companion to Mexican Studies, Tamesis, Woodbridge, 2006.

Williams, Linda, Figures of desire: a theory and analysis of surrealist film, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

[1] For debates on what films belong to the canon of Surrealist cinema see the following: The Dictionnaire abrégé du surréalisme (1938) includes Man Ray’s Emak Bakia (1926) as well as Duchamp’s Anemic cinema (1925). However, Linda Williams names Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or as “perhaps the only unquestionably Surrealist films” (Figures of Desire, p.xiv).

[2] Which is, of course, exactly what Samuel Ramos attempted in 1932 with his article Psicoanálisis del Mexicano, later published as part of his landmark publication El perfil del hombre y la cultura en México. Octavios Paz’s El laberinto de la soledad, as derided as it is acclaimed, also concerns itself with the construction of the Mexican psyche.