“It was like he didn’t talk to ordinary people,” says a cabdriver of his passenger Salvador Dali, “and he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. That’s the kind of guy he is.” So begins Dali in New York, underground filmmaker Jack Bond’s chaotic and fun 1965 documentary about the Spanish surrealist artist’s Christmas-time trip to New York to prepare an art exhibit and to sign his new book.
Sporting his trademark waxed and upturned mustache, carrying a staff and staging happenings on the streets and in art galleries of New York City, 61-year-old Dali hams it up like a pro. Whether part of his “crazy artist” act or a true expression of his personality, he is at least democratic in his haughtiness: we see him treat everyone he encounters either with regal indifference or benevolence, or as a prop for his grandiose happenings. After receiving another rebuke from the dour and self-important writer Jane Arden, his primary interlocutor in the film, Dali proclaims, “Modesty is not my specialty.”
This immodesty serves the viewer well, at least. By turns entertaining as an actor and thoughtful as a philosopher, Dali is a great subject for a filmmaker. Bond appears to just let Dali do his thing. In between filming the artist perform such antics as kissing a sculpture, or lying inside a coffin covered in gold coins and money while an egg filled with live ants is cracked open on his mouth, Bond’s camera ranges over his seminal paintings and etchings while soulful Flamenco music plays on the soundtrack.
He even captures Dali answering questions earnestly, in a thick and almost impenetrable Spanish accent, as he does when talking about how death and eroticism drive his work, or why cybernetics is more important than art. (This film would benefit greatly from subtitles, however; if it weren’t for the rewind button, I would never have understood what this man was saying.)
Bond’s way of zeroing in on details of Dali’s work and the random nature of what he shows (along with the distracting, albeit beautiful, Flamenco music) makes Dali in New York more of a drive-by documentary about Dali and his work than a substantive art documentary. (It is a brisk 57 minutes.) The real student of art is not going to get much out of the film. If anything, the film’s real subject is the cult of personality and the art world intelligentsia’s uneasy feeling about it. “I feel depressed at this concept of genius,” says the world-weary Arden after Dali insists that she, like everyone else in the world, is his slave.
Shortly after Dali in New York was made, Dali began to parlay his eccentric exhibitionistic tendencies into commercial success. Having already been a guest on the American game show What’s My Line in the ‘50s, by the late ‘60s he had designed the logo for Chupa Chups candy and starred in a number of deliberately kooky television commercials for Lanvin chocolates. No wonder Andy Warhol said of Dali in New York that it was “A truly terrific film.” While his Dadaist and Surrealist counterparts in Europe remained political, repudiating all ties with him for his alleged pro-fascist leanings, Dali was entering the age of Pop Art and laughing all the way to the bank.