The following was written for The Point sometime in the mid-1990s, in concert with a week-long Bunuel festival at the Nickleodeon Theatre in Columbia, SC. The article does not cover the full range of Bunuel's career, for reasons of space limitation, and because I wanted to focus on the films shown during the festival.
The week was quite a success. Un Chien Andalou was packed. No one seemed to care that all they were looking at was a second-generation tape.
Luis Bunuel and the Eye of the Marvelous
BY RODNEY WELCH
We ask of cinema what life and love deny us, that is mystery, miracles.
-- Robert Desnos, Surrealist
Paris, June of 1929. Word is out about a new film, the debut work of a pair of unknowns, premiering tonight as the second feature at the Studio des Ursulines. It is supposed to be new and different and shocking, and at least one group attending smells blood.
The Surrealists, a band of aesthetic terrorists led by the charismatic dictator Andre Breton, pride themselves on being the last true revolutionaries of French culture: devotees of the wild, the forbidden, the unimagined, and the unbridled Romantic tradition. They despise the bourgeoisie, thumb their noses at the toothless avant-garde, roll their eyes at anything claiming to be hipper than they are, and cause a scene wherever they go.
This so-called new film could well get their royal treatment, complete with catcalls and hurled fruit.It starts harmlessly enough. A title card reads: Il était une fois . . .
Once upon a time.
A man, cigarette dangling from the right side of his mouth, strops a razor with clean diagonal strokes. He slides the razor along his thumbnail, cuts himself, grimaces. He steps out on a balcony and watches the night sky, where a thin strip of cloud is about to glide past the moon. He is, perhaps, inspired.
Cut to: a woman's face, passive, with a beguiling Mona Lisa smile. A hand stretches open her left eye and raises a straight razor to it.
The cloud slices the moon.
The razor, close up, slices the unflinching eye, which oozes a bubble of gelatinous fluid before the scene fades.
The audience is aghast. They weren't expecting a slashed eye. Or ants swarming from the hole in a man's hand. Or a woman in a suit poking a severed hand with a stick. Hands squeezing breasts that turn into buttocks. A bloody dead jackass on a grand piano. Hair vanishing from a woman's armpit and sprouting Chia Pet-style where a man's mouth used to be.
No one has ever seen anything like it, and no one knows what to make of it. It fits no category. Maybe it's an insane erotic nightmare about sexual identity, desire and loss. Maybe it's pretentious crap. Maybe it's the end of Western Civilization as we know it, and maybe the highest compliment you can pay to it is to start a riot.
The man with the razor thinks so, and he ought to know; he co-wrote and directed it. He stands backstage playing records for the soundtrack. He has rocks in his pockets, just in case someone tries to hand his ass to him. Neither he nor co-scenarist Salvador Dali, who also appears in the film as a priest dragged by a rope, know what their little freak show means. But they do know it provokes a violent response.
Or does it? The film is over, and the haute couture audience gives it a standing ovation.
Outside the theater, Breton gives his official verdict: "This is a Surrealist film."
It was also, arguably, the first such film, and sixty-five years later Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) remains unique as ever. It has more impact in its sixteen minutes than any ten movies at the multiplex, all the disintegrating coherence of a dream, and the absolute courage of its irrational convictions. It influenced scores of filmmakers -- including Jean Vigo and Alfred Hitchcock -- and MTV may well be it's third-generation bastard stepchild. It still opens eyes. So does the man with the razor.
Luis Bunuel (pronounced boon-yoo-el) has been dead since 1983, yet he still casts an enormous shadow over modern cinema. He forged the path for absurdity, perversity, sadism, dreams and black humor, and made them his signature. It is hard to imagine Polanski, Almodovar, Kubrick, Lynch, or Greenaway without him.
The first scene of Bunuel's first film set the tone for a career. The razor opens a passage between the order of reality and the chaos of imagination and, in Bunuel's world, the two become indistinguishable:
There's the paranoid husband in El, who attempts to cure the imaginary unfaithfulness of his wife by sewing up her vagina.
The title character of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, who dreams up fantastic murders which proceed to happen entirely without his help.
The prostitute in Nazarin, who seeks solace from a laughing portrait of Christ.
The hungry, neglected waif in Los Olvidados who dreams of his slatternly mother taunting him with a dripping slab of meat.
And then there is Buñuel's favorite bourgeois rite: the dinner party. People arrive at them and can't leave (The Exterminating Angel), can't get served (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), or turn the whole idea on its head: the group in The Phantom of Liberty defecate together and dine in private.
"The camera is the eye of the marvelous," Bunuel once said. "When the eye of the cinema really sees, the whole world goes up in flames."
It often threatened to do just that. Bunuel's second film, L'Age d'Or, sparked a religious riot. His third, the documentary Land Without Bread, brought the ire of Spain's Franco government. Another, Viridiana, was condemned by both the Vatican and the Franco government.
The antipathy, of course, was mutual. Bunuel's films fault religion, government and bourgeois culture for a great deal and he can be violently explosive in making a point. More often, he is a diabolically subtle artist who never has to force his pessimism. He has a talent for making it look like the cold, hard truth.
"Cinema is easy to do," he maintained, "and has no secrets ... To be a good director in the cinema is the same as being a good writer -- to have clear ideas, to know what you want to say and to say it as directly as possible."
Calanda and Beyond
Luis Bunuel was born in Calanda, Spain in the year 1900 -- a child of the new century. Buñuel and the six siblings to come were raised in a world of privilege and Catholicism. His father had made a fortune in the hardware business, and retired early to a life of ease. His mother saw to it the children were steeped in the national religion. Buñuel ultimately broke with the faith in his mid-teens.
"I began to have my doubts about this warm, protective religion," he later said, doubts confirmed by reading Charles Darwin. Years later, he would famously tell an interviewer: "I have always been an atheist, thank God."
Buñuel was intent on studying entomology or engineering, but his course changed when he attended the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, a school modeled very much on the English university system. His friends included Federico Garcia Lorca, the great poet and playwright, and Dali, who was already nurturing his lifelong upstart reputation.
After graduation, Bunuel variously worked as a teacher and theater director. He moved to Paris, became a government secretary, and fell in love with movies. The spark was Fritz Lang's Les Trois Luminaires.
"I came out of the theater completely transformed," he later said. "Images could and did become for me the true means of expression."
He immersed himself in film. He reviewed movies for a small journal and -- thanks to a theater pass -- watched them almost around the clock. Typically, he'd attend private showings of American films in the morning, local theaters that afternoon, and art theaters at night.
He entered film school, and briefly interned to film director Jean Epstein. The two didn't get along, and Buñuel was fired when he refused to help with an audition.
"I learned very little from Epstein," he said later. "When I began Un Chien Andalou I knew very little about the cinema. You can only learn with practice. The work that can help you most is that of script-girl: that way you learn all the secrets of filming, and you see the creation of the work."
Buñuel kept in touch with Dali, and the two met at Dali's home in Figueras, Spain, to discuss collaborating on a screenplay.
At the time, the two shared similar ideas about the future of film. Neither had much patience for the avant-garde, which seemed preoccupied with trickery and animation for its own sake. As they saw it, the challenge was to manipulate this larger-than-life medium to realize images beyond the scope of painting.
They were also inspired by something else going on around them -- a Paris-based art movement that had succeeded Dada several years before.
Like the Dadaists, the Surrealists disrupted plays, flouted social mores, published single-issue magazines with run-amok layout design, wrote blasphemous poems and painted shocking pictures. But where Dada arrived like a hurricane and spent itself just as quickly, Surrealism found direction in Freud's theories of the subconscious. It embraced not only revolt but the whole Romantic idea of l'amour fou -- the kind of "mad love" that challenges a repressive society.
André Breton, the movement's founder and leading theorist, envisioned a revolt of the imagination, a liberation "which will overthrow one or two worlds." The goal, he wrote in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, is "the future resolution of those two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, in a kind of absolute reality, surreality, so to speak."
Buñuel and Dali had similar goals for their script.
"When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali's house in Figueras," Buñuel later recalled, "I told him about a dream I'd had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he'd seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he'd had the previous night."
From that abstract premise, the two put together a series of strange images. They discarded anything "that might lend itself to rational explanation," and only kept ideas both liked. The script was completed in six days.
Buñuel bore no illusions about anyone financing what must have seemed like a self-indulgent curiosity. Thankfully, his mother came through with the money.
"Only she would have financed an idea that seemed ridiculous to everyone else," he later wrote. "My mother gave me the money more out of love than understanding of my venture, which I was careful not to explain to her."
After spending about half the money partying with friends, Buñuel settled down to make the film. Dali didn't show up until the last day, which he spent preparing a donkey's carcass for one of the film's more grotesque scenes.
"Once the film was edited, we had no idea what to do with it," Buñuel said. Luckily, he met the great photographer Man Ray and the poet Louis Aragon, both part of Breton's group. Ray, who was looking for another short film to show with his own new documentary, thought Un Chien Andalou fit the bill. Buñuel and Dali were introduced to other Surrealists, who promised to attend the premiere.
The film was an immediate success, and both Buñuel and (briefly) Dali were accepted into the Surrealist fold. Un Chien Andalou moved from the Studio des Ursulines to Studio 28, where it played for eight straight months.
Buñuel was ambivalent about the success of a film that, he later said, was supposed to revolt people. What had been intended as an anti-art film was hailed as a work of art. Buñuel made clear his disgust when he published the script in the journal of the Surrealists.
"A successful film," he wrote, "is what the majority of people who saw it thought. But what can I do about people who pray for anything new, even if the novelty outrages their inmost convictions, or about a venal or insincere press, or about the pack of imbeciles who found beauty or poetry in what is, in essence, nothing less than a desperate, passionate appeal to murder?"
With his next film, no one would mistake his intentions.
"The L'Age d'Or incident"
For Buñuel, "there was "no going back after Un Chien Andalou; making a commercial film was totally out of the question. No matter what the cost, I wanted to stay a Surrealist."
Friends introduced him to a pair of wealthy art patrons, Vicomte Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, who offered to fund Buñuel's next film. He again joined Dali in Figueras to write the script.
Lightning didn't strike twice. Dali was too busy chasing his future wife, Gala, at the time wed to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. Buñuel and Dali couldn't agree on anything, and Buñuel finished the script alone, incorporating only a handful of Dali's ideas.
Besides being a talkie, the resulting film was longer, more straightforward, and far more scandalous than its predecessor. The basic story of L'Age d'Or (Age of Gold) follows an unnamed couple whose attempts at consummating their l'amour fou are constantly thwarted by society. It begins with a crude mini-documentary on the scorpion, and the film sought nothing more than to sting like one. The images -- skeletons in papal garb, suggestive masturbation, dead flies plastered to a man's face, a father murdering his son -- were a lacerating indictment of a modern "golden age" ruled by herd morality. The ending, an homage to the Marquis de Sade, depicts Jesus Christ as a sadistic lecher.
Few noticed at the time that L'Age d'Or also represented a considerable technical leap. Buñuel shot it as a silent film and added sound later, allowing him to toy with the possibilities of the talking film. L'Age d'Or was the first film to have spoken thoughts, and it randomly used extraneous sounds to underscore states of mind.
The film was a scandal from day one. When the de Noailles' proudly screened the bold new production in their ballroom, their wealthy friends sat in embarrassed silence. "The bomb burst forth in our poor friend's faces," one guest reported. "As they watched bishops being thrown out of windows and [the depiction of Christ] the shocked, terrified, and revolted guests drifted out."
De Noailles was summarily expelled from the Jockey Club, and his mother had to personally go to Rome and beg the Pope not to excommunicate her son. The worst was yet to come when the film opened at Studio 28, where Un Chien Andalou ran for the better part of a year. L'Age d'Or wouldn't last a week, but what a week it was.
The left wing, and Buñuel's Surrealist brethren, hailed it as a classic. The right-wing press was mortified. Figaro called it a string of "the most obscene, repellent, and paltry episodes. Country, family, and religion are dragged through the mud." Ami du Peuple urged people to miss it out of sheer patriotic duty. "Low and dismal pornography," said Echo de Paris.
A few readers got the hint. Not a week after the premiere, the theater went nuts. Thugs from the right-wing League of Patriots and Anti-Semitic League threw ink and rotten eggs at the screen. They set off smoke bombs, tore up books and magazines, slashed Surrealist paintings on exhibition in the lobby, smashed chairs, and cut telephone wires. They clubbed audience members, while yelling `Death to the Jews!' and `You'll see that there are still Christians in France!'" The event is still known as "the L'Age d'Or incident," and one of the great art riots in history.
Within a week, the film was closed down -- for good, it long appeared. The state, and then the de Noailles estate, kept the film from public view for fifty years. It didn't officially debut in this country until its 1980 premiere in New York. (Other prints had already surfaced, but usually in private theatres or film libraries.)
In the long run, L'Age d'Or was more an ideological bombshell than a lasting work of art. It has some level of fascination, but the shock has worn off. Parts of it look silly now, and not a little tedious. Still, for many it remains the central Buñuel film, as it did for Buñuel himself. It is freely absurd, and it staked out targets -- church and state -- he would never tire of attacking.
Thirty years later, with Viridiana, he was engaged in a full-scale battle with both.
Innocence and Experience
After Land Without Bread, Buñuel's post-L'Age d'Or follow-up, Buñuel didn't make another film for 15 years. He dubbed movies for Warner Brothers, narrated Spanish versions of U.S. Army technical films, designed an uncredited sequence for the horror film The Beast With Five Fingers, and took a job at the Museum of Modern Art. The job ended when Dali (by now a convert to the church, Franco, and the quick buck) revealed in his memoirs that his old collaborator was an atheist and, incorrectly, a Communist. The Archbishop of New York, the future Cardinal Spellman, had not forgotten L'Age d'Or from a decade earlier. He personally prevailed upon the museum to fire the Antichrist they had working in their translations department. The museum capitulated. Buñuel met Dali, called him a bastard, and never spoke to him again.
Eventually, Buñuel was finally given the chance to direct a couple of routine pieces of Mexican hackwork, which led to his sentimental and savage masterwork Los Olvidados. It knocked everyone out at Cannes. Buñuel was back.
For the next ten years, he churned out a spotty series of pictures for the Mexican film industry. He had little control of subjects, but often managed to leave his own distinct stamp. A few of these films -- El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, and a flawed but extraordinary version of Wuthering Heights -- are Buñuel classics.
By 1961, after 25 years away from his homeland, he had an idea for a new film to be shot in Spain. He had bolted in protest after the country's Civil War, swearing he would never live under the Franco dictatorship. Other world-class artists, such as Picasso and the cellist Pablo Casals, left as well.
Anxious to overcome its philistine image, the Franco government welcomed Bu–uel. Already in the midst of a film renaissance, the country was ripe for the return of its greatest director, whom they gave every assurance of artistic freedom.
The script for the new film, Viridiana, was approved with only one objection -- the ending, where the heroine enters a single man's bedroom and closes the door. Bu–uel wrote a new ending, where she enters the bedroom of the man and another woman. What the censors didn't see (what censors usually are too stupid to see) was that the scene now suggested a menage a trois. This would be only one of the profound scandals in Bu–uel's greatest film: a brilliant, often moving journey from innocence to experience.
The title character is a saintly novice living in the tight, closed world of the convent. Just before taking her vows, she reluctantly accepts an invitation to visit her uncle, whom she has never met. The uncle, a widower living in a Gothic mansion on a rundown farm, is a kindly, harmless, mild-mannered pervert. He enjoys watching the legs of his maid's daughter as she jump-ropes; the foot fetish being the standard Bu–uel motif for repressed desire. He also likes wearing the wedding gown of his wife, who died years ago on their wedding night.
The uncle is immediately struck by Viridiana's resemblance to his wife. He gets her to wear the wedding gown, drugs her, takes her to his bed, and caresses her with necrophilic ardor -- all but consummating the wedding he never had.
Viridiana, virginity intact, wakes and quickly flees to the comfort of the convent. The uncle casually hangs himself with a jumprope, leaving the estate to Viridiana and Jorge, his estranged illegitimate son.
Viridiana now sees a chance to put her abused faith in mankind to the test. She leaves the convent, and invites the lowliest local beggars to come live with her in a kind of socialist collective. While she saves the world, Jorge, a playboy and practical realist, restores the property.
Bu–uel rarely relied on stereotypes, and the beggars are anything but noble victims. They know an easy meal ticket when they see one, and they take full advantage of their hostess's goodwill. On an afternoon when they have the place to themselves, they break into the dining room and have a riotous feast, presented as a mocking tableau of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." As Handel's "Messiah" plays on the soundtrack, this beggar's banquet turns into an orgy; when these meek inherit the earth, they stage a riot.
When Viridiana and Jorge return from town, they are overtaken by the drunken partiers. Jorge is beaten, and Viridiana very narrowly escapes gang-rape.
The experience effectively crushes Viridiana's faith. She banishes the beggars, burns her religious relics, exchanges her nun's habit for an attractive outfit, and goes to Jorge's room.
But just when our heroine is forsaking heaven for earth -- and the movie seems to be turning into some a humanist parable -- Bu–uel puts the knife in: Jorge, it turns out, is already entertaining the maid, and welcomes the chance to deflower his cousin as well. Viridiana, clearly wounded, resignedly joins the pair for cards -- a suggestive three-handed game that will undoubtedly give way to other games. Viridiana's soft, beautiful features harden, and we know they will harden more; naivete will give way to cynicism. As the camera tracks out of the room, you can almost hear Bu–uel: "Look, I said life without God was more honest. I never said it was better."
Bu–uel was under pressure to complete his new film for entry in the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. He took a copy with separate sound tracks to Paris to do the sound mix, finishing just five days before the festival ended. The selection committee in Madrid, which officially nominated films for the Cannes, were only able to see a print without sound -- without, that is, the provocative use of the Hallelujah chorus. They agreed to enter the film, which picked up the French critics' prize and the prestigious Palme d'Or.
Only later did anyone notice the film's subversive content. Viridiana was not an especially persuasive rebuke of Christianity -- no Bu–uel film ever was -- but the level of blasphemy was more than enough for the Catholic Church. It was officially condemned by the Vatican, and Bu–uel's deeply Catholic homeland followed suit. Spanish journalists and critics were forbidden to mention the film; newspapers could not even report that the first Spanish film ever had picked up the Grand Prize at Cannes. It was forbidden from public view and copies were kept from leaving the country. The Director of Cinema and Theater was dismissed, twenty members of the Spanish delegation to the Cannes Festival were punished, the Minister of Information died of a heart attack, the film's production company disappeared and Viridiana was declared non-existent. (It wasn't shown in Spain until the early 1980s.) It was also banned in England and Italy.
Bu–uel, disingenuous as ever, professed not to understand what all the criticism was about.
"I was not trying to be blasphemous," he said, "but then Pope John knows more about blasphemy than I. It was chance that led me to project the impious. If I had any pious ideas, perhaps I would express them, too." At sixty-one, he said, "you don't indulge in childish behavior."
No Way Out
The Exterminating Angel, Bu–uel's first film after Viridiana, marked his most radical style since the early Surrealist days.
Here's the setup: a group of wealthy friends meet for dinner and cannot leave. There isn't any logical reason they can't -- they are simply welded to a social class where no one is an individual. Group members blame each other for their imprisonment; others slowly starve (except the waiter, who dines on crumpled paper), have affairs, and delirious visions.
When the group finally emerges from their room, they hold a special service at the local church. Once again, they are trapped. Not just bourgeois society, but Christian culture is imprisoned, bound by ties of culture and morality.
Bu–uel learned from his years in Mexico to make the best of a minuscule budget. In 1964, he put the lesson to use again, while shooting Simon of the Desert. When the film ran out of money, Bu–uel shaped it into a brilliant 40-minute parable.
St. Simon of Stylites was an actual second-century saint who spent some 37 years on a tower. In Bu–uel's film, he spends his life praying, performing miracles for the folks below, and fending off the temptations of a curvaceous Satan (Silvia Pi–al, from Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel), who tries, so to speak, to bring him back down to earth. She finally yanks him from his medieval roost and takes him to the end of the world: a 20th Century New York discotheque, where teenagers dance away as the world hurls into a nuclear holocaust.
In the world according to Bu–uel, a self-destructive society only makes saintliness insignificant.
Luis Bu–uel started as a Surrealist, and remained one long after Breton's movement evaporated. In his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire, he resolved yet another tale of l'amour fou with perfect finality: a random explosion, killing the would-be lovers and engulfing the screen with flames.
It was the director's perfect epitaph. Luis Bu–uel never stopped playing with fire.