ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
Copyright © 2008, 2003 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
The Indiscreet Charms of Luis Buñuel
What do these three films have in common, besides not being made by Luis Buñuel: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines; Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde; Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle? First, obviously, they are all long-titled sequels. Second, they were the top three films at the box office for the Fourth of July weekend 2003. Third, they remind me that sometimes it is good not to be a film critic anymore. Fourth, by the way, they prove that I made a wise decision to stay home this weekend, alone, and enjoy my own private Luis Buñuel film festival. And if you are not familiar with don Luis, the great Spanish filmmaker, the best introduction is his page on the Internet Movie Database. (Hint: four of Roget Ebert's Great Movies are by Buñuel.)
Ravin' about and Rovin' through--
Luis Buñuel's filmmaking spanned five decades, from An Andalusian Dog in 1928 (according to most sources, although the usually reliable Internet Movie Database says 1929) to That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977. His early films were made in Europe, mainly in Spanish. After moving to Mexico, he created a series of films (many obviously potboilers) of wildly varying value, with Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned) of 1950 generally considered to be the best. He returned to Europe to make films in Spain and France, in the languages of both of those countries.
With such a range of possibilities, I feel brave or stupid to select at most a half-dozen films to share with you, to re-create my Fourth of July Buñuel festival. While I am leaving out perhaps my favorite of his films El Ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) (1962), from his Mexican period, I'm going to begin at the beginning, with overviews of his first three films, An Andalusian Dog, The Age of Gold, and Land without Bread. Then, jumping as blithely as a Buñuel narrative, I'll skip to the final decade of his filmmaking, when he created several works that would have assured him a place among the greatest artists of film, even if all the films of the preceding decades had disappeared: Belle de jour (Beauty of the Day), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and That Obscure Object of Desire.
|Luis Buñuel was born in Spain in 1900 and died in Mexico in 1983. He gained attention, even notoriety, with his first film, An Andalusian Dog, a collaboration with fellow Spaniard Salvador Dalí (commemorated in many places in cyberspace and otherwise; one of my favorite sites in both locales is the museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, dedicated to his work and memory).|
The two Spaniards' little dog (only sixteen minutes long) has howled for nearly eight decades now, each frame and image, drawn from the dreams of the creators, sliced, diced, and annotated almost to death. At this point, I cannot even try to put its strangely logical illogic into words, but I will refer you to four amazing pages which provide a photographic summary, as well as a warning that the pages, heavy with pictures, are slow to load. (I found this great site in Roger Ebert's article on this film.)
Another warning: in the opening of the film, a pretty young woman (above) sits staring ahead at the camera, while behind her a man (Buñuel himself) puffs on a cigarette, sharpens a razor, gazes out at a cloud cutting across the moon… and then plunges the razor into the woman's eye. Actually, a dead animal's eye was substituted for filming (an animal that has been identified as a pig, a lamb, or a donkey). Why? One might as well ask why the film is titled An Andalusian Dog, when no dog appears. Buñuel and Dalí are not concerned with logic but with that vast territory beyond logic. While the psycho-sexual significance of the image is obvious, much has been written about its autobiographical importance. Buñuel has set out to offend, not to entertain, to cut through the false vision of bourgeois sentimentality (suggested by the fairy-tale like ambiance).
Through the wonders of technology that I could not have imagined when I first wrote this article, you can now watch this amazing film online... and in this article:
|In 1930, Buñuel and Dalí headed out for the same territory again with The Age of Gold, a film that I did not see until earlier this year. I sat in the living room watching it, while a friend was in another room of the house. At one point during the hour (yes, just an hour) of the film, he came into the living room to see what I was doing. He said that he had never heard me laugh so hard at a film.|
That laughter is indicative of the great distance the collaborators travel with this film, going beyond the unconscious imagery of the first film to explore violence, religion, politics, and sexual desire and frustration--Buñuel's recurring themes, on to his very last film That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977. Again, the power of the image is greater than the narrative drive, but there are identifiable characters and stories. (In the image above, the lady is sucking a statue's toe.) But it is the elegantly robed skeletons on the dry rocks and the unexpected cow in the mansion that come to mind when one wakes up abruptly in the middle of the night.
The film is made up of five sequences that do not logically fit together, but that settle together in memory with less friction than with which they rub together in narrative continuity. The film begins with a brief documentary about scorpions, which sets the tone for the following episodes in which a pair of young lovers interrupt a grand civic celebration by wallowing all over each other in the mud. By the end of the fourth episode, the frustrated young man literally throws through a window the priests and pianos of their repressive culture.
As the first film began with the still shocking image of the sliced eyeball, so this second ends with a sequence so offensive that this film was banned for many years. In the last of the five segments of the film, Buñuel begins with a summary of the Marquis de Sade's infamous 120 Days of Sodom (perhaps the longest, most boring, and least exciting pornographic tome ever written; but, no, I'm not providing any links for it here on this family friendly site). The first three of de Sade's four villain-heroes are presented as a trio of besotted old men.
The fourth of de Sade's monsters is given quite a build up, as the most evil of them all. When he appears, we recognize--well, the truth is, we don't recognize a person. When we look at the tall figure of a man with a black beard, long, curling hair, and snowy white robe, walking with slow deliberation, palms up, we recognize… we recognize a visual cliché. Of course, that's--but, he is not named (except for the name of the mad Marquis's monster), and none of us really know what he looked like when he walked this earth.
For me, this sequence is another sliced eyeball. Buñuel, no matter what else he may be doing, is slicing through an empty image, and although he was a self-proclaimed atheist, he may be doing us, who consider ourselves believers, a favor by forcing us to re-think our cherished images. But, do not forget my laughter. Perhaps a few years ago, the film would not have seemed so funny, but just now, its skewering of social pretension, religious hypocrisy, and political extremism provide just the mix for which I have to laugh… or cry.
|On his deep plunges into the human psyche, Buñuel seems to be developing a code, images as predictable as those he exploits in The Age of Gold. In his third film, Land without Bread (1933), his first film made without Salvador Dalí, Buñuel brought out even more strongly than in The Age of Gold his social and political concerns. The film is a travelogue through Hell, at least through a wretchedly poor region of Spain, where poverty, oppression by the church, and neglect by the government, leave the souls of the people to atrophy, as their bodies are destroyed by hunger, pain, and disease.|
I cannot imagine its mere half hour being stretched one minute longer. Buñuel makes an apparently objective presentation of human misery with voiced-over images (the English version sounds like those boring educational films that I remember sitting through in elementary school). There is a weirdly playful disjunction between content and style. With these three films (running a total of less than two hours) in five years, Buñuel makes his mark on the history of film.
But, he did not make much money, and for most of his life, he had to scramble around for labor and lucre. He helped adapt Hollywood films for the Spanish language markets, and although he made unforgettable films while living in Mexico (to get away from the oppression of Francisco Franco), he was stuck with some typically lugubrious Mexican melodramas. In the final decade of his career, with apparent financial comfort at last, he made a series of films that once again rocked the world, and once again established him as a world-class filmmaker.
|In 1967, with help from leading lady Catherine Deneuve, Luis Buñuel stunned audiences with his most haunting film, Belle de jour. (I leave it to you to look at the picture to decide whether Ms. Deneuve needed any help in stunning anyone.) So far, I have referred to a film the first time by its original title with that title's English version (not always a translation: Los Olvidados, literally The Forgotten, is known in English as The Young and the Damned), and thereafter, I have used the English title. But, Belle de jour, to the best of my knowledge, has never been referred to as Beauty of the Day.|
The title is the professional name of Deneuve's character, Séverine Serizy, a frustrated young wife, who spends her afternoons (but not nights, hence the nickname) as such a high class call girl that she deserves that somewhat archaic term courtesan. The film infuriates conservatives, who object to a film about prostitutes and their sometimes kinky customers, as well as liberals, uncomfortable with the Freudian-based misogyny inherent in this tale of a woman's masochistic fantasies.
The film should delight anyone capable of finding any pleasure at all in a film. I recently watched it twice in one day, and I was no more bored by the second viewing (perhaps my tenth or twelfth time I have seen the film in my life) than I was the first time I ever saw it, over thirty years ago. We always miss a great deal in a film when we judge it by its content, even its theme. Whether it's the Nazi propaganda of Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) or the Communist slant of Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin) or the various excesses of sex and violence in many contemporary films… it does not matter, when the lights come up. Films grow with us and within us because they are great films, not because they teach great lessons.
There is so much going on, in so many different ways, on so many different levels, that the film is impossible to summarize. Wife of a handsome young doctor, Séverine/Belle languishes in her palatial digs, stylish duds, and dud of a marriage, until a friend of her husband's mentions in passing the address of a brothel. Séverine/Belle plunges into a series of appointments and fantasies that seem to exorcise a rather demonic fantasy that she has been living with at the beginning of the film, and, that, perhaps, kill her husband… or bring him back to life, with another of Buñuel's deconstructions of visual clichés.
The film transcends its psycho-babbling underpinnings. I really do not care about the twists in Séverine's psyche so much as I care about the many levels of that psyche that are presented. In this film more than in any other, Luis Buñuel tamed his own demons, fetishes, and obsessions, harnessed the power of his unconscious, and produced a film lovely to look at, troubling to think about, and despite its slyly erotic exterior, as perplexing as any film ever made. In fact, the truly erotic aspect of this film is the intensity of relationship and response required of its viewers.
Whew. Pardon me. If you haven't guessed, I do genuinely like this director and this film. I'm enjoying the freedom that comes with reflecting upon the past glories of film rather than chronicling the weekly offerings of the film industry: to be able to celebrate always.
|The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is, perhaps, the most relaxed of Buñuel's films that maintain a consistent narrative and set of characters. Commentary on this film, about a group of aristocrats who, for one reason after another, never get around to having dinner together, almost always links it to The Exterminating Angel, in which a similar group of aristocrats cannot leave a dinner.|
Buñuel's recurring interests in the relationships between men and women (and the frustration of such relationships), the castigation of religious and political institutions, the fine line between objective and subjective views of reality (whatever that may be) are all allowed a gleeful, satirical freedom that makes this film seem like the work of a director less than half Buñuel's seven decades in age.
Like its chronological companion Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty), two years later, this film exploits its own freedom to give us a cautionary tale about the loss of freedom. And, let me say, both give us some rollicking good fun, including Phantom's outrageous dinner party (again) made up of elegantly dressed guests sitting down around a table to take care of, in a group, a bodily need other than for food, one usually reserved for the private setting where these folks go to--behind a locked door--eat. Only in a Buñuel film…
|And then, there is That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), in which don Luis takes his leave of filmmaking. Near the beginning of the film, an elderly aristocrat shocks a railroad car of onlookers by pouring a bucket of water over a young woman. For most of the rest of the film, the assailant tells his side of the story, and a familiar story it is. In fact, it is the story that provided the basis for the 1935 film The Devil Is a Woman .|
In Buñuel's film the role of Conchita (played by Marlene Dietrich in the earlier film) is played by two actresses, markedly different in appearance and manner. They swap the role like a thespian tag team, with no one in the film noticing their differences. This directoral decision does obscure the object of desire, referring back to all the great obsessive but ultimately frustrated loves that Buñuel has chronicled. That love is blind (and blinding) is not such a good thing.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie seems to be by a much younger director. That Obscure Object of Desire seems the creation of a director older than dirt. Buñuel was never more caustic in his view of society, of relationships, of ourselves. The film suggests weariness, as if don Luis were saying, "After all these films, after all I've tried to make you see…" There is an eerie prescience about the film. Although made a few years before AIDS was identified, the film's sound track, punctuated by radio news announcements, includes a reference to a deadly virus, the path and progress of which is tracked daily. Terrorism, anonymous, inexplicable violence, is part of the texture and plot of the film. The final explosion, a concluding image almost as unexpected as that with which Buñuel introduced himself in An Andalusian Dog, is so logical, so illogical at the same time, so inevitable, that it seems as if there were no other way that don Luis could take his leave of us.
This is certainly not all I wish to say about Luis Buñuel, not even all I want to say about these six films, each of which could sustain a rave of this length. I do want to call to your attention how many times music videos and advertising have made once shockingly Buñuelian imagery downright yawn-able. A stock brokerage shows an upscale room with a bull lying at the feet of a middle-aged gent. For stockbrokers, a bull may be a likely symbol, but for me, he is a reminder of all the incongruous farm animals that added an unexpected earthiness to some of Buñuel's most unearthly sequences. My favorite commercial currently is for an insurance company encouraging us to use common sense, a bit of advice it illustrates by people not using common sense. A beautiful bride tosses her bouquet. The lovely image suddenly takes a bad turn as elegantly dressed young beauties, chasing the bouquet, plunge over a cliff to the rocks below--a sequence that could have been, even should have been, in The Phantom of Liberty. In fact, the rocks look suspiciously like those in Age of Gold.
For now, I have two more bits of business to round out this online Buñuel festival. First, you may wonder how you can see Buñuel's films. Once upon a time, museums and colleges sponsored retrospectives and festivals dedicated to great films. You had to be at the right time at the right place, as I was in New York City in the 1970's, when the Museum of Modern Art had a Buñuel series, but snug in my Village ways (it is said that folks who live in Greenwich Village too long get nosebleeds if they venture north of Fourteenth Street), I thought MOMA too far away for a weekly commitment. You can look for film classics on television, but nowadays, you largely look in vain. I have accumulated all of the films I discuss here (as well as others) on videotape and DVD from Half.com, eBay, and Amazon's online stores, most of the videotapes costing less than admission to a first-run feature.
An amazing update (2007): It was over thirty years from the time I first read the script of The Andalusian Dog until I actually saw the film. Now, it can be seen for free in the comfort of your home thanks to the Internet. Click and watch carefully:
Second, how can you learn more about Buñuel's films online? For an almost book-length discussion of don Luis and seventeen of his films (including the first three I discuss), check out "The Savage Poetry of Luis Buñuel." Bravo, Slant for a great presentation! "The Majestic Surreal Cinema of Luis Buñuel" is another impressive presentation of don Luis and his work. This time, ten films (including three of the ones discussed in this article) are represented. A selection of Buñuel quotes and links to complete film scripts are special treasures here.
For comment on five of Buñuel's films, try Strictly Film School. Roger Ebert, as I have already mentioned, includes four of Buñuel's films in his Great Movies, and the best thing I can do is not to tell you which four (I've discussed three of them), so that you will spend many happy hours agreeing with Ebert, arguing with Ebert, but finally admitting that he has so much to tell us. You can find fellow Buñuel fans in a Yahoo! group, and you can even find the recipe for "The Buñuel Martini," which he featured in a scene in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Never again will James Bond's admonitions about shaking and stirring seem so picky!
Don Luis (a Spanish form of address that I use in this article when it feels right to me) has a special place in my film-loving heart, because the first foreign language film I ever saw was his Los Olvidados, when the film and I (both premiering the same year) were sixteen years old. Although over many years and many films, my obsessions with and devotion to various films have waxed and waned, there is no other filmmaker, there are no other films, so consistently challenging, delightful, and rewarding as Luis Buñuel and his indiscreetly charming films.
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