Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones) - Luis Bunuel

André Bazin – “Cruelty and Love in Los Olvidados” (Luis Buñuel)

The case of Luis Buñuel is one of the strangest in the history of the cinema. Between 1928 and 1936, Buñuel only made three films, and of these only one—L’Age d’Or—was full length; but these three thousand metres of film are in their entirety archive classics, certainly, with Le Sang d’un Poète, the least dated productions of the avant-garde and in any case the only cinematic production of major quality inspired by surrealism. With Las Hurdes, a ‘documentary’ on the poverty-stricken population of the Las Hurdes region, Buñuel did not reject Un Chien Andalou; on the contrary, the objectivity, the soberness of the documentary surpassed the horror and the forcefulness of the fantasy. In the former, the donkey devoured by bees attained the nobility of a barbaric and Mediterranean myth which is certainly equal to the glamour of the dead donkey on the piano.

Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) - Luis Buñuel

Thus Buñuel stands out as one of the great names of the cinema at the end of the silent screen and the beginning of sound —one with which only that of Vigo bears comparison — in spite of the sparse-ness of his output. But after eighteen years Buñuel seemed to have definitely disappeared from the cinema. Death had not claimed him as it had Vigo. We only knew vaguely that he had been swallowed up by the commercial cinema of the New World, where in order to earn his living he was doing obscure and second-rate work in Mexico.

And now suddenly we get a film from down there signed Buñuel. Only a B feature, admittedly. A production shot in one month for eighteen million (old francs). But at any rate one in which Buñuel had freedom in the script and direction. And the miracle took place: eighteen years later and 5,000 kilometres away, it is still the same, the inimitable Buñuel, a message which remains faithful to L’Age d’Or and Las Hurdes, a film which lashes the mind like a red hot iron and leaves one’s conscience no opportunity for rest.

The theme is outwardly the same as that which has served as a model for films dealing with delinquent youth ever since The Road to Life, the archetype of the genre: the evil effects of poverty and the possibility of re-education through love, trust, and work. It is important to note the fundamental optimism of this concept. A moral optimism first of all, which follows Rousseau in presupposing the original goodness of man, a paradise of childhood destroyed before its time by the perverted society of adults; but also a social optimism, since it assumes that society can redress the wrong it has done by making the re-education centre a social microcosm founded on the trust, order and fraternity of which the delinquent had been unduly deprived, and that this situation is sufficient to return the adolescent to his original innocence. In other words, this form of pedagogy implies not so much a re-education as an exorcism and a conversion. Its psychological truth, proved by experience, is not its supreme instance. The immutability of scenarios on delinquent youth from The Road to Life to L’Ecole Buissonnière (the character of the truant) passing via Le Carrefourdes EnfantsPerdus, prove that we are faced with a moral myth, a sort of social parable whose message is intangible,

Now the prime originality of Los Olvidados lies in daring to distort the myth. Pedro, a difficult inmate of a re-education centre in the shape of a model farm, is subjected to a show of trust-bringing back the change from a packet of cigarettes — as was Mustapha in The Road to Life — buying the sausage. But Pedro does not return to the open cage, not because he prefers to steal the money but because it is stolen from him by Jaibo, the evil friend. Thus the myth is not denied in essence — it cannot be; if Pedro had betrayed the director’s trust, the latter would still have been right to tempt him by goodness. It is objectively much more serious that the experiment is made to fail from the outside and against Pedro’s will, since in this way society is saddled with a double responsibility, that of having perverted Pedro and that of having compromised his salvation. It is all very well to build model farms where justice, work and fraternity reign, but so long as the same society of injustice and pain remains outside, the evil — namely the objective cruelty of the world — remains.

In fact my references to the films on fallen youth only throw light on the most outward aspect of Buñuel’s film, whose funda­mental premise is quite different. There is no contradiction between the explicit theme and the deeper themes which I now propose to extract from it; but the first has only the same importance as the subject for a painter; through its conventions (which he only adopts in order to destroy them) the artist aims much higher, at a truth which transcends morality and sociology, at a metaphysical reality — the cruelty of the human condition.

The greatness of this film can be grasped immediately when one has sensed that it never refers to moral categories. There is no manicheism in the characters, their guilt is purely fortuitous — the temporary conjunction of different destinies which meet in them like crossed swords. Undoubtedly, adopting the level of psychology and morality, one could say of Pedro that he is ‘basically good’, that he has a fundamental purity: he is the only one who passes through this hail of mud without it sticking to him and penetrating him. But Jaibo, the villain, though he is vicious and sadistic, cruel and treacherous, does not inspire repugnance but only a kind of horror which is by no means incompatible with love. One is re­minded of the heroes of Genet, with the difference that in the author of the Miracle de la Rose there is an inversion of values which is not found at all here. These children are beautiful not because they do good or evil, but because they are children even in crime and even in death. Pedro is the brother in childhood of Jaibo, who betrays him and beats him to death, but they are equal in death, such as their childhood makes them in themselves. Their dreams are the measure of their fate. Buñuel achieves the tour de force of recreating two dreams in the worst tradition of Hollywood Freudian surreal­ism and yet leaving us palpitating with horror and pity. Pedro has run away from home because his mother refused to give him a scrap of meat which he wanted. He dreams that his mother gets up in the night to offer him a cut of raw and bleeding meat, which Jaibo, hidden under the bed, grabs as she passes. We shall never forget that piece of meat, quivering like a dead octopus as the mother offers it with a Madonna-like smile. Nor shall we ever forget the poor, homeless, mangy dog which passes through Jaibo’s receding consciousness as he lies dying on a piece of waste ground, his fore­head wreathed in blood. I am almost inclined to think that Buñuel has given us the only contemporary aesthetic proof of Freudianism. Surrealism, used it in too conscious a fashion for one to be surprised at finding in its painting symbols which it put there in the first place. Only Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or and Los Olvidados present us with the psychoanalytical situations in their profound and irre­fragable truth. Whatever the concrete form which Buñuel gives to the dream (and here it is at its most questionable), his images have a pulsating, burning power to move us — the thick blood of the unconscious circulates in them and swamps us, as from an opened artery, with the pulse the mind.

No more than on the children does Buñuel make a value judg­ment on his adult characters. If they are generally more evil-intentioned, it is because they are more irremediably crystallised, petrified by misfortune. The most horrifying feature of the film is undoubtedly the fact that it dares to show cripples without attract­ing any sympathy for them. The blind beggar who is stoned by the children gets his revenge in the end by denouncing Jaibo to the police. A cripple who refuses to give them some cigarettes is robbed and left on the pavement a hundred yards away from his cart — but is he any better than his tormentors? In this world where all is poverty, where everyone fights with whatever weapon he can find, no one is basically ‘worse off than oneself’. Even more than being beyond good and evil, one is beyond happiness and pity. The moral sense which certain characters seem to display is basically no more than a form of their fate, a taste for purity and integrity which others do not have. It does not occur to these privileged characters to reproach the others for their ‘wickedness’; at the most they struggle to defend themselves from it. These beings have no other points of reference than life—this life which we think we have domesticated by means of morality and social order, but which the social disorder of poverty restores to its original virtuality as a sort of infernal earthly paradise with its exit barred by a fiery sword.

It is absurd to accuse Buñuel of having a perverted taste for cruelty. It is true that he seems to choose situations for their maxi­mum horror-content. What could be more atrocious than a child throwing stones at a blind man, if not a blind man taking revenge on a child? Pedro’s body, when he has been killed by Jaibo, is thrown onto a rubbish dump amongst the dead cats and empty tins, and those who get rid of him in this way — a young girl and her grandfather — are precisely amongst the few people who wished him well. But the cruelty is not Buñuel’s; he restricts himself to revealing it in the world. If he chooses the most frightful examples, it is because the real problem is not knowing that happiness exists also, but knowing how far the human condition can go in mis­fortune; it is plumbing the cruelty of creation. This intention was already visible in the documentary on Las Hurdes. It hardly mattered whether this miserable tribe was really representative of the poverty of the Spanish peasant or not — no doubt it was — the important thing was that it represented human poverty. Thus, between Paris and Madrid it was possible to reach the limits of human degradation. Not in Tibet, in Alaska or in South Africa, but somewhere in the Pyrenees, men like you and me, heirs of the same civilisation, of the same race, had turned into these cretins keeping pigs and eating green cherries, too besotted to brush the flies away from their face. It did not matter that this was an exception, only that it was possible. Buñuel’s surrealism is no more than a desire to reach the bases of reality; what does it matter if we loose our breath there like a diver weighed down with lead, who panics when he cannot feel the sand under his heel. The fantasy of Un Chien Andalou is a descent into the human soul, just as Las Hurdes and Los Olvidados are explorations of man in society.

But Buñuel’s ‘cruelty’ is entirely objective, it is no more than lucidity, and anything but pessimism; if pity is excluded from his aesthetic system, it is because it envelops it everywhere. At least this is true of LosOlvidados, for in this respect I seem to detect a development since Las Hurdes. The documentary on Las Hurdes was tinged with a certain cynicism, a self-satisfaction in its objec­tivity; the rejection of pity took on the colour of an aesthetic pro­vocation. LosOlvidados, on the contrary, is a film of love and one which demands love. Nothing is more opposed to ‘existentialist’ pessimism than Buñuel’s cruelty. Because it evades nothing, con­cedes nothing, and dares to dissect reality with surgical obscenity, it can rediscover man in all his greatness and force us, by a sort of Pascalian dialectic, into love and admiration. Paradoxically, the main feeling which emanates from Las Hurdes and Los Olvidados is one of the unshakeable dignity of mankind. In Las Hurdes, a mother sits unmoving, holding the dead body of her child on her knees, but this peasant face, brutalised by poverty and pain, has all the beauty of a Spanish Pieta: it is disconcerting in its nobility and harmony. Similarly, in LosOlvidados, the most hideous faces are still in the image of man. This presence of beauty in the midst of atrocity (and which is by no means only the beauty of atrocity), this perenniality of human nobility in degradation, turns cruelty dialectically into an act of charity and love. And that is why Los Olvidados inspires neither sadistic satisfaction nor pharisaic indig­nation in its audiences.

If we have made passing reference to surrealism, of which Buñuel is historically one of the few valid representatives, it is because it was impossible to avoid this reference. But to conclude, we must underline the fact that it is insufficient. Over and beyond the acci­dental influences (which have no doubt been fortunate and enrich­ing ones), in Buñuel surrealism is combined with a whole Spanish tradition. The taste for the horrible, the sense of cruelty, the seeking out of the extreme aspects of life, these are also the heritage of Goya, Zurbaran and Ribera, of a whole tragic sense of humanity which these painters have displayed precisely in expressing the most extreme human degradation — that of war sickness, poverty and its rotten accessories. But their cruelty too was no more than the measure of their trust in mankind and in painting.

Source: http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/spanish/sp5/urban/Olvidados/Bazin_files/cruelty.html

ანდრე ბაზენი – André Bazin (1918 – 1958)

ლუის ბუნუელი – Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones) - Luis Bunuel

ლუის ბუნუელი – Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

Luis Bunuel – “Los Olvidados” (The Forgotten Ones). 1950

Luis Buñuel - "The Phantom of Liberty"

ლუის ბუნუელი – Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

Gary Indiana – “The Phantom of Liberty” (Luis Bunuel)

The Serpentine Movements of Chance

Of the various insects that like to make their home in our houses, certainly the most interesting, for her beautiful shape, her curious manners, and her wonderful nest, is a certain Wasp called the Pelopaeus. She is very little known, even to the people by whose fireside she lives. This is owing to her quiet, peaceful ways; she is so very retiring that her host is nearly always ignorant of her presence.

In the library of Luis Buñuel’s house in Mexico City, there were two bookshelves that bore evidence of considerably more frequent consultation than the others: one held the works of the Marquis de Sade, the other the writings of Jean-Henri Fabre, whose volume on the Mason-Wasp is quoted above.

Fabre’s Souvenirs Entomologiques was the delight of my childhood, though Fabre did not write for children, and I suspect most very young people reading him would be scared out of their wits. “The Homer of Insects,” as Darwin called him, describes the lives of the glowworm, the cricket, the cicada, the praying mantis, and myriad other tiny creatures with an empathy and keenness of observation that makes the reader love them as much as Fabre did. All the more horrifying, then, when the great entomologist, a scientist before all else, relates how his characters come to their end:

I once saw a Bee-eating Wasp, while carrying a Bee to her storehouse, attacked and caught by a Mantis. The Wasp was in the act of eating the honey she had found in the Bee’s crop. The double saw of the Mantis closed suddenly on the feasting Wasp; but neither terror nor torture could persuade that greedy creature to leave off eating. Even while she was herself being actually devoured she continued to lick honey from her Bee!

Buñuel’s movies almost always feature insects—the bee Fernando Rey rescues from drowning in Viridiana, the deadly scorpions of L’Age d’or, the wasps that devour the dead mule in Las hurdes, the fly in the martini in That Obscure Object of Desire. In The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel’s penultimate film, Jean-Claude Brialy’s character disrupts the arrangement of his mantlepiece with a large spider in a glass frame: “I’m sick of symmetry,” he announces, a line that could serve as an epigraph for this film. In it, the director gives the aleatory ordering of dreams and the role of chance in waking life equal weightlessness. Indeed, it could easily be titled The Dream Life of Insects.

Luis Buñuel - "The Phantom of Liberty"

Fabre’s genius, and de Sade’s for that matter, consisted in evoking the human being’s inextricable connection to nature (in the unameliorative sense of “the food chain”)—Fabre anthropomorphized the insect world, while de Sade insectomorphized the human. Reading either of Buñuel’s favorite authors reminds us that nature has no morality, and the kind we cook up for ourselves is completely arbitrary. (As Witold Gombrowicz put it, if you want to know what human morality is all about, take food away from people for three days.) Buñuel, too, never lost sight of the primacy of instinctual drives. And also like de Sade, he was, essentially, a satirist of human folly. His characters often resemble “the Divine Marquis’s” instinct-driven monstrosities. But they also have the affectionately rendered charm of Fabre’s insects, who combine ingenuity and intelligence within their narrow ken and complete imbecility vis-à-vis their actual position in the food chain.

The semi-incestuous passion of the aunt and nephew at the inn, the similar fixé of the police commissioner for his deceased sister, the gambling addiction of ascetic monks, the autograph seekers swarming around the convicted (and simultaneously released) mass killer, the massacre at the city zoo—a few of The Phantom of Liberty’s nonstop, straight-faced absurdities—indicate how readily the human animal maintains an existence utterly contrary to its moral code as well as to its much-advertised ability to reason.

Luis Buñuel - "The Phantom of Liberty"

Buñuel perceived a “logical irrationality” at work in human affairs. His films explore the realms of fixation and unconscious desire that elude any conventional dramatic tidiness, though the genius of his Mexican-era films owes a lot to the selective perversion and exaggeration of melodramatic clichés and soap-operatic plots. In the films that follow Viridiana (and particularly the ones after Belle de jour), his aversion to storytelling symmetry became steadily more pronounced. And in The Milky Way, Bunuel began demolishing the few norms of Aristotelian structure he had, in his way, dressed some sets with until then. (Tristana marks a final nod to novelistic method, adapted from a book by Benito Pérez Galdós that Bunuel long wanted to film.)

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire—Buñuel’s final three films—are his most uninhibited, and his best-realized. Not every artist has the fortune to hit his highest pitch at the end of a career. But it’s evident in all the written residua— interviews, his autobiography, accounts by his sons, friends—that Buñuel remained, all his life, insatiably curious about questions many people give up asking themselves long before reaching old age. He acquired wisdom, an unfashionable concept but a quality rather more libertine than those allergic to it imagine.

These last films are in no sense a “trilogy.” I would argue that they are three long, differently configured sections of a single film, and one of their glories—something that might not be especially flattering in the case of another director—is that once you’ve seen all three, it’s difficult afterward to say which indelible scene happens in which film.

The Phantom of Liberty has, if you like, “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” But it also has several other films with beginnings, middles, and ends running inside it, around its edges, and hurtling through it. Its roots in the Spanish picaresque—not Don Quixote, necessarily, but works like The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, the succinct, 118-page progenitor of the picaresque, published fifty years before Don Quixote—are even more distinct than in the overlapping dreams of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (which much resembles the ghostly masterwork of Mexican picaresque, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo). Another oneric likeness can be found in Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a book Buñuel often spoke of wanting to film, an epic of ghosts and revenants, stories nested in stories, digressions that overwhelm the ostensible plot.

The Phantom of Liberty proceeds as if its sudden detours into unanticipated places were determined by rolls of the dice, and it was assembled in a comparable way, by Buñuel and his longtime co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière telling each other their dreams every morning. It follows the specific pattern of a less chaotic kind of narrative than the picaresque, the earliest example of which may be Tolstoy’s “The Forged Coupon,” the inspiration for Bresson’s gorgeous film L’Argent. Tolstoy’s story follows the career of an altered item of currency and shows its effects on a succession of people who accept it as cash and then pass it along to the next person. Another such work is Andre Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican, a novel Buñuel tried to adapt with the author in the 1920s, abandoning it after three days. (The structure is rarely used, and a few recent films that have tried it are strangely inept.)

Buñuel’s own description of his approach suits as well as a synopsis of Gide or Tolstoy. In published conversations with José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Buñuel mentions that he doesn’t especially care for Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and thought it would be a far more interesting book if, as Raskolnikov ascends the stairs to murder the old pawnbroker, a boy on his way to buy a loaf of bread rushed past him and suddenly became the focus of the narrative instead of Raskolnikov.

As in The Milky Way and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty shifts attention not only from a central character to a minor one, who then becomes central, but also from one time period to another. The film opens in Toledo during the Napoleonic occupation, as a costume drama involving executions and drunken French soldiers desecrating a church, a statue that comes to life, an exhumation. As the story reaches its climax, we hear the voice of Muni, a plump, antic actress who appears in many Buñuel films, reading the story aloud and next see her sitting with a friend on a park bench in present-day Paris.

Luis Buñuel - "The Phantom of Liberty"

Muni leads us to the prepubescent daughter of Brialy and Monica Vitti, who leads us to them. Brialy goes to his doctor’s office; during his examination, a nurse, played by Milena Vukotic, gets word that her father is gravely ill and leaves to drive to a distant hospital. The film follows her as she drives into a rainstorm and seeks refuge at an inn, where several monks stranded there rope her into a poker game; they’re eventually joined by a young man and his aunt who’ve just arrived and a flamenco dancer and her husband. It would be criminal to go on, and silly to relate the “plot” of The Phantom of Liberty, since the film is a compendium of surprises. Like Dostoyevsky’s novels, The Phantom of Liberty retains its surprise quality even when experienced a second, third, and fourth time: you find yourself intensely wondering what happens next, when you know perfectly well what happens next.

What does it mean? Phantom of Liberty? Buñuel joked that the title was a collaboration between himself and Karl Marx. It also seems jejune to suggest interpretations, since Buñuel deflected all incitements to explain himself and insisted that nothing at all in his films was symbolic or had the significance people attached to his recurring motifs. He liked the appearance of a peculiar bird—I think it’s called an emu—so he put one in. When he cast two actresses in the role Maria Schneider had been fired from in That Obscure Object of Desire, Buñuel merely threw the idea out to Serge Silberman, his producer, as a joke. Silberman thought he was serious, that it was the perfect solution—and that’s what happened.

At the end of his life, Buñuel had achieved such fluidity in his filmmaking that he could take Phantom in any direction that occurred to him, along the path of the previous night’s dreams, fantasies from childhood, premonitions of approaching death, or, if he’d cared to, into outer space. To call him a film director is like calling Einstein a mathematician. There was no artist like him ever, and there will never be another. He didn’t simply direct a film called The Phantom of Liberty; he was the Phantom of Liberty.

Source: http://www.criterion.com

ლუის ბუნუელი – Luis Buñuel

ლუის ბუნუელი – Luis Buñuel (1900-1983)

Bryan M. Papciak – “Thank God I’m an atheist”

The surrealistic cinema of Luis Bunuel

“The thought of death has been familiar to me for a long time,” says Director Luis Bunuel. “From the time that skeletons were carried through the streets of Calanda during the Holy Week procession, death has been an integral part of my life. I’ve never wished to forget or deny it, but there’s not much to say about it when you’re an atheist”. So reads an accurate testimonial to the personal and artistic sentiment of this odd and serious filmmaker. Like many of his contemporary surrealists, Bunuel is a paradox who on one hand claims apathy towards ultimate end, being, and Being, yet on the other hand loads his impressive body of work with moribund imagery and strange ideas about the God he so vociferously denies. Bunuel exhibits a radical, iconoclastic view of the world in which he finds society decadent and antithetical to human liberation. He has been called a realist, a surrealist, a Marxist, an anarchist, a mystic, an anticleric, a Freudian, a post-Freudian, a sadist, a moralist, a Christian, and a poet-showman of the macabre. His scenarios range from the absurd to the tragic to the satiric to the erotic, profusely endued with the outra-geous and the scandalous.

Luis Bunuel has long been recognized in European critical circles as a great and prolific filmmaker on a par with Eisenstein, Chaplin, and Fellini. However, only recently has his reputation in America begun to catch up. Over his fifty-year career he directed thirty-two feature films and worked in Spain, France, Mexico, Italy, and the United States. Utilizing sardonic humor and the imagery of surrealism, Bunuel set out to undermine the values and institutions people take for granted. His aims were specific: through the surreal, visualizing the impulses of the uncon-scious, he would, he said, “shatter the optimism of the bourgeoisie world and force the reader (or spectator) to question the permanency of the prevailing order” (Mellen 3).

Luis Bunuel was born February 22, 1900 in Calanda, a small town in the province of Teruel, Spain. As a youth he received a Jesuit education, displaying exceptional talent in music, athletics, and the natural sciences. He enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in a reasonably wealthy, close-knit family. His family came from liberal, semi-intellectual, land-owning bourgeoisie. These details are not irrelevant. To comprehend Bunuel’s works it is essential to understand that he was first a Spaniard and secondly a product of Spanish bourgeoisie. Virginia Higgenbotham points out that “blasphemy is only a form of thinking for any intelligent Span-iard,” and also that the “art of his country is rich in eroticism and profoundly preoccupied with death” (18, 20). Bunuel says:

My infancy slipped by in an almost medieval atmosphere (like that of nearly all the Spanish provinces) between my native town and Zaragova. I feel it necessary to say here (since it explains in part the trend of the modest work which I later accomplished) that the two basic sentiments of my childhood which stayed with me well into adolescence, are those of a profound eroticism, at first sublimated in a great religious faith, and a permanent consciousness of death. It would take too long here to analyze the reasons. It suffices that I was not an exception among my compatriots, since this is a very Spanish characteristic, and our art, exponent of the Spanish spirit, was impregnated with these two sentiments. The last civil war, peculiar and ferocious as no other exposed them clearly. ( 13)

Coming of age, Bunuel expressed a strong urge to go to Paris to study music but was sent instead to Madrid to study agricultural engineering. After a few years, he switched his studies to entomology, and, more importantly, began forming close friendships with a group of young artists who were to influence him strongly in the future. These companions included the poets Frederico Garcia Lorca and Jose Moreno Villa and the painter Salvador Dali. In the Madrid residencia Bunuel developed his interest in the arts, theater, and acting and gained his introduction to surrealism. After graduating in 1925 with a degree in Philosophy and Letters, Bunuel moved to Paris, joined by a few members of his residencia coterie.

Bunuel arrived in Paris highly recommended by influential friends of his parents and was introduced into the best intellectual circles of the city. He was soon hired as an Assistant Director to Jean Epstien, “the only director of that bleak era of the French cinema to merit the title of an intellectual filmmaker” (Aranda 32). While honing his skills working as an A.D., Bunuel also began contributing articles to various literary cinema periodicals, most notably La Gaceta Hispanoamericana. In 1929 he formally entered the Paris Surrealist Group. Within this setting he embarked on his first film project as director, a collaboration with his residencia friend Salvador Dali, entitled Un Chien Andalou. He collaborated with Dali again in 1930 on another surrealist film, L¹Age d’Or. The rest, as they say, is history.

Some critics, most notably Pauline Kael and Penelope Gilliatt, now regard Bunuel as the Hitchcock of surrealism – a venerated master in total command of his medium and for whom the art of filmic manipulation became a “delightful form of play.” For Bunuel, however, play had little to do with it. Rather, he saw surrealism as a revolutionary, poetic, and moral movement:

“All of us were supporters of a certain concept of revolution, and although the surrealists didn’t consider themselves terrorists, they were constantly fighting a society they despised. The principle weapon was not guns, of course, it was scandal. Scandal was a potent agent of revelation, capable of exposing such social crimes as exploitation of one man by another, colonialist imperialism, religious tyranny – in sum, all the secret and odious underpinnings of a system that had to be destroyed”. (Bunuel 107)

He went on to say, “The purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself’ ( 107). Salvador Dali recalled the surrealists ideology, “It is possible to systematize confusion thanks to a paranoia and active process of thought and so assist in discrediting completely the world of reality” (Gould 37).

Indeed, the intent of surreal art is to move one from the conscious mind into the subconscious. It seeks to affect the emotions through the mind. Michael Gould states in Surrealism and the Cinema, “If the vision revealed is too much for the rational mind to absorb (too intense, too threatening, too ‘real’) yet cannot be rejected, then it leaves the consciousness and comes to exist on a sublime level as pure surrealism” (13). In Un Chien Andalou, for example, a girl’s eye is sliced with a razor blade, a man wipes his mouth completely off his face, dead donkey carcasses adorn a piano, a man’s hand crawls with ants. Each of these images is clearly too intense for rational thought.

 

Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) - Luis Buñuel

Bunuel was drawn to the surrealist movement for more than revolutionary or psychological reasons. The moral aspects of the movement intrigued him as well:

“For the first time in my life, I’d come into contact with a coherent moral system that, as far as I could tell, had no flaws. It was an aggressive morality based on the complete rejection of all existing values. We had other criteria: we exalted passion, mystification, black humor, the insult, and the call of the abyss. Inside this new territory, all our thoughts and actions seemed justifiable; there was simply no room for doubt. Everything made sense. Our morality may have been more demanding and more dangerous than the prevailing order, but it was also stronger, richer, more coherent”. (Bunuel 107)

The surreal qualities in Bunuel ‘s films can be traced to a number of sources, but the primary impetus was his “irrational sensibility” as evidenced by his treatment of image, montage, and sound. These gave his films their dreamlike quality. His most intense images are evocative of either humor or mystery. Mystery, he believed, is the essential element of any art; it is inseparable from chance, and the whole universe is a mystery, Bunuel believed that his own form of atheism led inevitably to the acceptance of the inexplicable. “Since I reject the idea of a divine watchmaker,” he said, “(a notion even more mysterious than the mystery it supposedly explains), then I must consent to live in a kind of shadowy confusion…. At least it keeps my moral freedom intact” (174). Predictably, adherence to fantasy as opposed to reason in a rationalistic society leads to conflict. The surrealists opposed nearly all traditional values and, as noted before, sought to destroy “all conventional social, moral, and artistic habits of thought and perception” (Higgenbotham 30). Enter Un Chien Andalou.

In 1929, Un Chien Andalou was as shocking and scandalous as Bunuel and Dali had hoped it would be. It gave rise to a staggering range of interpretations: poetic, scandalous, incoherent, an attack upon critics, an attack upon religion, and attack upon the bourgeoisie. (Interestingly, the film was financed by Bunuel’s bourgeois mother.)

 

Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) - Luis Buñuel. Jaime Miravitilles and Salvador Dalí as the confused priests

Un Chien Andalou (which means An Andalusian Dog – though there are no dogs in the film) was deliberately intended to jolt the spectator’s peace of mind and to convey some of the basic beliefs underlying the surrealist movement, including the omnipotence of desire. Bunuel stated that he and Dali held to only one rule during the production, “No idea or image that might lend itself to rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us without trying to explain why” (104).

The aim of the film was not exclusively to shock, but to incendiarially affect the collective conscience. At the same time it was an indictment of all the art consumers who, either through stupidity, masochism, or self interest, were willing to swallow anything, no matter how much it went against their instincts. Bunuel asked, “What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press and the inane herd that saw beauty and poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate call for murder?” (Bauche 9).

The film is a dream and, like a dream, is both fascinating and disturbing. The opening scene in which a girl’s eye is sliced sets the tone of the film’s meandering and confusing itinerary. Many of the elements that make up the film are remnants of objective reality. The way they are arranged within the scenario pushes them into a mental reconstruction process–in exactly the way dreams draw on the previous day’s experience. Interestingly, the images have the matter-of-fact quality of a newsreel, or what Higgenbotham calls a “prosaic realism” (38).

Bunuel chose not to use the distorted lenses, supered images, or blurred focus (cinematic conventions of the day) to suggest the dreamlike quality of his film. Instead, he approached the entire non-narrative in a straightforward manner. He used the shocking incongruity of the images themselves to build the hallucinatory feeling of anguish that runs through the film. The unrealistic fashion in which the realistic images were juxtaposed was the perfect way, according to Freddy Bauche, to illustrate “the dramatic collision between desire and the object of desire” (10).

Obviously, the director drew much of Un Chien Andalou from his Spanish heritage–the religious and social implications, the themes of emotionalism and death, even the donkey carcasses. “Thus Un Chien Andalou, as a milestone in the history of cinema, emerges from its director’s adolescence in Spain and announces the themes and techniques that were to preoccupy Bunuel for half a century, through the rest of his career” (Higgenbotham 39).

 

Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) - Luis Buñuel

Where desire and eroticism prevailed in Un Chien Andalou, religion took center stage in Simon del Desierto (Simon of the Desert), produced in Mexico in 1965. Simon del Desierto is a bizarre little narrative set in the fifth century A.D. Saint Simon, in order to be as close to God as possible, has stood praying on top of a sixty-foot pillar for thirty-seven years. He is profoundly sanctimonious-to the degree that he even blesses his own tooth when it falls from his mouth. His devotion, however, is put to the test when the Devil (a woman wearing the uniform of a Catholic school girl) arrives in a slithering coffin at the pillar. She is intent on luring the Holy Disciple from his perch as she repeatedly ridicules him and insults his character. Simon heroically resists her temptations at every turn despite her various disguises; first, a priest, then a shepherd, and finally as the Savior himself. At last, despite Simon’s holy strength, and for reasons not entirely clear, the Devil is able to exert her full power and whisk him away to hell–a Greenwich village disco where trendies writhe and grind to “The Radioactive Flesh.”

The implications are staggering. “The saint, devoted to his god, sits high on a pillar for all of life…. But the pillar, discolored over the years, winding and twisting its way to the ground, is the excrement of the saint. Saint though he is, his bowels must still move. So there he sits, near God indeed, but supported on a pillar of excrement” (Mellen 115). There have been several interpretations of this seemingly blasphemous imagery. One is that God and his church are really built on unacknowledged humanity. Another is that we can reach God only through understanding the true nature of our humanity. Still another is that religion (primarily Catholicism) is essentially a “pillar of excrement.” Bunuel himself put all the interpretations in perspective when he said, “Thank God I’m still an atheist.”

Luis Bunuel’s flair for perverse surrealism and his malicious attacks on conventional morality were fully realized in his second to last film, Le Fantome de la Liberte (The Phantom of Liberty), produced in France in 1974 – almost fifty years after Un Chien Andalou. Fantome in many ways functioned as a sort of sequel to his 1972 film, Le Channe Discret de la Bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). The images are astounding and playfully absurd: Spanish hostages of the Napoleonic war cry “Down with Freedom!” as they are executed. A French lieutenant fondles the statue of a beautiful noblewoman and is struck on the head by another statue. Bourgeois couples discuss defecation around a toilet-lined table but consider “food” an impolite topic, and so on.

 

Luis Buñuel - "The Phantom of Liberty"

The titular reference to a “phantom” boffows from the opening line of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting Europe-the specter of communism.” Bunuel twists this meaning to imply that the specter haunting the bourgeoisie is “the possibility of its own freedom unburdened by the dead ends of sexual license, willful irrationality, and the liberty to go beyond the self-indulgent eccentricities of the individual ego” (Mellen 318). Bunuel compared the film to one of his earlier surrealist works, L¹Age d’Or, saying, “It is no longer possible to scandal-ize people as we did in 1930. Today you have to do it with sweet subversion” ( Mellen 183). Le Fantome de la Liberte charges that society has substituted arbitrary willfulness for freedom. One of the film’s vignettes shows two parents who insist on declaring their daughter a missing person, although she is plainly sitting in front of them. The police, in a similar display of willful blindness to reality, even ask the child herself for her vital statistics and how she disappeared. In another episode, four chain-smoking monks gamble with their holy medallions in a card game. “I’ll open with a virgin,” says one. Another plays a “father.”

 

Luis Buñuel - "The Phantom of Liberty"

Bunuel believed reality is actually a smoke screen for hidden urges. He used the absurd to imply “an attack on specific abuses, not on some safely vague condition of man” (Durgnat 65). In Le Fantome de la Liberte Bunuel doubts not so much the possibility for society’s redemption as its likelihood. “We have been rendered unwittingly comfortable within our psychic cages to the point where we prefer them to liberty, an experience and aspiration we neither understand or desire” (Mellen 331).

For fifty years, Luis Bunuel made films about society’s dilemmas. His art is his declaration of confidence in a human race dominated by a bourgeoisie given to hypocrisy, sadism, and above all, a disrespect for its own capacity to live differently and better. He summed it all up himself:

“As I drift toward my last sigh, I often imagine a final joke. I convoke around my deathbed my friends who are confirmed atheists as I am. Then a priest, whom I have summoned, arrives; and to the horror of my friends, I make my confession, ask for absolution for my sins, and receive extreme unction. After which I turn over on my side and expire. But will I have the strength to joke at that moment? (256)

Luis Bunuel died in 1983.

Bibliography

Aranda, Francisco. Luis Bunuel : A critical biography. De Capo Press, New York: 1976.

Buache, Freddy. The cinema of Luis Bunuel. International Filmguide Series, Tantivy Press, London: 1973.

Bunuel, Luis. My last sigh. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1983.

Durgnat, Raymond. Luis Bunuel. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1977.

Gould, Micheal. Surrealism and the cinema. Tantivy Press, London: 1976.

Higgenbotham, Virginia. Luis Bunuel. Twayne, Boston: 1979.

Mellen, Joan, ed. The world of Luis Bunuel: Essays in criticism. Oxford University Press, New York; 1978.

 

Source: http://www.regent.edu/acad/schcom/rojc/papciak.html

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