[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Paris, 1929: the height of the surrealist and the Dada boom. Two young Spaniards decide to submit a film to the reigning lions of the movement, who had their doubts about the viability of cinema to their poetics. Others had already worked in the vein—notably Jean Epstein and René Clair in his amiable mystification Entr’acte—but no one had yet created a serious masterpiece, major or minor. The Spaniards, in order to gain the approval of their masters, wanted to make an incomprehensible film, one that would carry out the surrealist precepts of “poetry freed from the ballast of reason and tradition,” as Buñuel himself put it. Down the drain with centuries of rational and logical notions of narrative order; to become free, cinema must purify itself of the past. To accomplish that goal, Buñuel and Dalí shot the film together, then Buñuel took over and began the laborious cutting process. They showed the workprint over and over, trying to exorcise any intrusion of narrative coherence or conventional sense. Whenever somebody would say to them, “Oh yeah, I get it,” they would whip out their cutting shears until eventually they satisfied themselves, as they said at the time, that “NOTHING in this film means ANYTHING.” The first public showing was a tumultuous one, accompanied by a destroyed screen and a smelly battle in the theater between partisans and vegetable-throwing detractors.
One could call the result the first great anti-narrative film in the history of cinema. Clair’s Entr’acte of five years earlier doesn’t qualify because it is a non-narrative picture, one that doesn’t care very much about the Western narrative tradition and the expectations it creates in audiences. It takes a goodnatured spoofing attitude toward storytelling, but does not mount a compulsive reactionary rejection of traditional narrative methods. Un Chien andalou, on the other hand, is militantly, vehemently, and very consciously directed against received ideas of storytelling, and its very anti-narrative attitude is surely the most important component of its lasting fame and continuing success with film audiences around the world.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to the film than its narrative distinction. That extra something, however, is available almost exclusively to Buñuel fans, the people who have seen enough of his films to know what his interests and preoccupations are. Only they can really see this film not so much as a shocker that succeeds principally on its narrative mechanics, but rather as a perverse sort of preview trailer for all of Buñuel’s subsequent creative corpus—a trailer not in narrative terms, but rather in imagistic ones; in the terms that set Buñuel so far and so distinctly apart from every other director in the world.
Buñuel’s images, their treatment, and the assumptions that underlie them form the most intriguing part of the film. And those images, when seen as precursors of his later material, flatly contradict the statement he made when the film was first released. Seen in the context of the eventual corpus, as a matter of fact, EVERYTHING in this film means SOMETHING.
Perhaps the most obvious place to start is with objects. Buñuel’s films deal very consistently with fetishism. Whether Buñuel himself is a fetishist I neither know nor care, but there is no question that he is profoundly fascinated by fetishists, and this film shows it just as clearly as Viridiana or Le Journal d’une femme de chambre, which sometime seem to turn on that subject alone. In this film Buñuel concentrates not just on material objects (a striped tie in a striped box wrapped in striped paper) but also on physiological fetishism, the reduction of parts of the body to articles of fervid contemplation, even devotion. The woman’s breasts are no longer simply breasts to be fondled, but ur-breasts that set up images of violence breaking over the face of the fondler. His hand becomes physically contaminated and eventually turns into such a distinct object that it can be completely separated from his body. His mouth detaches itself from his face and is replaced there by a tuft of female armpit hair. In a grotesque contradiction of Kant’s dictum, the part is greater than the whole formed by the sum of the parts. The body first gets magicked, then broken down into object-units that become vastly more important than the original natural whole, potentially healthy organism.
This particular brand of neuroticism expands into a virtual panoply of obsessions and repressions, subjects dealt with again and again in Buñuel’s work, especially in such films as Él and Belle de jour. The rutting man, for example, struggles under the weight of tremendous pressures as he takes up his cross-yoke to drag along an impeding surrealistic load consisting of the baggage of his cluttered psyche. Does the piano represent art and creative tradition, civilization, culture? Perhaps the dead donkeys suggest man’s violent nature, his hunter instincts. Certainly the clergymen represent exactly what they are. The very ambiguity in the specific images Buñuel chooses forms one of the familiar hallmarks of his work. When we see a “good” alter ego gunned down by an “evil” one who has turned books / knowledge / reverence-for-the-past into guns / destruction / contempt-for-the-past, we recognize that Buñuel has just presented us a poetic image not easily explained in a few sentences or a few pages. Similarly, as the “good” doppelgänger dies, his hand brushes along the back of a seated nude, creating a juxtaposition of death with sensuality, of ending with carrying on, of nature with art, of ugliness with beauty, of so many things that one can only just begin to name them, much less put them all together with the particular resonances they set up among themselves. This film is a fitting beginning for a career shot through with masterful films—films that deal much more heavily in images and their interrelations than in style or narrative contrivance to set forth Buñuel’s particularly and peculiarly earthy philosophy. The final sequence of the film consists of a single shot. A young man and a young woman—who seem to correspond to the twosome whose desires have been frustrated throughout the film—stand buried in sand up to their chests, immobile, disintegrating, consumed by the elements and by the insects that inhabit the completely barren spring landscape.
In a sense, Buñuel’s next film picks up where this one leaves off. L’Age d’ôr begins with an extended sequence detailing, in pseudo-documentary fashion, the life of the desert scorpion. Consisting entirely of fights between scorpions and a fight between a scorpion and a rat (or so the titles insist; in actuality, the rat’s part was played by a hapless hamster), the sequence speaks with chilling detachment of animal life in the desert. And even though we’re far from the anthropomorphic high jinks of such later contrived nature documentaries as those produced by the Disney organization, Buñuel does make a connection between the ways of man and beast.
Taken discretely, the sequence makes no connection at all; it simply shows us what scorpions are like: quick, reflexive, merciless killers. They strike at anything that moves. They live in a tough landscape and they must be tough to survive. They are killers by instinct, by nature. Buñuel draws his analogy between scorpions and humans purely through juxtaposition rather than through any sort of articulated statement: The sequence’s position, as a prologue or overture to the rest of the film, makes us ponder its implications for the remaining narrative as we follow Buñuel along his way.
The second sequence also occurs in a sterile landscape, a craggy, arid set of cliffs along the sea, inhabited by starved, wretched bandits who suddenly find themselves invaded by a quartet of canon-singing bishops. The bandits, weakened by starvation, set out across the stridently difficult terrain to defend their territory, but one by one they fall prey to their physical debility and the impassability of the terrain, until only their captain is left. Perhaps he kills the enemy bishops, for when we fade back in, we see their skeletons, identifiable by tattered clerical accoutrements, scattered about the rocky ground—some of them actually half-buried in the sand. In the distance we see boats approaching the shore. They contain various officials who have come to erect a monument to the dead archbishops.
As the ceremony drones on unintelligibly, we almost imperceptibly slip away from this second preludial movement into the film’s central action. Outraged screams and indignant shouts suddenly draw our attention from the proceedings and we turn with the assembled dignitaries to see a man furiously humping an elegantly clad young woman in the mud. They roll about in ecstasy and complete, lascivious abandon, absolutely in their element, as one might say, until disgusted members of the crowd pull them apart. Although the young couple are getting right down to earth and doing what comes naturally, the civilized elements of society cannot tolerate what they see as forbidden, wanton lust. Officials arrest the man and cart him off towards prison. The rest of the film—by far its main body—up to the epilogue treats the vicissitudes of the separated couple.
Buñuel’s reasoning in this section of the story is extremely simple: civilization represses our natural drives, and repression soon turns into frustration, which brings out the worst of our criminal natures. I hasten to add that the evaluative term “worst” comes from my mind, not from Buñuel’s system, which rigidly eschews value judgments at all times. Buñuel himself might conceivably describe those characteristics as the ones we try hardest to conceal for the very reason of their social unacceptability.
Although Buñuel makes his reasoning clear, he certainly spends no time making his narration clear. In order to get to the message and the reasoning, the viewer must constantly juggle the film’s hundreds of images in his own mind, performing synthetic juxtapositions and superimpositions to enable him to overcome the intentionally highly elliptic narration. All of which means, of course, that Buñuel has us where he wants us. He has wrenched from beneath our armpits the comfortable crutches of conventional exposition, leaving us either to drop helplessly to the ground or hold ourselves up by grasping at a series of images pelting through the air like a horizontal hailstorm. Now, that’s a pretty precarious way to hold oneself up, and I for one must confess that I fell flat on my face the first time I tried to do it.
Buñuel separates his rutting couple, casting them into states of unrequited lust leading to uncontrollable desire and wild physical frustration. The woman reacts in a relatively passive manner, abandoning herself to obsessive fingernail-filing, mad rocking motions, withdrawal approaching catatonia, and absentminded sexual displacement—which gives rise to one of the film’s most sensational images as she thwartedly sucks the big toe of a statue. Although the image is indeed sensational, its components are not gratuitously rung in, since Buñuel takes other potshots at traditional art—here embodied in the statue—throughout the film as a stultifying emblem of a stifling, repressive civilization.
While the woman goes passive, the man vents his frustration in a series of explosions so violent that a psychiatric worker would label them as pathologically antisocial. Interspersed with such imaged visions as his lover masturbating, the man’s real actions include assaulting a stranger, taking time to stomp furiously on an insect even though struggling with the police, giving a dog a vicious kick that sends it flying, and knocking the wind out of a passing blind man. His frustration so overwhelms his civility that he delivers a stinging slap to his hostess at a reception when she inadvertently spills a few drops of liquid on him. Trapped in and frustrated by a culture that is every bit as arid as a vast desert, the man responds by shedding his civilized veneer to expose its scorpionic underpinning, striking about wildly at everything that moves. The landscape has created and shaped the man, and he responds to it with fury, alternating magnificent images of displaced eroticism with unforgettable pictures of cruel violence. “People look at my films and see cruelty, so they accuse me of being cruel,” Buñuel once said. “But it’s not I who am cruel. It’s the world. I am simply portraying it the way it is.”
Buñuel’s third film, the first he made in his native Spain, was a 27-minute sound documentary, Las Hurdes. In it, we see a completely different style of filmmaking from its surrealistic forebears; but nonetheless it remains a completely Buñuelesque film. Buñuelesque in that it concentrates on images of horror, poverty, degradation, and deprivation. Buñuel relentlessly turns his gaze on the most repulsive subjects he can find, picking them out of the barren land in which they somehow almost manage to survive. The land is people almost exclusively with deformed, prematurely aged, moronic, used-up-before-they-started creatures who will reappear notably in such later films as Los olvidados, Simeón del desierto, and, of course, in the most freakish film of them all, Viridiana. In Las Hurdes the landscape itself breeds corruption—in this case, physical. Buñuel’s job, as always, is not to comment on the corruption, the violence, the misery, the death-in-life of his subjects, but rather to observe it, to pick it out for his audience, and to set it unavoidably before their eyes and their brains. A donkey killed by bees, a child dying because of the abject ignorance of medical aid or principles, a high population of dwarfs and morons due to inbreeding—all presented without comment, without artificial drama, without affective paraphernalia of any kind. The images speak for themselves; Buñuel just chooses them. He knew full well that the images he chose to string together were powerful enough in themselves so that the most laconic voiceover commentary would produce the greatest amount of horror in his audience. The emotionless script, matched by the dry, noncommittal tones of the narrator, serves by its very contrast with the indescribable pictures we see to make us responsible for receiving and interpreting the material before us. The irony resulting from the contrast between the matter-of-fact, travelogue-style narration and the horribly vivid images causes those images to burn themselves into our brains as we watch in horror and helplessness.
Buñuel blames no one for the way things are. True, the schoolchildren are taught subjects they find meaningless. True, the church contains the only luxury to be found for miles around. But equally true that the Hurdanos are served by a medical team, and true that the government has brought bread into the land. Ignorance, poverty, hopelessness, despair, physical and mental corruption are produced by the very land itself. And as Buñuel stands there showing us how it is, he offers no panaceas, no scapegoats, no suggestions for remedies, no solutions. The land is barren; the people are barren. Things are the way they are. It is unlikely that they will change.
In this picture Buñuel gives the first unequivocal demonstration of his role as a moraliste, an observer of nature and human nature. Throughout his career, he will remain an observer, never assuming the role of a man with answers. Buñuel has no positive answers, no solutions, because life itself is not a just or reasonable system. A system, yes, but not a very pleasant one. “It was surrealism that showed me that life has a moral direction, one that man cannot help but follow. For the first time I understood that man is not free. I had believed in the total liberty of man, but in surrealism I found a discipline to follow. It was a great lesson in my life. It was also a great step forward into the marvelous and the poetic.” Man is not free because it is not in his nature to be free. Man’s nature and the nature surrounding him oppress him. Man’s self-oppression is inescapable and unavoidable, because that is his nature.
The same message rings through Buñuel’s first great feature-length film, Los olvidados, which deals again in misery, absurdity, violence and death set against the background of another barren landscape, one that dominates the picture from the first shot to the very last. The perfunctory causes Buñuel suggests for the ghastly life in this urban slagheap have to do with instability, transience, the impermanence of city existence. If we think back a moment to Las Hurdes, however, we can see that Buñuel here gives us exactly the opposite situation of the immobilized Hurdanos, who couldn’t or wouldn’t make it out of the mountains to gain their freedom. The reasons cancel each other out, and furnish a rather good defense for dismissing the film’s opening voiceover statements as a sop thrown to his producers and public by the director and his co-writer.
The real central theme of the picture takes place in the struggle of the past with the present and their mutual rejection of each others’ values. This struggle is personified in the figures of Jaibo and Carmelo. Jaibo is the punk who has practically no recollection of the past and no way to transcend the present, either in action or in thought; he is condemned by his lacks of maternal love and of education to a meaningless life that is nothing more than a series of passionate acts, all totally devoid of meaning. Carmelo, the blind man, represents the past, tradition; indeed, he is cast in one of the most timeless and tradition-bound roles known to man, that of the musician. He dwells on the deeds of his dear General Diaz, reflects on the disintegration of the old values of respect for elders, pride in accomplishment, etc. But he is blind, and his blindness is the most significant part of his persona. Far from the blindness of Oedipus, his is not the blindness of enlightenment, but rather that of decay, the blindness of tradition to any values that are foreign to its own, the blindness of stultification, meanness and corruption to its own countenance.
Jaibo and Carmelo represent two almost epic forces, but neither of them ever attains anything resembling epic or tragic stature. We are aware that the all-powerful forces of tradition must inevitably triumph over the temporary phenomenon, the being of the moment (Buñuel treats tradition rather less as undefined environment than as the slow but inexorably regressive disintegration of man and mankind, a throwback to the oldest Western notion of human “progress”). But neither of these figures ever realizes that he is engaged in mortal battle with the other. Each experiences a varying, generally vague and undefined fear of the other, but neither comes to any sort of genuine recognition of the other’s real threat: Carmelo seems to hate Jaibo almost instinctively; he does not know that it was Jaibo who robbed him and gratuitously but symbolically bashed in his instruments.
In important counterpoint to the protagonists, we have the vicissitudes of the two “apprentices.” Ojitos’ little eyes are coveted by his blind master, so Carmelo takes care of him, albeit in a cruel and brutal way; he is thereby kept within the environmental boundaries of the actively traditional world. The doomed Pedro, rejected by his mother, is forced by recurring circumstances to be “in this together” with Jaibo. The existence of these contrapuntal personifications does not imply any sort of willed complicity between either of the apprentices and his respective master; Jaibo dies “solo, solo, como siempre,” just as Carmelo never enjoys the benefits of Ojitos’ eyes. Complicity or none, these relationships serve strong thematic purposes: the apprentices reflect the gray worlds of their masters in vivid hues. Although their fates are to be the same as their masters’, the apprentices still have at least the spirit of struggle within them. The real tragedy is not stated in the film; it is only implied. It occurs somewhere between these two generations, at the moment when this still childish and inchoate struggle will inevitably be abandoned, all the Pedros who live will become Jaibos, all the Ojitos will have their eyes sealed over even before they are fully opened. The overwhelming forces of tradition and environment will triumph.
The people of Buñuel’s world have two lonely paths open to them: corruption or death. The choice of these paths is not even theirs to make. There is, as the spoken prologue to the film states, no solution to the problem; the beneficent forces of civilization are hopelessly inadequately met against the insidious influence of environmental corruption. The alternative world, the other world of the welfare workers, is unreal, as Buñuel portrays it—it is expressly pictured in a way that sets it completely out of kilter with the ordinary tone of exposition. Buñuel portrays it as a highly formalized, antiseptic and unreal series of places that have a decidedly artificial, theatrical air about them. Contrasted with the jumbled clutter that characterizes the ordinary vision of the film, this one appears to be so far from reality to the audience that we must reject it as untenable, unrealistic, just as the characters in the film do.
The film deals in three distinct sets of realities: the overtly surrealist dreams, the welfare world, and just plain harsh reality. Ã la Buñuel, of course. And in just plain harsh reality à la Buñuel we find cunningly planted those images that flash through the mind time after time, year after year, long after the rest of the film has vanished from our memory. A legless man wriggling on his back as his cart lurches down the road toward utter irretrievability, a girl pouring milk on her own milky thighs, a shot showing a boy about to find himself through trust and confidence—a shot that tracks joyfully along with him suddenly to reveal his personal devil lurking around a corner waiting for him. And that final shot of a body being dumped onto a hillside refuse heap to integrate completely with its native earth, its native landscape.
One eventually realizes that the story is partially an excuse on Buñuel’s part to show us these images and all the others that animate or inhabit the film, each of which sets up a whole world of poetic resonances. These images are the real stuff of the picture, and the real stuff of Buñuel. Beauty and corruption, life and death, softness and harshness, violence and tenderness, flowers growing on a dunghill of hopeless and endless corruption. Without his gift for imagery, Buñuel would be just another Naturalist author embroidering on the principles of 19th-century determinism. But he has the gift, and he has it in such overflowing abundance that it has made him the greatest imagistic poet world cinema has yet produced.
UN CHIEN ANDALOU (An Andalusian Dog)
France, 1929. Screenplay and Direction: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí. Cinematography: Albert Duverger. Editing: Buñuel. Music: Beethoven, Wagner, and an Argentine tango, selected by Buñuel. (16 minutes)
The Players: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil, Jaime Miravilles, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel.
L’AGE D’ÔR (The Golden Age)
France, 1930. Direction: Luis Buñuel. Screenplay: Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Editing: Buñuel. Music: Georges van Parys, Beethoven, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Debussy. (60 minutes)
The Players: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Max Ernst, Pierre Prévert, José Artigas, Jacques Brunius, Caridad de Lamberdesque.
LAS HURDES (Land without Bread)
Spain, 1932. Direction: Luis Buñuel. Commentary: Pierre Unik. Cinematography: Eli Lotar. Editing: Buñuel. Music: Brahms. (27 minutes)
LOS OLVIDADOS (The Young and the Damned)
Mexico, 1950. Direction: Luis Buñuel. Screenplay: Buñuel and Luis Alcoriza. Cinematography; Gabriel Figueroa. Art direction: Edward Fitzgerald. Editing: Carlos Savage. Music: Rodolfo Halffter after themes by Gustavo Pittaluga. (88 minutes)
The Players: Alfonso Mejía, Roberto Cobo, Estela Inda, Miguel Inclán, Hector Lopez Portillo, Salvador Quiros, Victor Manuel Mendoza, Alma Delia Fuentes.
Copyright © 1975 RC Dale