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Peter Hogue

The “Commercial” Life of Luis Bunuel

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

One tends to think of Luis Buñuel’s “early” career in terms of long desert spaces between highly personal landmarks: almost two decades of relative anonymity between the collaboration with DalíUn Chien andalou (1929) and L’Age d’ôr (1930)—and the explosive resurfacing occasioned by Los olvidados (1950), and then a decade of ostensibly “commercial” filmmaking between Los olvidados and Viridiana (1961), which in turn initiated a period of big and small masterpieces extending to the present. As a new biography by Francisco Aranda makes evident, Buñuel was much more involved in film in the Thirties and Forties than has generally been recognized; and, as retrospective tributes and newly available 16mm prints show, Buñuel’s “commercial” work is much more interesting than disparaging remarks about the director’s “Mexican period” would lead us to believe. One might go even further: some of Buñuel’s lesser-known Fifties films are so good that they may alter our sense not only of Buñuel but of film in the Fifties as well.

Of the movies the director made between Los olvidados and Viridiana, perhaps only Nazarín (1958) has any great currency. But at least half a dozen titles from the period, many of them out of circulation until recently, are of special importance. Subida al cielo (1951) and Él (1953), two films which have been generally available, rank as small masterpieces—the one a devastatingly surreal B picture*, the other a superbly succinct psychological study which has something of the seductiveness and sting of Belle de Jour (1967). Susana (1951), Abismos de pasión (1954), and Robinson Crusoe (1953) are literary adaptations of considerable interest. A number of “commercial” films from just before and after Los olvidadosGran Casino (1947), El gran calavera (1949), La hija del engaño (1950), Ilusion viaia en tranvia (1953), and El rio y la Muerte (1954) rate as appealing minor works. But three others—Ensayo de un crimen (1955), La Mort en ce jardin (1956), and The Young One (1960)—deserve to be known by more than Buñuel aficionados alone. All three reflect a radical filmmaker’s approach to a conservative, conformist age, and all three are among Buñuel’s wisest and most engaging films.

* * *

Georges Marchal and Simone Signoret: 'Death in the Garden'

La Mort en ce jardin (Death In the Garden) is an “ambitious” film whose best moments prove more interesting than its plot—perhaps deliberately so. One senses Buñuel is wary of letting the film’s journey (through a dictatorship and a jungle) become too much of an easily interpretable allegory. Buñuel’s cinema is consistently and rigorously opposed to easy, readymade answers, and La Mort reflects this through a group of characters who constantly keep us off balance, and through a series of small digressions from a deceptively linear plot. The film is a sort of pilgrims’ progress, but one which is more intent on moral distinctions than on clearcut moral lessons. Anti-Catholicism and anti-imperialism both loom large, and Buñuel links them quite directly with each other. But the film’s major insights have more to do with the nature, extent and price of individual freedom. All of the characters, including an unusual missionary priest, Father Lizzardi (played by Michel Piccoli), are individualists and entrepreneurs of one sort or another. The story’s movement reveals their discovery and/or neglect of the connections each has with his fellows.

Four characters have special importance in the film’s South American setting. Castin (Charles Vanel), an aging diamond-miner, dreams of returning with his daughter (Michèle Girardon) to France and opening a restaurant. He also wants to marry Djin (Simone Signoret), a prostitute who is interested in his money but not in him. Lizzardi preaches acquiescence when the workers plan an armed rebellion against the government’s nationalization of the diamond mines. Chark (Georges Marachal), a lone wolf adventurer, disdains the government and the rebellion; but when he is arrested for freelance diamond smuggling and thereby mixed up in the general police-state brouhaha, he escapes and temporarily fights alongside the rebel leaders with a vengeance. When all of these people are thrust together in flight, he becomes their guiding light—in a way which encompasses both the conventions of the adventure film and the idiom of Buñuel’s cinema. Chark, in fact, is unique in that respect: no other Buñuel film I know of has a figure who is so commanding without being corrupt at the same time. Buñuel is not a director whom we think of as a creator of heroes, but Chark’s independence, ferocity, and lack of sentiment bring him closer to the conventional hero than is usually permitted in Buñuel’s more personal movies.

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Hawks, Chandler and The Big Sleep

[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]

I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful is most probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it is always a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)

Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and Rio Bravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate. Keep Reading

Review: Céline and Julie Go Boating

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Céline and Julie Go Boating just may bring Jacques Rivette from the background to the foreground in the continuing history of French New Wave directors. Rivette is another of the Cahiers du cinéma writers who made his way from critic to director but, at least until now, has remained something of an unknown quantity, more mentioned than seen. Commercial and legal difficulties with his first two films (Paris Belongs to Us, 1958-60, and The Nun, 1962) meant that his movies were discussed by European observers long before they were shown (and then only briefly) in this country. His films since then have been extraordinarily long (Spectre runs 13 hours; Out One, a much shorter assemblage from the same footage, still runs four hours) and that may have a lot to do with the apparent lack of circulation accorded L’Amour fou, a four-hour Rivette which has had a U.S. distributor for some time but scant bookings.

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Review: Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens is a rowdy, funky, and occasionally obnoxious comedy which just happens to be one of the livelier entertainments of 1979. Meyer, of course, has long been known as an uncommonly talented filmmaker on the burlesque-house side of the industry, and—at the very least—his latest effort seems likely to more than satisfy his fans. The oversized female breasts, the nonstop libidinal overdrive, and the cartoonish sexual antics are all here in abundance. But there’s also a chance that word may get around about Beyond the Valley‘s generally happy mixture of sex, satire, and film art—in which case, some people may begin suggesting that this middle-American Rabelais’s new film is his masterpiece. The thing has a plot, but to summarize it would be to miss the point. It’s rather like what you would expect if a Henry Miller character had rewritten Our Town for serialization in Playboy or Penthouse. Better yet, and perhaps also worse, a Meyer press release describes the film thusly: “…an all out assault on today’s sexual mores and more—an end around attack against women’s lib—blasting through the male machismo syndrome—blasting the crap out of convictions, hang-ups, obsessions—the whole bag—sexually aggressive females, willing klutzy men, petroleum jelly, gingham and gossamer, tax-sheltered religion, black socks, bedroom prowess, bunko artists, big breast fixation, rear window red necks, therapeutic cuckolding, the sixty mile an hour zinger, born again immersion,” etc., etc.

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Bertolucci’s “Luna”: The Surrealist’s Stratagem

By Peter Hogue and Marion Bronson

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Luna is just a word, a magic word, by means of which everyone can project his or her own dream. The moon, of course, is a very rich symbol, but the only reference to it Id accept is the simplest one: just as the moon has two faces, so every character and situation in the film has two facesthat which appears and that which is hidden.
—Bernardo Bertolucci in Sight and Sound

Luna is, in a very important sense, a surrealist film which makes use of the stylistic possibilities opened up by Buñuel in the 1960s. Belle de jour, for example, used a basically realistic mise-en-scène for all of its sequences: dreams, fantasies, and flashbacks were permitted to exist on the same plane with everyday experience; no perceptual reality, no level of experience, was treated as more (or less) real than any other. Advancing the surrealist attack on the conventional distinction between dream and reality, Buñuel demonstrated that matter-of-fact realism is much more appropriate than expressionistic exaggeration in presenting the basic validity of surrealist perception.

The stuff of dreams
The stuff of dreams

Luna, in turn, might be viewed as a seamless blend of realistic narrative and surrealist psychology. In Belle de jour, one can still deduce that some scenes are dreams and others are not—though the film’s stylistics render this process comparatively irrelevant. But in Luna, Bertolucci extends this ploy even further: no scene is clearly marked as a fantasy or dream, and none is entirely free of the irrational associations and impulse that we customarily link with the world of dreams. With or without the director’s public statements about the film’s conception springing from his own dreams and memories, Luna‘s events are simultaneously the stuff of dreams and the stuff of realistic drama.

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Review: Honeysuckle Rose

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Honeysuckle Rose is apparently so sure of its audience that it isn’t the least concerned about having a good story to tell. The film, of course, is a vehicle for Willie Nelson, but regardless of whether you’re one of this popular singer’s fans, you can’t help feeling that the whole thing was written (if that’s not too strong a word) during someone’s lunch hour. Nelson is supposed to be a Willie-like country western singer named Buck Bonham. The role calls for him to sing a lot; the rest of the time he has to try to look like “real people” while the scenario does a quick rehash of Formula A2 (professional entertainer’s love of his job puts strain on his marriage) and Formula B4 (the hero falls in love with his best friend’s something-or-other). Willie can’t act, so the movie lets him sing his way out of these troubles. The wife is played by Dyan Cannon. The best friend is played by Slim Pickens. The something-or-other (best friend’s daughter in this case) is played by Amy Irving. All three do nice enough work, but not so nice that Honeysuckle Rose can cover up for the deficiencies of its star. Irving does the best acting in the film—chiefly because her character gets two or three things to feel bad about after having spent half the picture in a Willie-thrall. Pickens gets to dabble in guitar a little (wasn’t he a singing cowboy on the radio before he got into movies?). Cannon bounces around like a Public Service Message for physical fitness. You keep wondering why she doesn’t just punch Willie out and go off and take up with a gymnast or a Dallas Cowboy. But as the neglected but faithful wife she opts instead for New Age assertiveness and pragmatic restraint in the movie’s big emotional scenes.

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Review: The Black Stallion

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The Black Stallion is more pretty than beautiful, more contrived than inspired. In reporting on the San Francisco Film Festival last fall, I wrote: “The Black Stallion, directed by Carroll Ballard for Francis Coppola’s Omni Zoetrope, was clearly a success with its ‘hometown’ audience. It’s an adaptation of the famous children’s story, and it seems designed for annual ‘prestige’ showings for the family market. It has its moments of visual beauty, but a little more poetic daring and a little less in the way of safe artiness might have made this one something more than an expertly conceived business proposition.” After a second viewing of the film recently, I still find myself feeling that way. The whole thing has an “innocent” charm about it, and there are some stunning shots. It’s pretty and nice in ways that are merely pretty nice. The story seems better suited to the format of the full-length animated cartoon, and the flashy photography draws heavily on the kinetics of the TV commercial and the imagery of travel ads. There is an obvious element of fantasy to this tale of a boy saved from a shipwreck by a wondrous black stallion which becomes the boy’s constant companion and which said boy rides to victory in a big challenge race against two top thoroughbreds.

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