Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Essays

Buñuel scenes

By Carlos Fuentes, selected and translated by Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

In Mexico

…Buñuel is of medium height, round-shouldered, powerful (an amateur boxer, military service in Spain; he also enjoys disguising himself as Guardia Civil, but with Garcia Lorca he used to disguise himself as a nun, both of them shaved very close, very powdered, and mount the Madrid trams at their busiest hours, jostling coquettishly with the male passengers, flirting with grimaces, winking at them, collective panic). Winking? Buñuel? No. A gaze unfathomable, fixed, infinitely remote, transformed only by the big infant’s grin and robust guffaw of a perpetually youthful man. He knows how to laugh until the tears come. An ingenuous-appearing humor, a series of practical jokes and remembered gags, put into action or previsualized. Spain, Mexico, and surrealism, a triple-whammy black humor.

I completely lack a conceptual memory. For me, only visual memory exists. For Simon of the Desert I settled myself into the National Library of Paris for several months, I read everything that had been written on the life of the medieval anchorites, including Latin folios. I looked into what the stylites ate, prayed, wore, everything. Useless. Culture contributed nothing. The movie is a series of visual and verbal gags.

Is there a gag more “gag” than the encounter of the Saint and the Demon? Not for the dogmatic, who will sneer at the few serious things that exist and fail to recognize the humor of the thousand lovely things that pass. But Buñuel’s an anarchist here, that is to say, a revolutionary with a sense of humor. His tragic gang of Los olvidados is in reality the comic gang of MGM’s shorts, only this time Spanky is assassinated, Alfalfa grabs away an amputee’s little wheeled wagon and abandons him in the middle of the street, and Farina smashes up a blind musician’s drums and trumpets. Archibaldo de la Cruz is a Cary Grant who, instead of kissing Ingrid Bergman, smooches her panties and bras and then hides them in a box. Don Jaime, Viridiana’s uncle, is a Spanish Judge Hardy who instead of dispensing good advice to his family, tries on Mrs. Hardy’s corsets in secret and wants to sleep with Polly, the sweetheart of his son Andy Hardy. Célestine, in Diary of a Chambermaid, is a ZaSu Pitts who ends up taking over the respectable household where she serves (and Slim Summerville is an anti-Semite and rapes little girls). Buñuel’s devils and saints are those of William Blake: mocking red devils and saints green with envy, blue with solemnity because they can’t do what the devils do. Green and blue, Simon the Stylite proclaims the coldness of the Law from the noble isolation of a column raised in the desert. At his feet, life swarms: the shepherds sing, the mothers weep, the dwarfs fornicate, the theologians dispute. The devil is the megaphone of the law of Christ: violate the laws….


…Near the métro station Denfert-Rochereau a bricklayer comes out of a house in a rush and grazes Buñuel’s overcoat with a bucket of mortar, soiling it. The worker gives us an ugly look, hears us speak in Spanish, and murmurs: filthy foreigners.

The Iberian toro gets red-hot. Buñuel’s extraordinary nose (ski run and Turkish scimitar) spits fire from each broad wing. He expels a furious breath against the cold air and stops a few centimeters from the bricklayer. Grunts and brings his nose close to the worker’s.

Buñuel: You’re a fascist. But furthermore you’re a son of a bitch, a voyou and in summary a low type. France is my country as much as it is yours. Every person belongs to every place where he works and has friends.

The young and robust worker raises his fists, twitches them, pulls his cap off and reveals a tangled mop of orange hair. Buñuel remains furious and unintimidated, with his head thrust forward, almost grazing the face of the worker, who starts threatening him with a stick. “Take care!”—I move towards the worker—”watch it! Don’t touch my señor padre.” Buñuel twists his lips and irrigates the laborer’s chest with some saliva.

Buñuel: Remember that the one who gives the first blow has to pay a thousand francs.

The worker takes one step back. Buñuel starts to laugh and the worker walks away, cursing under his breath.

Buñuel: This is neither Spain nor Mexico. In France the sense of frugality is more developed than the sense of honor.

—From “Encounters with Luis Buñuel” by Carlos Fuentes:
La Cultura en México, supplement of Siempre, April 22, 1970