Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays

The Wilderness Years: Buñuel in the Fifties

Between his revolutionary debut with the triple threat of Un chien andalou (1929), L’âge d’or (1930), and Land Without Bread (1933) and leaping back into international attention with Viridiana (1961), which won the Palm d’Or and was denounced by the Vatican, Luis Bunuel spent over a decade making movies in the Mexican film industry.

He directed close to twenty films there, mostly commercial comedies and melodramas with a few personal projects in between, and for a long time that period was considered his years in the wilderness. While films like Los Olvidados (1950), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955) and Nazarin (1959), which foreground the satirical swipes at religion and sex and social mores, have always been championed, most of the other films of that period remained overlooked for years. In part because they were harder to see but also because Bunuel’s presence was much less pronounced. He had to slip in his sensibility.

Two of those films stand out in particular: Robinson Crusoe (1954), an English-language production from an ambitious Mexican producer looking to break into the international market, and Death in the Garden (1956), a French language coproduction shot in Mexico with French stars. Produced by Oscar Dancigers, who was behind many of Bunuel’s popular comedies, both gave Bunuel an opportunity to work with a bigger budget and top-rate actors and reach an international audience. Both are commercial genre pictures – a literary adaptation and a cynical thriller – and Bunuel delivers. Yet both find Bunuel weaving his own sensibility into the fabric of the film.

Robinson Crusoe, Bunuel’s first English language film and first color production, stars Dan O’Herlihy as Crusoe, shipwrecked on a lush but deserted tropical island where he carves out a life for himself, and Jaime Fernández as Friday, a captured native who Crusoe makes his servant, and then his partner in survival. It is remarkably faithful to the novel, a beautifully made drama of survival and triumph perfectly suitable for family viewing. The film can be watched as a straightforward adaptation, yet Bunuel imbues it with his own sensibility, directorial grace notes and evocative asides that add a knowing ambiguity to key scenes and elevate a sturdy adaptation of a classic adventure drama into a work of personal expression.

Desperately lonely, Crusoe talks to animals rescued from the ship for companionship and at one point shouts the 23rd Psalm into a vast valley simply to hear his own voice echoed back. Bunuel once related that, on the night of his father’s death, he saw his father in a hallucination. He gives that image to Crusoe as a fever-dream nightmare, interspersed with unsettling images of the father drowning in the surf and Crusoe tied up, as if crucified, in the rising tide. And where the novel is deeply founded in faith and religion as Crusoe turns to the Bible for comfort and strength, Bunuel wittily undercuts the religious message. While Crusoe honors the Sabbath and tries to teach the Bible to Friday, the words come back hollow (just like the echoes of the valley) and he stumbles in a theological debate with the “savage” Friday, whose common sense questions go unanswered. It’s not so much a jab at religion as a gentle nudge, but nonetheless Bunuel slips a sly dig at religion into a family adventure drama.

Bunuel focuses on Crusoe’s evolution as a human being. The irony is not lost on the director that Crusoe is shipwrecked while on a trip to buy slaves for South American plantation labor. When he rescues Friday from the cannibals, his desire for companionship and partnership is increasingly overshadowed by his European attitude of racial and cultural superiority to the black-skinned native and he ultimately imprisons Friday in the very chains he brought for slaves. His epiphany, a breakthrough of moral and human value over social power, is the film’s great turning point. Even while the script maintains Crusoe’s dominance, like feudal lord and loyal subject, Bunuel’s imagery offers scenes of partnership and equality as they stand side-by-side in their endeavors. It’s quite possibly the most optimistic portrait of human potential in Bunuel’s filmography.

You can’t say the same about Death in the Garden.The “garden” is another jungle, this one the lush South American wilds surrounding a rural mining village, but death is everywhere. Hard-bitten prospector Chark (Georges Marchal) wanders out of this garden and into the middle of an uprising against the corrupt military rule in this feudal village. It’s like a precursor to one of those isolated desert towns from the most cynical spaghetti westerns as a perverse corruption of Eden, all lush foliage and overheated atmosphere. Simone Signoret is an opportunistic hooker who hooks up with Chark, hoping to cash in on the prospector’s find, and Michel Piccoli is a naïve but sincere priest oblivious to his own contradictions. He tries to quell the uprising with Biblical rhetoric, which is easy for a man whose needs are covered by the church (hey, Father, nice watch!). The only true innocent here is María (Michèle Girardon) the deaf-mute daughter of a local miner Castin (Charles Vanel) looked after by the priest in his absence.

Chark is hardly a hero but in this mercenary world he’s as close as we’ll find, even as he uses the uprising for his own revenge and escape from the tyrannical Captain who runs this lost-in-the-jungle outpost like a mob boss. They flee the violence of the uprising into the wilds and get lost in the garden which, true to Bunuel and his cheeky Biblical reference, is both beautiful and deadly. The second half of the film is a survival thriller, an echo of Robinson Crusoe in its way, but these corrupted and corruptible souls aren’t going to find their salvation or undergo an evolution. Here there is only survival or doom.

Bunuel delivers a tight thriller filled with cynicism right out of American film noir and an evocative atmosphere. The jungle scenes may be studio-bound but the thick, smothering foliage creates a hothouse claustrophobia and the soundtrack is dense with the alien world of nature, whether it’s the oppressive white noise of the rain or the constant bird chirps and insect buzzing of day time scenes.

Yet it is also strewn with Bunuelian flourishes. When Chark is arrested, he’s dragged to a church on his way to the station and kicked in the leg to make him kneel in prayer. In the jungle, after Chark saves the priest from using his Bible to start a fire, Bunuel’s camera lands on a dead snake on the jungle floor that is suddenly overcome with ants. It writhes as if in the throes of a second death, an image that burns its way into the film. Innocence is no protection from the wrath of man or nature and salvation comes at a price: sacrifice and madness.

Posted in: by Peter Hogue, Contributors, Essays

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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Posted in: DVD

Ten DVD Releases That Made 2009 Great

I’ve done my “Best of 2009 on DVD and Blu-ray” list for MSN, which features the usual mix of films old and new and packages creative, lavish and otherwise really, really cool. Here I’d like to do something a little different. This isn’t about the greatest transfers, the most splendiferous supplements, the coolest commentaries, the biggest box sets or the latest, most lavish edition of some perennial collectible (be it The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or The Seventh Seal, all of which were rereleased on DVD in impressive new editions in conjunction with their stunning Blu-ray debuts). This is all about the movies themselves, those long awaited releases of classics, landmarks, auteur oddities and cult favorites. And yes, quality is an issue, but not the issue.

I’ll be tackling box sets, cult oddities and silent releases in separate features but I begin with ten films that made their DVD debut this year. Not necessarily the most important or the greatest, but those unheralded releases that make my job such a joy. In no particular order, I count them down starting with my own modest contribution to the year in DVD…

The Exiles

10. The Exiles (Milestone/Oscilloscope) – In the interests of full disclosure, I was involved in the DVD release of this amazing American indie, almost forgotten until Thom Anderson featured it in his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. I play moderator on the commentary track with author/filmmaker Sherman Alexie and I interview Alexie for a separate audio-only interview on the second disc of the collection. That said, this is arguably the great archival release of the year. Kent Mackenzie’s independently produced 1961 drama (when independent cinema was the realm of mavericks and dreamers working in the margins, rather than studio subsidiaries and major actors looking for a challenge) chronicled the lives of urban American Indians (all of them non-actors drawing from their own lives) on the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles over one long, alcohol-lubricated night.

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