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A Charismatic Chameleon: On Luis Buñuel | The Nation

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A Charismatic Chameleon: On Luis Buñuel

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With regard to longevity and productivity, not to mention talent, the only peers of the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel (1900–83) are his contemporaries Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. The old Surrealist was, however, a far slyer fox. Starting off as an avant-garde enfant terrible, Buñuel vanished into commercial production, where he reinvented himself as an underground auteur, re-emerging at 60 in the French cinema to wind up an old master. Buñuel’s movies are a mixed bag, but even the weakest are a trove of casual blasphemies, perverse details and irrational asides, all of which have endeared him to generations of adolescent cinephiles. His oeuvre is an ongoing private joke, summed up in the droll one-liner, “I’m an atheist…Thank God!”

Luis Buñuel
The Red Years 1929–1939.
By Román Gubern and Paul Hammond
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About the Author

J. Hoberman
J. Hoberman, the former longtime Village Voice film critic, now reviews online for Tablet, NYRBlog and Artinfo. His...

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Hitchcock delighted in manipulating the audience; Buñuel was satisfied with amusing himself. Lang, who was Germany’s leading filmmaker, became Hollywood’s quintessential political exile; Buñuel, as made clear by Luis Buñuel: The Red Years 1929–1939, was a player in the bloody political drama that was a prelude to World War II. He was also, as the book’s disapproving authors—the Spanish film historian Román Gubern and British specialist in Surrealist cinema Paul Hammond—establish ad nauseam, a bit of an opportunist, a sometime coward and a card-carrying Communist who seemed, in the words of novelist and longtime colleague Max Aub, “in agreement with the Stalinist way of organizing the world as long, that is, as it didn’t have to do with him.”

It’s a cruel assessment, but then Buñuel, with his university classmate Salvador Dalí, had more or less created a cinema of cruelty. Their 1929 short Un Chien andalou features the most notorious opening sequence in movie history. As an expressionless actress sits facing the camera, a strapping fellow with a cigarette dangling from his lip—Buñuel—enters the frame and, after a strategic cutaway to a cloud passing over the moon, matter-of-factly appears to slice her eye with a razor. That slit eyeball, oozing viscous fluid, belongs to a dead sheep, as any first-year film student can tell you. But after more than eighty years, the sequence has scarcely lost its cold-blooded insolence.

Punks down to Dalí’s Mohawk haircut, which he sported during the production of Un Chien andalou, the two Spaniards had followed from afar the adventures of André Breton’s Surrealist group and created their own self-proclaimed “surrealist” scenario. Most of the film’s visual ideas came from Dalí, although he had only a limited role in the shooting, mainly in the scene where the male protagonist is harnessed to two grand pianos tricked out with dead donkeys and live priests. It was Buñuel, a fan of American slapstick with experience working at the margins of the French film industry, who provided the shock montage. Un Chien andalou was distinguished from earlier avant-garde movies by its use of professional actors, standard lighting and classic editing—all in the service of dreamlike disjunctions. Its characters are no more stable than the narrative space they inhabit.

Gubern and Hammond characterize Un Chien andalou as a “frenetic Freudian satire on Jazz Age heterosexuality.” It is that, certainly, as well as a good deal more. As the original movie that sought to assault, rather than please, the spectator (or rather, to please by assaulting the spectator), Un Chien andalou remains the founding gesture of cine-transgression. Buñuel would call the film “a desperate, passionate appeal to murder,” but it was mainly a calling card delivered to Paris’s reigning artistic clique. He and Dalí understood the Surrealists better than they did themselves. With Breton’s approval, the premiere was held in a small Latin Quarter cinema, and in a scene that could have been an outtake from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Un Chien andalou was attended by tout le fashionable monde—soigné aristos rubbing elbows with celebrity artists (Picasso, Le Corbusier, Cocteau). Dalí was delighted. In his 1942 memoir, he bragged that Un Chien andalou “plunged like a dagger into the heart of Paris…. Our film ruined in a single evening ten years of pseudo-intellectual postwar avant-gardism.” It also boosted his career; he had his first one-man show during the film’s eight-month run at Studio 28, a 337-seat theater in the foothills of Montmartre.

The provocation became a novelty attraction. Henry Miller saw Un Chien andalou on the first Sunday after he arrived in Paris. Buñuel and Dalí were welcomed into the Surrealist group; the Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who had financed films by Man Ray and Jean Cocteau, commissioned a sound remake, La Bête andalouse. This became the hourlong L’Âge d’or (1930)—at once more banal and more shocking than its precursor. Beginning as a documentary on scorpions, accompanied by incongruously lyrical music (a typical Buñuelian touch), L’Âge d’or passes through entropic costume drama to the present-day founding of “Imperial Rome”—an official ceremony is disrupted by the passionate lovemaking of a couple rolling in the mud. The two are forcibly separated—she led off by nuns, he dragged away by a pair of policemen.

Anticipating the premise of mature Buñuel films like The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), the rest of the movie concerns the couple’s attempts to get back together; it ends, after numerous, outrageously uninflected provocations, with a nod to the Marquis de Sade’s banned 120 Days of Sodom. The monstrous libertine Duke of Blangis emerges bleary-eyed from his castle of depravity in the guise of Jesus Christ (played by an actor who specialized in that role) and to the screams of an unseen girl, presumably tortured to death.

Despite some blatant scatology, L’Âge d’or is less visceral than Un Chien andalou. Thanks to his mastery of montage, Buñuel suggests instances of sex and violence far more extreme than any he represents, while contriving effronteries so off-handed you can’t believe you’ve actually seen them. The Surrealists, Buñuel’s true audience, were ecstatic. Not only was this paean to mad love and total revolt received as the perfect Surrealist movie; the group’s revolutionary airs were validated by the ensuing ruckus. Barely a week into the film’s run, right-wing groups stormed the theater, setting off stink bombs and hurling ink pots at the screen, trashing the auditorium as well as the Surrealist paintings hung in the foyer. Le Figaro demanded that the film be banned. Prints were impounded. Noailles was expelled from his clubs. There were rumors he might be excommunicated.

Defended by the left-wing press as well as the Surrealists, L’Âge d’or became a cause célèbre, but Buñuel was not there to soak up the attention: he was in Hollywood. In a letter to Noailles, the artist expressed surprise at the reaction to a “film that, over and above its violence, I took to be tender, and which would leave the public in a rather dreamy state instead of plunging it into a nightmare.”

* * *

Truly, the Buñuel described by The Red Years is an enigmatic personality—a well-bred, tolerant fellow with “a penchant for verbal violence,” a deeply conventional nonconformist with a marked concern for his public image, a charismatic chameleon able to move easily in multiple worlds. “I’m a revolutionary but revolution horrifies me,” he would tell Max Aub. “I’m an anarchist, but I’m totally against the anarchists.” However incendiary his movies, Buñuel was exceedingly practical.

Buñuel missed out on the L’Âge d’or scandal because, somewhat remarkably, a talent scout for MGM had attended a preview of the movie and, encouraged by the wife of Buñuel’s patron, invited the young Spaniard to Hollywood on what amounted to a paid internship. He would learn studio filmmaking and be ready for work, should MGM determine it needed French- (or Spanish-) fluent personnel to manufacture its talkies. Ensconced in a Beverly Hills apartment, Buñuel was assigned to the studio’s French department. Although he appeared as a bartender in the Spanish-language version of the Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery comedy Min and Bill (1930), and assimilated the principles of American-style film production, Buñuel seems to have spent most of his time socializing, with Charlie Chaplin among others. (Buñuel offered to organize an orgy at Chaplin’s house—“an old and always unsuccessful aspiration of the Spanish cineaste’s,” write Gubern and Hammond—that, in this case, failed because all the girls wanted to sleep with Chaplin.)

Let go by MGM in February 1931, Buñuel returned to Europe to discover Spain on the verge of establishing an anti-clerical republic and the Surrealists in alliance with the French Communist Party (PCF). Engaged by his homeland’s political ferment, Buñuel made a similar move; he joined the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), an association he would maintain for nearly a decade and consequently deny for the rest of his life. Back in Paris, Buñuel found a job dubbing movies into Spanish at Paramount’s Joinville studio. Eventually promoted to head the unit, he kept himself busy when the Surrealists and PFC split, although, in a May 1932 letter to Breton, he came out as a red: “It is impossible today to maintain a ‘closed’ conception of poetry that is above class struggle.”

Dalí would famously repudiate L’Âge d’or in his memoir. As The Red Years establishes, however, it was not Dalí—a member of the Surrealist group until expelled by Breton in 1939—but Buñuel who first distanced himself from the film. “I find myself very far from the spirit of L’Âge d’or and I dream of new things that are a far cry from my last film,” Buñuel wrote Noailles in March 1932. Once he became an activist in the photo-cinema section of the newly organized Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists (AEAR), Buñuel set about reworking L’Âge d’or. Cut to twenty minutes and retitled, after a phrase lifted from the Communist Manifesto, “Dans les eaux glacées du calcul égoïste” (In the Icy Water of Egotistical Calculation), this expurgated L’Âge d’or failed to pass the French censors, was never shown and has since been lost—“the first bitter fruit,” Gubern and Hammond write, “of the pro-Communist AEAR.”

Buñuel’s sweetest fruit, if that word can be used to describe so acrid a film, was Las Hurdes, the outrageously tendentious faux-ethnographic documentary, known in English as Land Without Bread. Financed by an anarchist friend to whom Buñuel had staked a winning lottery ticket, this half-hour encounter with the impoverished inhabitants of Spain’s west-central mountains, shot in the spring of 1933, would be edited on a kitchen table with scissors and a magnifying glass. Buñuel’s announced intention was “to objectively transcribe the facts offered by reality,” but like Robert Flaherty, whose South Seas documentary Moana was greatly admired by the Surrealists, he had his “primitive” subjects re-enact their activities for the camera.

Buñuel also inverted Flaherty’s romanticism. Las Hurdes puts the worst possible spin on existing conditions—a house is characterized as “exceptional” in that it even contains a bed—and piles irrationality upon irrationality. The hurdanos bake no bread, and when the schools dispense it to children, their parents take it away. Nonfatal snake bites are made fatal by attempts to treat them. Although “death is one of the few events that break the monotony of these wretched lives,” as the narration states, the hurdanos are without cemeteries and must carry their coffin to another village. There is nothing to eat in spring save unripe cherries, and so the people develop dysentery. The punch line has an old lady walking through the nighttime village, waking villagers by announcing the angel of death so they don’t die in their sleep. Religion comes under predictable attack; education is shown as a form of oppression. A tattered child writes, “Respect the property of others” on the blackboard. Additional affronts are supplied by Buñuel’s deadpan black humor and casual cruelty; images of a bull shown sauntering out of a house or a donkey carcass covered with bees emerge directly from the iconography of Un Chien andalou. If anything, Las Hurdes is more nightmarish. The town is populated by the stunted and brain-damaged, and corpses can be found in the street.

As provocative as Buñuel’s earlier films, Las Hurdes contaminated documentary cinema with the introduction of an unreliable narrator and had its first public screening at Madrid’s Palace of the Press cinema as an illustrated lecture. To the accompaniment of recorded music (Brahms’s 4th Symphony) Buñuel blandly explicated his footage. The government, which had the screening under surveillance, was not pleased. When Buñuel approached a minister for support he was pointedly asked if he had ignored the region’s beautiful architecture and artistic traditions. Las Hurdes was never publicly shown in Spain, and the Spanish embassy succeeded in getting the movie banned in France until two years later, when Spain was convulsed with civil war.

Now a cultural attaché in the service of the Spanish Republic, Buñuel added a soundtrack and an anti-fascist written text when Las Hurdes was released in Paris in December 1936, on a bill with the Soviet civil war drama Love and Hate. Gubern and Hammond disapprove of Buñuel’s film, although, given the narration’s tone, it’s difficult to see it as effective pro-Republic or anti-fascist propaganda. While praising Land Without Bread’s ethnographic significance, the left-wing British documentarian Basil Wright criticized the very things it uses to subvert its own authority, namely Buñuel’s poor choice of music and inappropriate voice-over.

Buñuel declined to include his anti-documentary among the Spanish films he programmed for showing at the 1937 Paris World Exposition. As noted by Gubern and Hammond, the program had another purpose. The film’s twelve-week run reintroduced Buñuel to the Paris art world and would serve as his calling card in American cinephile circles.

* * *

In the time between the banning of Las Hurdes and its successful Paris release, Buñuel worked in the Spanish film industry. In the spring of 1935, he headed a production company financed by a Madrid exhibitor with hopes of creating a popular, and perhaps even socially aware, cinema. He would later dismiss the four features he supervised at Filmofóno as inconsequential, although in the 2000 documentary Regarding Buñuel, his old university friend Pepin Bello recalls that Buñuel referred to this period as the “happiest” of his life. Like MGM, where Buñuel had served his apprenticeship four years earlier, Filmofóno was organized around an individual producer, namely him. At the very least Buñuel introduced American methods to Spanish cinema. Gubern and Hammond argue that he also developed a left-wing perspective, pointing to various social themes and gender politics in his film projects at the studio, as well as a general trend in mid-1930s international Communist culture. Filmofóno “can no longer be perceived as being incompatible with radical political ideas by the Communist Buñuel,” they write.

What’s certain is that the four films Buñuel supervised at Filmofóno were highly professional and extremely popular. Advertised as “A Madrid sainete [farce] with the rhythm of an American film,” the studio’s first effort, Don Quintin, el amargao—a critique of macho-jealousy-run-amok—opened in October 1935 to very favorable notices and was followed, two months later, by the even more successful tearjerker cum musical La hija de Juan Simon. Then ¿Quién me quiere a mi?, a melodramatic vehicle for the “Spanish Shirley Temple,” Mari-Tere, was tepidly received when it opened on Easter Sunday 1936, but the following year’s ¡Centinela, alerta!, in which the popular flamenco singer Angelillo played the protector of Mari-Tere’s raped and abandoned mother, ran for nearly a year, outgrossing even Chaplin’s Modern Times. Replete with cinephilic jokes and surreal juxtapositions and, at least in the case of ¡Centinela, alerta!, political satire, Buñuel’s Filmofóno productions anticipated the methods he would later use in Mexico. But this line of development was thwarted when, along with much of the Spanish film industry, Filmofóno was paralyzed in July 1936 by the outbreak of war.

Gubern and Hammond are not inclined to put the best spin on Buñuel’s actions during the civil war. When fighting spread to Madrid later that summer, the filmmaker was, they recount, in a state of panic. (Buñuel would later describe the massacres and convent-burnings as the terrifying materialization of his youthful fantasies.) In some ways, the war folded into his cinematic activities. Buñuel furnished the 16mm camera for a young leftist filmmaker to bring to the front and, somewhat improbably, helped protect the Falangist colleague who directed the hit Filmofóno weepie La hija de Juan Simon. Then, leaving his Madrid apartment to a soon-to-be Republican general, he assumed a post at the Spanish embassy in Paris.

There, Buñuel was a public face for the Spanish Republic, as well as a liaison to the PCF. He also acted as a clearinghouse for battlefield footage, shot by the Soviet cameraman Roman Karman and others, for use in pro-Republic documentaries—crucial in the war of images in that most newsreels, even in France, were sympathetic to the Falangists. Buñuel was deeply involved in the production of Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth and almost certainly edited the compilation film Spain 1936 (an assemblage with numerous gratuitous Buñuelian touches).

The summer of 1937, during which The Spanish Earth (narrated in English by Ernest Hemingway) was released, marked the height of Buñuel’s official responsibilities. He selected the movies shown at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World Exhibition, alongside Picasso’s Guernica, and helped organize the Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture in Spain. In his memoirs, Buñuel made clear his opposition to the anarchists and the left-oppositional, anti-Stalinist Workers Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). Still, Gubern and Hammond, a bit suspicious of Buñuel’s “‘expanded’ sense of moral rectitude,” are keen to uncover the missions he might have carried out on the PCE’s behalf. They cannot ascertain whether he was actually involved in buying arms, but speculate that he funneled money to Comintern agents Willi Münzenberg and Otto Katz using Arthur Koestler, no less, as a bag man.

Some of Buñuel’s known activities are the stuff of movies. There is evidence that he helped to shut down a fascist terrorist cell fronted by the Franco-Argentinean film star Georges Rigaud and block a rogue Republican commandant’s escape to South America. More specifically Buñuelian is an American socialite’s account in her memoirs of a posh dinner party where the political argument between Buñuel and the painter Luis Quintilla grew so heated and profane that the Baroness Ocky van Boetzler fled to the piano and pounded out Bach in a vain attempt to stifle their imprecations.

And then, with his diplomatic passport soon to expire, Buñuel made his own escape. Perhaps concerned about being called up to the front, perhaps summoned to advise a Hollywood treatment of the war in Spain, he left for the United States—and brought his family. (In September 1938, Buñuel contacted his erstwhile patron Noailles for the first time in five years, requesting a loan with which to book passage for his wife and son. The embodiment of noblesse oblige, Noailles instantly complied.) The Buñuels arrived in New York and drove to Los Angeles, only to discover that the project had been canceled.

* * *

Gubern and Hammond are almost pleased. Buñuel, they gloat, was desperate enough to contact a “perennial object of love and hate”—Dalí, who, then at the height of his fame, gave his old collaborator a lecture on Communism—and even consider repatriation to Spain, “a crazy scheme by an impoverished, disoriented pessimist.” Even so, Gubern and Hammond allow that Buñuel’s reticence regarding his scarlet past was understandable. An anti-fascist refugee in the United States, Buñuel spent several years working for the Museum of Modern Art’s film unit, where, among other things, he re-edited the short version of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which the museum distributes to this day. This interlude falls beyond The Red Years’ purview, but it’s worth noting that, thanks in part to Dalí’s memoir, Buñuel was redbaited out of his job by the Motion Picture Herald. He was soon dubbing movies for Warner Bros. in Culver City.

Although not a left-wing icon like Bertolt Brecht or his musical collaborator Hanns Eisler, Buñuel would have been naïve to think Hollywood a safe haven. In October 1946 he left for Mexico City. Exasperated by their subject’s duplicity (“as we’ve seen time and again in this book, taking an unambiguous stand was hardly a penchant of his”), Gubern and Hammond are similarly critical of his pragmatic “willingness to put his politico-aesthetic priorities behind him, to forgo his identity as a highly visible cinéaste maudit or, alternately, as an invisible wirepuller, and to append his name as a director or producer to the kind of lightweight popular movies typical of the Filmofóno operation.” But Buñuel’s Mexican sojourn is scarcely the least impressive period in his career. Having re-established himself in relative obscurity, he spent fifteen years grinding out hilariously subversive potboilers—along with the occasional masterpiece, like his adaptation of Wuthering Heights or the neo-Surrealist juvenile delinquency drama Los Olvidados (1950)—before his triumphant return to European art cinema.

Gubern and Hammond build to a devastatingly dismissive conclusion: “To have been a Stalinist had no kudos—having been a Surrealist did. And thus far it is as cinema’s most unswerving Surrealist that Luis Buñuel has gone down in history.” Fascinating as well as thorough, The Red Years has taken care of that—but to what end? Buñuel’s films are steeped in Surrealism, or something very like it; they will never be taken for Socialist Realism, no matter what he thought of or did for Stalin. I myself have seen hardened Communists—all right, half-baked student Communists—reduced to tears by the despairing vision of Los Olvidados. It is art and not apparatchikism on which Buñuel’s reputation rests.

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