Cult Leader: Bunuel Reconsidered
The Spanish surrealist filmmaker deserves a good hard look.
By Steve Palopoli
On a recent trip to Madrid, I had a chance to see the exhibit dedicated to surrealist photography at the Reina Sofia museum of modern art. It included prints of some the most famous examples of "technical surrealism" (in which the surreal effect is created by effects) and "discovered surrealism" (which attempts to capture the uncanny quality of an object simply by depicting it exactly as it is).Appropriately, this collection ended in a screening room constantly running the films of the man who combined those two techniques to definitively capture surrealism on film: Luis Bu˝uel. They were looping his two first films: 1929's Un Chien Andalou and 1930's L'Age D'Or. No way was I going to pass up a chance to see these on the big screen. Hell, 15 years ago I had to lock myself away in the UC-Santa Cruz film vault just to see them on video. Now at least they're available in this country on DVD, but they're rarely screened.
However, it wasn't a stretch to see them shown together. They're often considered a set, mainly because they were both collaborations between Bu˝uel and Salvador Dali—though in reality, Dali contributed almost nothing to L'Age D'Or.
Unfortunately, Un Chien Andalou has usually overshadowed L'Age D'Or—for one thing, it was easier to see for many years. It also might be considered the first underground film, considering the way it frightened the mainstream with its collection of nonsensical images while blowing the minds of the art crowds. It has the famous scene in which Bu˝uel slices a woman's eyeball (actually a cow's eye in close-up), and of course there's a Pixies song about it.
But while Un Chien Andalou is endlessly fascinating, L'Age D'Or is the superior film, and well worth seeking out. At 60 minutes, it is Bu˝uel's first attempt to bring structure to his filmmaking (while still constantly subverting that structure). It is his wildest and best depiction of "l'amour fou," or "mad love," one of his thematic obsessions.
This is the film that began Bu˝uel's obsession with parties as a metaphor for society—each bizarre event that unfolds is a distraction to the partygoers, who react in shock and disgust to just about everything. (Two later films would form a yin and yang of this Bu˝uel motif: 1962's The Exterminating Angel, where the characters discover they can't stop a dinner party, and 1972's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, where the characters discover they can't start a dinner party.) Their reactions are essential, because though he was decades ahead of his time in the way he interjected dream images (a man who's shot lies dead on the ceiling, a woman sucks the toes of a statue) into starkly realistic settings, Bu˝uel understood the importance of the comic foil. When everyone acts wacky without any acknowledgement of the wackiness, you have camp. But when one person acts wacky, and someone else is outraged by their behavior, you have tension—and the basis of great comedy.
The Surrealists of course always admired very physical comedians like Buster Keaton, but in L'Age D'Or Bu˝uel was already demonstrating his own comic flair. Which is why, for all its artsy reputation, this movie is still so much fun to watch. It had the audience at the Reina Sofia cracking up—they clearly weren't expecting something that still seemed so outrageous and irreverent more than 75 years after it was made. With its bursts of absurdity followed by indignation, it's a precursor to Monty Python (the star even looks distractingly like John Cleese).
Then there's that little issue of the riot. After the film debuted in Paris, right-wingers from the League of Patriots went totally apeshit at one screening, throwing purple ink at the screen, trashing the theater and destroying Surrealist paintings on display. The film was subsequently withdrawn from circulation, and the incident became cinematic legend.
No one remembers exactly at what point in the film the riot broke out, but I can't help wondering if they made it to Bu˝uel's powder keg of an ending, in which Jesus Christ is depicted as one of the depraved noblemen from the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. The way he sets up the reveal still packs a punch today, but you gotta wonder how anyone thought this movie wouldn't start a riot in 1930. It is Bu˝uel as a visionary with no limits, who in his fiery youth gave us a masterpiece of mad love.
CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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