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Provocateur of surreal screens.

Director Luis Bunuel turned a scathing lens on reality, shattering social conventions

SPANISH-BORN FILMMAKER Luis Bunuel, renowned for his shocking yet poetic imagery, died in Mexico City on July 29, 1983. Ten years after his death and fifteen years after his last film, his works remind us of his unique vision and invaluable contributions to the worlds of art and cinema. Bunuel grew up in a devout Catholic family in a most Catholic country. The dogmas and precepts of the Catholic Church, with its imposing repression of sexual drives and hypocrisy, as well as the oppressive values of the bourgeois society in which he was raised, became the subtext for most of Bunuel's works. These elements, combined with a deeply imbedded Spanish character, are the essence of the Bunuelesque trademark.

Luis Bunuel was the first of seven children born to Maria Portoles and Leonardo Bunuel on February 22, 1900, in the town of Calanda in Aragon. (There is a village named Bunuel in Navarra, south of Huesca, probably founded by some branch of the family during the sixteenth century). At a very young age, Leonardo Bunuel joined the army and served in Cuba, where he remained until after the Spanish American War, and where he also acquired considerable wealth. It was not until he was 43 years old that Leonardo returned to his native village and married the prettiest girl in town. Maria was a religious woman with a good education and the perfect match to this self-made, broadly cultured, intelligent Aragonese. The Bunuels lived in a stately mansion in Calanda and, although they later moved to Zaragoza the capital of Aragon, they spent the summer months, as well as most holidays, in Calanda.

The young Luis was greatly influenced by his French Jesuit teachers. He served as an acolyte to an uncle who was a priest and often pretended to be a priest performing mass when playing with his sisters. Demonstrating an adeptness for theatrical performances, he even created his own theater in the family barn.

In 1917, Luis Bunuel went to Madrid to study, establishing himself in the Residencia de Estudiantes, a students resident hall of high repute. There he befriended Salvador Dali, Federico Garcia Lorca, Moreno Villa and Jose Maria Hinojosa, among others. He was immersed in a world of lectures, recitals, theater performances and the nascent cinema. Soon the change from a provincial environment to the big city, the freedom from his family and influence of his intellectual friends awoke in him a sensitivity for the liberal arts. He began to write poetry and short stories, stage theatrical productions and act. His father expected him to study agricultural engineering, but after a stint with entomology, he finally graduated with a degree in history.

While in Madrid, Bunuel was introduced to Surrealism, a philosophy he would embrace even after the movement was no more. Inevitably, Bunuel and his friends were strongly influenced by a movement that embodied the burning desires of their generation: revolt against the established order, aesthetic as well as political. It was a time for dreaming great dreams; a time for a sensitive personality to nurture himself with the fervor of an illusion, the phantom of liberty.

After graduating, Bunuel left Madrid for Paris in 1925 with the consent and help of his mother (his father died in 1923). Spain was in the midst of tremendous political and social turmoil which resulted in the coup d'etat of 1923, ushered in the dictatorship of Primo Rivera, and eventually culminated in the ferocious civil war between the supporters of the Second Republic and its enemies. Bunuel felt oppressed by a social and political environment which stymied individual choice--Spain provided only limited and disheartening opportunities for the rebellious young man who, after exposure to the intellectual world of ideas and illusion, was in want of a fertile environment in which to expand them.

Bunuel's social position and his circle of artistic friends helped him establish connections in Paris. The pianist Ricardo Vinas recommended Bunuel to Mengelberg who was to conduct an orchestra in a Dutch production of Manuel de Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro. Bunuel's experience with amateur theater and his creativity landed him the role of stage director. He convinced Mengelberg to use live actors for Don Quixote and Sancho, a radical departure from the established practice of representing them with puppets. The success of the performances won wide recognition for Bunuel.

It was in Paris that Bunuel began to think of the cinema as something more than entertainment. The films of Sergei Eisenstein, Eric von Stroheim, F.W. Murnau, and especially Fritz Lang made a lasting impression on him. He sought and obtained an internship with the cinematographer Jean Epstein. While with Epstein, Bunuel was introduced to the essential techniques of filmmaking, although the two were of different character and sensitivity. Their relationship ended abruptly and on unfriendly terms due to Bunuel's hostility towards Abel Gance, whom Epstein held in great esteem. During his time Bunuel continued to travel between France and Spain, and kept active with literary pursuits. He became a critic for the newly-established film section in La Gaceta Literaria Hispanoamericana and for Cahiers d'Art, and wrote several short stories and poems.

In 1929, after a visit to Spain, Bunuel created the film that would enter his name in the annals of the cinema: Un chien andalou (An Andalucian Dog). The idea for this landmark film grew from a discussion between Bunuel and Dali about their dreams; the financing came from Bunuel's mother. A title without meaning for a film without meaning could summarize the explanation Bunuel gave time and again. The truth is that the title was an epithet both Dali and Bunuel used to show their disdain for romantic writers and poets. Critics have endowed Un chien andalou with both a coherent narrative and Freudian symbolism. Certainly, the film is intended to shock the viewer by showing things in extraordinary ways, underscoring the subconscious rather than the rational message.

The first few frames of this short film are unforgettable. Under extreme closeup of the camera, a man sharpens a straight razor and with it slices the eye of a young woman. The rest of the film is just as unsettling. A man caressing a woman's breasts begins to drip blood from his mouth in a Draculian ecstasy; the naked breasts change to naked bottoms. A man is shot in a room, yet falls down dead in a park while scratching a woman's bear back with his fingernails. Each image is a revelation. With Un chien andalou, Bunuel started a polemic that was to continue throughout his career. Man Ray, a well known North American surrealist painter who introduced Bunuel to the French Surrealist group, organized the opening of this film for a remarkable audience made up of Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Rene Magritte, Ives Tanguy, Pierre Unik, Louis Aragon, Jean Arp, and of course, Andre Breton.

When Bunuel moved on to his second film it was without the collaboration of Dali. Although they discussed the initial idea, their intimate friendship was beginning to falter (it was later broken forever). With the financial backing of the Vicomte de Noailles, a liberal member of the aristocracy, Bunuel created one of the first talking films of France that was even more outrageous than Un chien andalou. It was an open attack on bourgeois values and morality, breaking all societal taboos of the day. L'age d'or (The Golden Age) continuously stunned audiences from when it was privately screened at the Vicomte's house until it was banned from public exhibition. Of course, it was a triumph for the surrealists, who issued a manifesto protesting its banning: ". . . the social usefulness of L'age d'or must be determined by the extent to which it meets the destructive needs of the oppressed . . .". With its overt political intent and powerful indictment against society, L'age d'or differed greatly from the intuitive Un chien andalou. The ferocity of the message, coupled with the ingenious use of dialogue, hailed Bunuel as an innovator in the medium.

This milestone film set forth themes which later became constants in Bunuel's work: the perpetual, unfulfilled search that haunts man; the desire for a conclusion that never comes. Just as Gaston Modot in L'age d'or cannot possess Lya Lis nor Don Jaime possess Viridiana, neither can the Ambassador and his coterie complete a meal in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, nor Mathieu make love to Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire. Although Bunuel often focused on the tragic overtones of man's continual search for the unattainable, he considered himself a realist, not a pessimist.

In L'age d'or, Bunuel utilized another innovative technique: achronistic sound. While watching one scene on the screen, we hear the dialogue from another scene taking place at a different time. This technique became popular later on, but at the time, sound film was itself a novelty and sound was used inconsistently with expected reality. He also used romantic music as background for outrageous scenes; i.e., in Viridiana, Handel's Messiah accompanies the beggar's orgy. The effect of this technique is aptly defined by Jose Francisco Aranda in his Critical Biography of Luis Bunuel as "a matter of scandalizing counterpoint, which instead of making the visual sweeter, makes them still more insolent."

In December of 1930, shortly after making L'age d'or, Bunuel accepted a generous offer by Metro Goldwyn Mayer to go to Hollywood to observe the film production process. There he met Charlie Chaplin, Dolores del Rio, and Joseph von Sternberg among others. Three years later he travelled to the poorest and most isolated region of Spain, Las Hurdes, and made the documentary Land Without Bread. The expected occurred. The Spanish government considered it an insult to the country and banned the film. Government, the Church, and society at large were the targets of this film that described the reality of a people who go for days without food in a village in which children are left to die in the streets and parents steal bread from their offsprings to survive. This film has some brutal sequences, such as the encounter with a dying girl, a mountain goat falling down a cliff to its death, and a donkey stung to death by a bee colony.

A year after this latest bout with controversy, Bunuel married Jeanne Ruccar, moved to Spain, and began a film company with partner Ricardo Urgoit called Filmofono. He directed four films for that company, in which he would later deny any role except as producer. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he went back to France to edit footage on a Republican loyalist film, Loyal Spain to Arms! This led to an offer from Hollywood, in 1939, to serve as advisor for a film about the Spanish Civil War that was never completed. Without a job in Hollywood, he was recruited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to edit war related documentaries. Bunuel soon resigned the position, however, due to the publication in 1942 of Dali's autobiography in which he charged Bunuel with usurping L'age d'or and underhandedly changing it to serve his attack on society and his subversive intentions to promote communism.

Bunuel then returned to Hollywood to work for Warner Brothers and was offered the opportunity to do a film in Mexico. Despite the fact that he was not attracted to Latin America, (he used to say to his friends, "if I vanish, look for me anywhere but in Latin America"), Bunuel left for Mexico in 1946. This proved to be a turning point in his career because it led to a long relationship with the recognized Mexican producer Oscar Dancigers, who encouraged him to make a film in line with his social and political views. The result was Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones). With the production of this film in 1950, Bunuel was returned to international critical acclaim and, as was to be expected, controversy.

Los olvidados could almost be a documentary influenced by Italian neorealistic tendencies. With a few exceptions, Bunuel disliked neorealism because of the absence of the mysterious and the fantastic. For a neorealist, a glass is a glass. For Bunuel, it is an object that seen by different people has thousands of possibilities and interpretations. In Los olvidados, the beating of the blind man by Jaibo and his gang ends with a shot that is surrealistic and formalistic at the same time. It exemplifies the mastery by which Bunuel tied a sequence visually with the next while at the same time introducing an absurd element. After the thugs flee, the blind man "looks" up to stare into a chicken. It is unlikely that a chicken would be quietly standing in the midst of a fight, but there is a clear visual connection when Bunuel fades from this image to a shot of Pedro taking an egg from under a hen.

The introduction of bizarre elements into an otherwise common sequence became another trademark of Bunuel. In The Phantom of Liberty, a postman with a bicycle delivers a letter to the bedroom of the recipient at 3 a.m. In another scene, guests sit around a dinner table, not on chairs but on commodes, and not to share dinner, but to attend to nature's call in one another's company. In That Obscure Object of Desire, Mathieu approaches two gypsy women, one of whom is holding what appears to be a swaddled child. The baby turns out to be a pink piglet. In these surrealistic devices, the unconscious freely accepts disruption of time and space. Paraphrasing Andre Breton, Bunuel said "the most admirable thing about the fantastic is that it doesn't exist; everything is real."

Unlike the classic linear narrative, Bunuel's narrative has elements of the Spanish picaresque novel. The blind man of Los olvidados and his adoption of Ojitos as his guide cannot escape comparison with El Lazarillo de Tormes, recognized as the first work of the picaresque genre. Even the moment in which Ojitos, tired of being abused, is about to hit the blind man with the rock parallels El Lazarillo hitting his oppressor with the wine jug. It is not surprising that Bunuel found an affinity with the picaresque novel, which is characterized by a critical attack on society.

Bunuel had a penchant for the use of visual leitmotifs. In Un chien andalou it is hands. Ants come out of a hole in a hand. A doorbell is in the form of hands with a cocktail shaker. An androgynous person plays with a severed hand. Hands caress breasts, buttocks; scratch backs; cover faces. In Los olvidados, the motifs are chickens, hens and doves. In Viridiana, it is feet and legs. It is doors constantly opening and closing in The Phantom of Liberty. In That Obscure Object of Desire it is a burlap sack, first carried by a street person and later by Mathieu, a very unlikely object for a gentleman leaving a restaurant.

In all of Bunuel's works, the viewer is challenged by the element of ambiguity. This ambiguity goes beyond the clearly surrealistic scenes or shots. Is Viridiana's rape completed, or is the beggar killed before he defiles her virginity? In Los olvidados, would Pedro have come back to the boy's farm with the cigarettes for the director? Are Mathieu and Conchita killed by the terrorist bomb at the end of That Obscure Object of Desire? Bunuel heightened the dramatic impact of his stories by revealing the possibilities for different conclusions. Chance and mystery are two important ingredients in his recipe for film.

After the critical success of Los olvidados, Bunuel continued making films in Mexico. The quality of some of them is questionable; others are good. In 1961, convinced by friends to do a film in Spain, Bunuel created Viridiana, which immediately caused a scandal. In 1966, he decided to make his "last film", Belle du jour. The standing joke thereafter was to wait for the next one of Bunuel's "last films", since the tireless director continued to work for another eleven years until 1977 when he made That Obscure Object of Desire.

Bunuel's legacy enriches our cultural heritage. He seized the tremendous potential of the cinema and broke the barriers of the traditional way of seeing things. He gave no solutions, but helped the viewer confront reality. He offered the possibility of freedom from the useless search for utopia. He rendered mankind naked, with all of its goodness and failings. He questioned society's institutions, rejecting the stereotypically benign nature of the underprivileged classes while attacking the oppressive optimism of the bourgeoisie, the hypocrisy of the church, and the immoral subjugation by the forces of order.

Throughout his career, Bunuel zealously guarded his private life from public curiosity. This man who revealed nothing of his inner self, captured on celluloid the extremes of human nature, creating some of the most powerful images in the history of cinema. Perhaps the best way to understand the man is to understand the era in which he lived. But Bunuel was not merely a reflection of his times. He was a visionary who took film into new dimensions, forever flaunting the unexpected.

Alberto Casciero is associate vice president for the learning resources at the University of the District of Columbia. A filmmaker and critic, he is the author of Washington, D.C. en Espanol.
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Title Annotation:Director Luis Bunuel
Author:Casciero, Alberto
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1993
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