Monday, November 07, 2005

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Luis Bunuel

Re: Great Directors

The Films of Luis Bunuel
Bunuel’s movies are rarely easy to summarize or categorize. His career as director scans several decades and due to the strikingly original nature of his work, many are considered without compare. It would be hard today to find a film that could be confused with Exterminating Angel, L’Age D’or, or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisies. Luis Bunuel is acknowledged (along with Andre Breton and others) as being one of the founders of surrealism – a style that informs all of his work in unique and unpredictable ways. Bunuel’s writings, while not widely read, range from surrealist fragments to insightful expressions of criticism for film and the theater along with his autobiographical musings. Highly influential and yet rarely imitated (successfully), Bunuel’s movies were created in many countries, as the maverick filmmaker seemed to find it difficult to call anywhere his home for very long. Financial support for his work varied from year to year and from place to place, and yet he was able to make strikingly original movies on several continents for comparably far less money than many of his more celebrated peers.

1) Un Chien Andaldou (1929)
Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali proclaim the death of rationality in this short film that has earned its rightful exalted place at the dawn of the surrealist movement. One of the most oft-quoted works in the history of film, movie-goers have seen many of the famous images without ever seeing the work as a whole. Eyes are sliced open by razors, flowers and stigmata appear in the hands of angels, and buildings burn to ash with the same detached level of observation. The editing allows the images to move quickly, as if a great host of scenarios were passing on a speeding train of light.

2) Los Olvidados (1950)
Los Olvidados stands as one of the most visionary of all Bunuel films, and is one of several undying masterpieces from his Mexico City period (1940’s – 1950’s). A viewing of the film today reveals its influence on an entire new genre of movies that might include Amores Perros, Ratcatcher, George Washington, Elephant, and City of God.

Translated to English as The Forgotten Ones, Los Olvidados received scathing criticism from the Mexican film industry. Friends close to Bunuel also complained of the portrayal of impoverished youth struggling to create social order and resist a criminal life on the streets of Mexico City. In a style remnant of Italian neo-realism at one turn and, during the nightmare dream sequences, producing effects that recall his surrealist collaborations with Salvador Dali, Bunuel handles the children’s violent deeds while refraining from romanticizing or criticizing his subject. He refuses to answer the questions that accompany the social problems inherent in the movie, which frees the film from unwanted moralizing or the urge to provide a happy ending.

Bunuel is said to have spent a great deal of time in the capital city’s slums befriending the criminal youth (Stephen Hart – Bunuel’s Box of Subaltern Tricks ©2004), and the result is not unlike Larry Clark’s 1995 shockumentary, Kids. 54 years after its creation, Los Olvidados haunts us with images of children relying on little other than their courage to survive life on the streets.

3) The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955)
On the eve of the Mexican Revolution, young Archibaldo de la Cruz believes that he has wished the death of his nanny while contemplating his mother’s music box. Moving to “the present”, the film hovers from flashback to present tense, where Senior de la Cruz is confessing a myriad of imagined crimes, all tenderly illuminated by Augustin Jimenez’ crisp photography and shuffled along with some of Bunuel’s most deftly satirical and comic romps. The music box becomes Sr. de la Cruz’s principal fetish, which accompanies, (and re-kindles) his penchant for murdering women. Will he conquer his obsessions and get the girl? If so, how do we define “get”…check it out and see for yourself.

4) Nazarin (1959)
One of the most beautifully photographed of all Bunuel films, Nazarin captures the harsh Mexican landscape for a tale of a turn-of-the century wandering cleric who has shed his priest’s garmentsin hopes of comforting the poor, free from the Church’s chastising shadow. He is accompanied by two desperate women and an assortment of life’s outcasts. His is a Christlike effort, to wring charity out of a peasantry locked in the absurd cruelty of their environment, but also locked into the very material reality of being human. (PFA guide)

5) The Exterminating Angel (1962)
This film holds a special place in my heart as it is the confessed all-time favorite film of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beffheart). The cream of Mexican society gather for a meal only to find themselves mysteriously held captive by nothing other than their own inexplicable anxieties in this utterly unique meditation on class and meaninglessness.

6) Belle du Jour (1967)
Catherine Deneuve descends into the subconscious of the upper middle-class and turns idle afternoons into a foray of prostitution and sexual perversion in order to exorcize a few of her formative demons in this hypnotic examination of power and sex. An obvious influence on films like Barbet Schroeder’s Maitrese, Polanski’s Repulsion and many others.

7) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
In Luis Buñuel’s deliciously satiric masterpiece, an upper-class sextet sits down to dinner but never eats, their attempts continually thwarted by a vaudevillian mixture of events both actual and imagined. Fernando Rey, Stéphane Audran, Delphine Seyring, and Jean-Pierre Cassel head the extraordinary cast of this 1972 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. (Summary: The Criterion Collection)


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