“Attempts to create interesting projects of any sort despite our limitations can sometimes touch us more deeply than slick illusions that — literally by design — hide a lot of skill and effort, yet, in so doing, also hide something of the crazy courage it takes just to be human.”
Recent DVD transfers have not yet exhausted the list of twenty or so Bunuel movies produced in Mexico between the late '40s and the early '60s. But already the Great Anarchist/Irrationalist is re-emerging as one of the most disciplined and lucid of internationally renowned artists. (Don't know about other Bunuelistas, but that's the position I'm being driven toward.)
Shot in the slums of Mexico City, Los Olvidados, from 1950, remains one of the most searing stabs at social realism in world cinema. The trouble is it has become too handy a stick to beat Bunuel for his other Mexican films. With so few available to view, until a couple of years ago it was seen as the only roadworthy vehicle in a wrecking-yard of hastily made, commercially minded low-budgeters.
Yes, alright, Bunuel himself admits that some of his Mexican known unknowns are "perfectly routine." In the case of Susana/The Devil and the Flesh (1951) this means stock characters, slick acting, music only as background, heavy plotting throughout, and the obligatory happy ending. But amongst it all we catch glimpses of the more familiar Bunuel: in the very first scene, the reformatory girl/femme fatale spits through her cell door at a female guard whose flinch is pretty convincing. Another Bunuelism: in the same cell there's a live bat along with scurrying rats and spiders. Susana, meantime, escapes, only to guarantee her recapture by playing devil woman to all the men at the hacienda that gave her shelter. Routine, maybe — but sexy.
In a rare use of intellectual jargon, he describes The Young One, shot near Acapulco in 1960, as anti-Manichean — that is, possessed of a wish to usurp black-and-white morality schemes. Those who can spot this element in all his movies might say, Gracias por la explicacion, Luis. Less ironically, we might thank him for revealing that his philosophic interests are shaped far more by Christianity's founding fathers than by Freud. (Lest this be misunderstood, anyone less anti-Semitic than Bunuel, particularly in his generation of artists and intellectuals, would be hard to find.)
Meanwhile, in The Young One we have a scenario about underage sex and race hatred that, hardly having begun, puts side by side a hunted rabbit's death throes and a racoon gnawing at a puzzled hen, her somewhat agitated sisters looking on. If we didn't know before, this tells us that the surrealist view of Nature owes more to Darwin than Wordsworth.
* * *
The Young One was the second of only two English-language films Bunuel ever made: the first was his 1952 adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, also shot near Acapulco. Though there is some sexualisation of Crusoe's character that goes beyond the original, this Crusoe seems fit for Family Viewing without assuming it's the Addams family we have in mind.
I watched it because it's Bunuel and because it's Daniel Defoe, credited as "the founding father of literary realism." Why, though, did Bunuel go out of his Hispanic adult way to film an English "children's" classic? Of course, there's the theme of exile — something Bunuel, like many other left-wing Spaniards, was living out in the long Franco years after World War II. A very poignant scene shows Dan O'Herlihy's Crusoe in the Valley of Echoes, howling in drunken despair and only deepening his sense of isolation. In voice-over, the screenplay also repeatedly emphasises our basic need for other people. But it also strikes me that Defoe's scenario, with its deliberately skewed approach to white middle-class Christian values, is a perfect choice for someone who never lost sight of the basic tenets of surrealism.
Life-or-death situations make anti-Manicheans of us all, it seems; and from Bunuel's Mexico in 1956, Death in the Garden stays in my mind as anti-Manichean to a tee. Given unusual space in the autobiography, the making of the film obviously unsettled Bunuel's fairly serene working temperament. The second of two French-language features made in Mexico (I haven't seen Cela s'appelle l'Aurore from 1955), the version I watched was an atrocious TV video transfer done in 1977. Except in night scenes, all bright areas of the screen — clothes or clouds — are a blindingly fauviste white/lemon-green. But again it's Bunuel and it stars Simone Signoret.
As she demonstrated in Jacques Becker's Casque d'Or (1952), this actress could deconstruct heart-of-gold-whore into something so real, so far beyond cliché, that directors of the time with any artistic pretensions were jostling to work with her. Unfortunately, all that fuss doesn't seem to have dampened her prima donna tendencies. On top of that, Bunuel was struggling with the French script — though this is not about language skills: Bunuel was a francophile/francophone who proudly maintained his long marriage to Jeanne. Here we're talking about someone who, with typical perversity, denied being a writer at all — which is why he pays such tribute to his script collaborators, particularly Jean-Claude Carriere in the last great series of French movies.
Luis Alcoriza — actor, writer, and later a director himself — worked with Bunuel on the screenplays of Los Olvidados, El Bruto, and El aka A Strange Passion (both 1953). In 1962 Alcoriza was there again on The Exterminating Angel, a film long available to world audiences and regarded by many as Bunuel's most successful piece of surrealism, certainly in his Mexican output.
Each of these collaborations is hallmarked by the acidity of its social comment; and Alcoriza is on the credits again for Death in the Garden. In fact, judging from the feel of those other joint scenarios, I suspect this writer's input survives Spanish-to-French language issues better than the beleaguered Bunuel remembers. It was an intensely busy period, and the Alcoriza/Bunuel chemistry (biological weapons factory?) had, in fact, already begun in '49 with The Great Madcap — a screwball satire on complacent wealth that, for me, all too successfully evokes physical disgust. (Again, more when we get to Bela Tarr.)
For me, Death in the Garden proved interesting, if only as a first feint at exploring the subject we saw centre stage in The Young One: brutally rough older male paired with gentle, much younger female. Admittedly, by allowing the unlikely couple to row off into the sunset, the ending of Death in the Garden is very un-Bunuelish. So I can see why an artist obsessed with the futility of desire describes it as "anomalous."
* * *
Mexican Bus Ride, or Ascent to Heaven, is a 2006 DVD release from Yume Pictures. The quote on the cover from the Chicago Reader calls it "Bunuel's brightest, most pleasant film." Even if we have been getting a better idea of this director from his lesser-known Mexican work — Bunuel pleasant? And might not his own fondness for a film made right after Woman Without Love simply reflect relief? But this brilliant observation-based comedy of rural life is, I think, not only one of the director's best films but among the best of its kind from any era.
The scenario is "based on some adventures that actually happened to my friend and producer, the poet Altolaguirre." Bunuel's last directorial work before Mexico was Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan, a 30-minute documentary made in 1933 among the rural poor of one of Spain's remotest regions. Despite the gap in time, I think this explains the apparent ease with which Bunuel takes to the road again. But to help convey a sense of — in this case joyous — poetic realism, Bunuel is very happy to use conventional story structure. So we go straight into a young couple's wedding night suddenly put on hold (futility again!) by the illness of the groom's mother. Legalising the will is urgent — she wants a town house to go to her young grandson, not the two most grabbing of her own sons. So the favourite son, whose wedded bliss has just been postponed, must take the bus to find a lawyer. (The local man is drunk and, in any case, a crony of the greedy sons.)
* * *
I think the moment has almost come to talk about Bela Tarr, whose latest — and possibly last — film, The Turin Horse, was in Edinburgh this year. But before sending Bunuel back to whatever regions can actually hold him, I must report brief sightings of him hovering around the two other films I saw at the festival. First to call him forth again was one of his favourite actresses, the ever-young Catherine Deneuve, taking the title role in La Potiche/The Trophy Wife (2010). This ought to have been a more memorable cinematic event, what with Depardieu well cast as a 1980s provincial union boss and director Ozon's proven handling of off-beat scripts and feminist perspectives. Unfortunately, I found it all a bit cobwebby and — except for the sight of Deneuve filling her dishwasher — as far from startling as you can go without a defibrillator. But remember I'm the guy who sat through the whole of Mamma Mia without so much as twitching a toe.
Going from retrospective French comedy to the equally retrospective Puerto Rican thriller/horror genre, we dial back to Matthew Parkhill's second feature, The Caller. Written with Scotland's own Sergio Casci, this is about a young woman in the middle of a messy divorce in modern San Juan. But it's in the retro element that things really get creepy: a woman claiming to live in the late '70s starts making a series of nuisance phone calls while, at the same time, the reluctant ex begins his own series of threatening visits.
The strongest elements of the film are woven around the subject of disturbed (and disturbing) minds, and so it's no surprise to learn that Parkhill's pre-media career involved several jobs "at the least glamorous end of the American psychiatric system." Without giving anything away, I did guess the denouement almost immediately and — unlikely as it must seem — I achieved this remarkable feat by using Bunuel's personally devised trigonometry for predicting plot outcomes. (I could say more, but information like that doesn't come free.)
* * *
If we were expecting a story about the philosopher's last ten years in a state of total mental collapse, we had to think again, because — apart from some onscreen titles letting us in on the Nietzsche reference — from beginning to end, the film defiantly follows the non-famous, the non-storied, the non-legendary. In this case, that meant: a tired horse; an old man with only one good arm, and his able-bodied grown-up daughter. Their pointlessly repetitive lives are lived in a permanent gale — a wind of changelessness that blows in only two visitors to their rustic hovel: a neighbour buying a bottle of the local moonshine; and a group of gypsies who, in a rare burst of conversation, urge our static, non-heroic, non-philosophers to go with them to America!
It's not giving much away to say they don't take up the offer, but with relief I cite the spoiler tradition to avoid proffering my own understanding of the denouement. However, for anyone not aware of Tarr's characteristic style, I'll add that, over the last twenty-five years or so, he's been the leading — often the only — exponent of the lugubrious long take. In this sense he could hardly be more different from the quickfire Bunuel. But — exactly like Bunuel — he always shows an exquisite appreciation of the role of soundtrack and music. And if Bunuel praises writing collaborators like Alcoriza and Carriere, Tarr is equally aware of what he owes, in film after film, to the musical genius of Mihaly Vig, present and much better than correct on The Turin Horse. Perhaps, though, it's the sparest, least layered deployment of sound technology in any of Tarr's films. And this is certainly one reason I felt an acute sense of loss.