Bright Lights Film Journal

Young Ones and Swan Songs: Luis Bunuel in Mexico, Bela Tarr in Edinburgh

“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.

Kicking off the list in 1947, Gran Casino was Bunuel's first film of any kind for many years. Dismissed as a "musical" (I didn't realise that these aren't real films), it's also a marvelous outing for a couple of top-of-the-bill singers — Jorge Negrete and Libertad Lamarque. The latter was known as the Queen of Tango, and, underlining her charisma, it seems Argentina was too small to hold both Lamarque and Eva Peron. Argentina's loss, however, was Mexico's gain — and Bunuel's. As a (then only slightly deaf) banjo player who could dub as well as edit with the best of them, he's very at ease with the genre and, like all good directors, not exclusively fixated on the visual. Lamarque, by the way, is given a blatantly Peronist role, fighting with charm, wit, and courage for the poor against the rich. Fiction though it is, this must have felt like sweet revenge for her involuntary exile.

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.

As for truly forgettable films, from '51 there's A Woman Without Love "quite simply the worst movie I ever made." Not having seen it, I'll take Bunuel's word. Unreliably, though, in My Last Sigh he says far too much about making the perfect martini and far too little about making movies. In fairness, the frustrating reticence feels more like impatience with self-analysis than an attempt to enhance his mystique. The point is important because the one thing we can't attribute to Bunuel is a deep interest in psychoanalysis. Yes, when it suits him he uses personal material, including his own dreams. But most of his analytical energies are addressed to one very practical issue: how to avoid over-predictable story-telling. (More of that when we come to Bela Tarr.)

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.

But these scenes have another important function, acting as a kind of old-world courtesy: if you object to the general direction of travel, please walk out — or press eject — now. If you do stay, don't be surprised when all of a sudden it no longer seems unnatural for a grown man to seduce a thirteen-year-old girl. A bit later, don't ask why a seducer of young teenagers should help a falsely accused black man to evade the law. Finally, don't give way to bewildered (and faintly cynical) laughter when removal from her lover's reach — by a handsome young Baptist minister — provokes the thought that Evvie (Key Meersman) might not be heading for a purer life after all . . . 

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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." 

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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.)

The bus ride itself is, of course, full of incident, not least the relentless play made for our hero by a seductress who has clearly been taking lessons from that Devil Woman, Susana. (The two films were made only about a month or so apart.) The trip is also the source of some unintended fun at the expense of the pathetic model buses used for literal cliff-edge drama. Bunuel confesses embarrassment at the crudity of these models, but if anything they made me love the film all the more. 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. 

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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.)

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Finally to Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse — and given the sombre statements being made by a director still only fifty-six years old, I hope this isn't literally his last film. The Turin Horse was inspired by that fateful moment in Nietzsche's life when he hugged the neck of a cab-horse to prevent further beatings from an exasperated cab driver. The incident stood out because bystanders soon noticed that the horse's wildly gesticulating rescuer was clearly in need of rescue himself. The one clear utterance that has gone into folklore is: "Mother, I am stupid." ("Mutti, Ich bin dumm.")

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.

In his post-film Q&A I picked out: "my whole body, not just my heart"; "deep"; "suffering"; "not a comedy"; "not really interested in film-making"; "fucking stories!" That last is so wilfully perverse I saw a strong and immediate link to the scandalising, sometimes physically disgusting, "I-am-not-a-writer" Bunuel. I thought, too, of the Spanish Civil War and Bunuel's violent loathing of all violence, political or otherwise. He felt this was a sign of his "timidity." Yet, luckily for us, he turned it into some ferociously brave movies. So, in the strange universes of avant-garde film, it seems that cries of impotence can somehow, at the same time, be calls to arms. And at this point of bewildered/bewildering logic, I think I understand why, though given such a great opportunity, I couldn't come up with a single question for Bela Tarr without feeling that, from a position very much the opposite of arrogance, I knew the answer.