Friday, March 26, 2010

All You're Ever Going To See: Thoughts On A Technical Glitch--Bunuel Review #5

?/5 Abismos de Pasion (Wuthering Heights, 1954)

I have never read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, but apparently it was a favorite of the Surrealist group in Paris as a precursor to some of their own work, because it deals with a passion and obsession that completely overwhelms law and logic. As far as I know, this was Bunuel's only costume drama, though he occasionally adapted works of classic literature and set them in the present day. From the looks of it, Abismos de Pasion is a semi-faithful adaptation and full of some characteristic Bunuelian tropes, such as turning one of the characters (Linton, perhaps, here called Jose) into an amateur bug collector and the use of
Wagner's Tristan and Isolde in the final scene, which may be a Bunuel invention, where the Heathcliff character, called Alejandro here, breaks into Catherine's sarcophagus to be with her and hold her hand one last time. He is gunned down as he hallucinates her visage in a wedding dress.

Now for the hard part: I've only seen nine minutes of Abismos de Pasion. Why? Because I couldn't find suitable subtitles for it. I know, I know... I feel as though I should watch it without subtitles and just try to enjoy it that way--my Spanish skills might lend me about a 5% comprehension of the dialogue, but I could watch it for the "visual language," as the hardest core cinephiles call it, and perhaps, through the acting, blocking, and camera movements, come to understand most of the film.

But with twenty or more Bunuel films still to watch or rewatch and write reviews of, it seems pointless to spend a few hours on a film that only I and a handful of English-speaking IMDB obsessives (and, of course, the entire Spanish-speaking world, who probably don't read my blog) will ever watch and which my comprehension of will only be spotty at best.

There were a single set of English language subtitles on, but their timing, when applied to the .avi file containing the film, was so far off that I couldn't really tell who was saying what. There is a way in the free, excellent VLC video player to mess with the timing of subtitles and offset it a few seconds earlier or later, so that you can adjust bad subtitles to fit the film, but the problem I encountered, watching the first two scenes with the subtitles was that the offset even between scenes was different: the first scene started out 4 seconds too fast, then only two, then it was on, and the second scene was showing subtitles about 6 seconds too early, from what I could tell. The translations seemed correct, but the timing was awful.

This suggests another possible problem, as it seems weird that someone would make subtitles with the timing so far off: there may be two different cuts of the film floating around, one for which the subtitles are on time, and another for which they are off. As I remember, the video file that I downloaded was the only one I could find, though now I'll certainly try downloading another copy and seeing if the subtitles fit it. And although I would certainly watch a print with accurate subtitles, it seems troubling that I wouldn't necessarily know or be able to tell which print was the more "correct" original release.

To the best of my knowledge, this is also one of the films which is unavailable for sale anywhere with English subtitles.

I watched the final scene without subtitles and enjoyed it--maybe at the end of the project I'll just suck it up and watch the film as is. Until then, I'm chalking it up with the other unseeable films: two which are unavailable with English subs and must be purchased to be seen and two more which are just unavailable.
I have to admit that along with Godard, another favorite of mine, Bunuel is just one of those universally recognized masters of cinema whose films are easier to read about than to actually get ahold of and watch.


My faith in the internet has just been restored. I found the correct subtitles at Check this site out: tons of Bunuel available for download here!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)--Bunuel Review #4

A year later, when the film had been nominated for an Oscar, four Mexican reporters tracked us down at El Paular, where we were already at work on another project. During lunch, they asked if I thought I was going to win that Oscar.
"Of course," I replied between bites, "I've already paid the twenty-five thousand dollars they wanted. Americans may have their weakness but they do keep their promises."

--Luis Bunuel, from his autobiography, My Last Sigh

5/5--The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Criterion Collection)

Bunuel considered this film (which did indeed win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in '72) the second part in a triptych of films dealing with similar themes, especially, as Bunuel puts it, "the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it as soon as you've found it." In this case, although the film is quite comedic, this truth is rather harsh: the bourgeois characters are silly, self-involved and superficial, though they do have intermittently attractive qualities.

I can't speak on the first film of the trilogy, The Milky Way, which I haven't seen, but which apparently deals with religious themes as well as the satire of bourgeois culture found in the other two films. The final film, which was Bunuel's second to last, is The Phantom of Liberty, which is quite good and marks a return to the free-associational filmmaking style of Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or.

Compared to Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is more heavily rooted in the dream world and contains many wonderful dream sequences and dream-like occurences, such as cockroaches crawling out of a piano which has been converted into an electric torture device and a beautiful revolutionary showing up at the house of the ambassador from a made-up South American country (played with a lot of spunk by frequent Bunuel collaborator, Fernando Rey) with a bag filled with lettuce, a handgun and "the key to dreams."

The basic plot of Discreet Charm, which is superficially similar to Bunuel's late Mexican film The Exterminating Angel, follows a group of wealthy upper class friends who are constantly thwarted in their attempts to have dinner with one another (though they always seem to find time to sleep around.) The guests arrive late or on the wrong day, get arrested, end up at restaurants that are either out of food or having a wake, get barged in on by a military squadron that is preparing for maneuvers, and eventually get gunned down by terrorists, although by this point the film is entirely taking place in the realm of dreams.

The film is essentially a surrealist black comedy, and satirizes the upper crust's obsession with food and drink, as well as the ridiculous niceties of etiquette, and (did I mention?) it is full of uproarious moments, such as when one of the dinner guests at a General's house tries on the General's Napoleon memento, and Rey remarks that it is a "ghastly" and "slightly effeminate hat."
A few more things: there is a recurring character who plays various young military men and recounts some startlingly frightening dreams, such as one where he meets dead friends and relatives on an empty street, which is obviously a cardboard set.
Another dream, involves an elaborate table setting with fine food that suddenly, reflexively, turns into a stage with a jeering audience and a man in a box whispering lines to the guests, who are shocked speechless.

All in all, this film feels like a revue for the 29 films that preceded it, a real-career capping achievement, which can either be a good place to spark a new obsession with Bunuel or go to see the old master again at the peak of his game. By the end of the film, the viewer is unsure what in the film was dream or reality, but Bunuel uses the dreams quite aptly to humanize the victims of his otherwise viscous comic satire, and we come out of the film feeling like we know them all quite intimately and even (gasp!) like them a little bit.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Notes on Belle and Simon, esp. Cinematography--Bunuel Review #3

4/5 Belle du Jour (Woman of the Day, 1967, available in Martin Scorsese-sponsored Miramax edition)

5/5 Simon of the Desert (1965, available through the Criterion Collection)

I'd like to start off by saying that Belle de Jour is a very good picture and everyone with an interest in Bunuel should see it and form their own opinion about it. It's a classic of French cinema, a milestone for Surrealist cinema, features some very famous French actors (Catherine Deneuve is famous enough to even get name-dropped in something as mainstream as TV's Gray's Anatomy and Michel Piccoli, who starred in Godard's Contempt, also has a large role--they're both in the picture below.) But in terms of Bunuel's other pictures, in my opinion, it is only a very good picture among a host of total masterpieces.

I have been trying to pinpoint why Belle de Jour has never been a favorite of mine. The film deals with the life of a wealthy young woman who is somewhat frigid with her handsome doctor husband, but has wild masochistic sexual fantasies. She decides to start working at a whorehouse on the first anniversary of their marriage, where she hopes to find her much-wanted sexual degradation. It is definitely an intriguing picture and full of more feminist sentiment than one might expect.

Belle de Jour was Bunuel's first collaboration with Jean-Claude Carriere, who co-scripted almost all of Bunuel's films from this point on (Bunuel always enlisted the help of other writers and he had a particularly good relationship with Carriere, who he maintained a close friendship with until his death.) It is also the first in the string of late art house masterpieces and near-masterpieces that Bunuel made in France in his third and final period of filmmaking. Of the four of these I've seen, I would rank them with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire vying for the first slot, The Phantom of Liberty coming in a close second and Belle de Jour easily in third.

In any case, I think Belle De Jour has a great script and I think it is excellent in it's characterization of Severine (a.k.a. Belle de Jour, played by Catherine Deneuve) and especially so in it's characterization of her jealous lumpen proletarian boyfriend, Marcel (played to perfection by Pierre Clementi), who ends up sending her husband into a wheelchair-bound coma and gets shot down in the street in a scene quite reminiscent of the final moments of Godard's Breathless.

My main problem, actually, is the cinematography. This is strange because the cinematographer Sascha Vierny lensed some of the most visually stunning movies I've ever seen, including having a long working relationship with both Alain Resnais--for whom he shot notoriously beautiful films like Night and Fog and Last Year at Marienbad--and, much later, the little-known, but immensely talented Raul Ruiz, working on Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and The Three Crowns of the Sailor, among others.

The key may lie again in Bunuel's autobiography, where Bunuel, though he doesn't specifically talk about Vierny, makes fun of people who speak of him as a stylist, because "aesthetic concerns never occupied much of my time." Bunuel is character-driven, plot-driven, idea-driven, and image-driven, but he's right--style is rarely a factor. Although Resnais and Ruiz are in many ways Bunuel's worshiping surrealist disciples, they are definitely very style-oriented filmmakers: Resnais is often accused of ripping off style-as-content avant-garde filmmakers from the U.S. in Marienbad and Ruiz is as much a disciple of Orson Welles' showy, beautiful chiascoro-lit compositions as he is, in every other matter, following in Bunuel's footsteps.

Vierny doesn't seem to have much to do here--there are a lot of complex tracking shots, coming well before the invention of steadicam, which must have been challenging to execute, but seem a little too self-consciously mannered and showy for a great Bunuel film. It's as if Bunuel didn't know what to do with such an arty cinematographer and just left him to rove around the set with a crane. The style in your typical Bunuel film--if you can speak of cinematographic style in his films at all--is very upfront, matter-of-fact and even in-your-face, which is rarely the case here.

The other great cinematographer that Bunuel worked with was Gabriel Figueroa, on his last Mexican film, Simon of the Desert. Figueroa seemed to really understand Bunuel's style and perhaps too, with Simon stuck on top of the pillar for most of the film, there was necessarily less roving around--many of the tracking shots feel extremely economical and there are many gorgeous stationary camera compositions.

Simon of the Desert follows, as I mentioned in another review, the life of a religious ascetic who lives and prays, unwashed and unshaven, on top of a tall, but not very spacious pillar in the middle of the desert.The whole film is a reworking, as I understand it, of Christ's Temptation, and based on the lives of a few saints who actually did habitate the tops of pillars. Simon is filled with some of the most hilarious bits of (sac)religiously-themed humor to be found anywhere, though there are basically only two actors at work for most of the hour long film, Silvia Pinal as the Devil-as-woman-in-various-costumes(and who also played the lead role as the chaste do-gooder in Viridiana) and Claudio Brook as the long-suffering Simon.

Simon of the Desert is definitely one of the masterpieces and I won't even go into the details of the plot any further, which everyone should discover for themselves, and just say that it is one of the most stunning works, visually and otherwise, in a long career filled with various moments of shock and awe.* It is interesting to ponder that many people have referred to Bunuel as one of the most religious of filmmakers, even though half his life's work is explicitly making fun of the Church. The Milky Way, apparently, is so full of clerical in-jokes that some people accused Bunuel of having become a convert. He followed it up with a vicious satire of a the priesthood in Discreet Charm though, and I doubt anyone questioned his religious opinions again.
* (Pauline Kael's review of this film is especially good and a little more critical. A selection of her reviews, which were my movie watching bible for half a year or more can be found at your local library or on my bookshelf, if you're so inclined.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Three Early Films of Luis Bunuel (1929-33)--Bunuel Review #2

"Don't worry if the movie's too short, I'll just put in a dream" - Luis Bunuel

5/5 Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929)
5/5 L'Age d'Or (The Golden Age, 1930)
4/5 Las Hurdes, Tierra Sin Pan (Land Without Bread, 1933)

By this point, I've read so much about these three films that I risk plagiarizing other writers if I'm not careful. The three best bits of writing about this period in Bunuel's career come from former Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (his article, "One-Man Armada," available here,) Carlos Fuentes' article from the 70s, "The Discreet Charm of Luis Bunuel" (found in a book of mine, but excerpted here) and from Bunuel's autobiography My Last Sigh, the English translation of which Rosenbaum (who would know) insists is poor and incomplete, but which I did read and enjoy.

From Bunuel, in translation:

"Un Chien Andalou was born of the encounter between my dreams and Dali's. Later I brought dreams directly into my films, trying as hard as I could to avoid any analysis."

"Like the senoritos [radical students] I knew in Madrid, most surrealists came from good families; as in my case, they were bourgeoisie revolting against the bourgeoisie. But we all felt a certain destructive impulse, a feeling that for me has been even stronger than the creative urge."

From Fuentes, about L'Age D'Or:

"The first break with Dali came on the first day of shooting L'Age d'Or, their second joint venture. They got the money from a Parisian angel called the Comtesse de Noailles, who at the same time was financing Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poete. The Castor-and-Pollux relationship between the two Spaniards seems to have been severely damaged when Dali fell in love with Gala, Paul Eluard's wife, [my note: Gala remained Dali's companion until his death] and Bunuel tried to strangle the lady on a rock at Cadaques because he saw in her a diabolical influence. In any case Dali stayed on the set of L'Age d'Or for exactly one day."

From Rosenbaum:

"Land Without Bread is above all a metaphysical statement, with all the strengths and limitations that implies. It’s also an intricate unpacking of the documentary form rather than a simple adoption of it, and a mockery of touristic observation in general."

In addition to these writings, I also spoke to one of my film professors last fall about my obsession with Bunuel and he suggested seeing all of his early films, because they have "symbols and motifs that are carried from film to film, much like Werner Herzog's early films."

I would go even further to say that these three films (I've been familiar with the first two for a long time, but Land Without Bread was unavailable to me until I went on a downloading spree recently) contain virtually all the seeds of what would come to fruition in Bunuel's numerous later films, from his first Mexican film--1947's Gran Casino--to his final film, 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire. In evidence here are Bunuel's various fascinations and obsessions: with Freud's essay on the Uncanny, including doubles; with deviant sexuality and sexual obsession; with extreme and often inexplicable violence; with satire of the upper and middle classes and the church; with the music of Richard Wagner; with the Marquis de Sade's and the Old Testament's imagery; a clear-eyed, sympathetic look at the struggles and suffering of the poor; and even ecology and etymology, which he studied at the University of Madrid.

It's hard to know what else to say about Un Chien Andalou that hasn't been heard before--a free-associational seventeen minute silent short, definite inspirations from Freud, about a half and half contribution from both Bunuel and Dali (though Bunuel claims he did all the shooting), Chaplain listed it among his favorite films, an inspiration for artists as diverse as Hitchcock and David Bowie, and the famous Bunuel quote that he intended the film as "nothing less than a call to assassination." I read somewhere--it may have been the autobiography--that, despite Bunuel's training as an etymologist, the image of ants crawling out of a hole in a man's hand came from Dali's dreams, and the image of a man slashing open a woman's eyeball came from Bunuel's. This may even be supported diagetically by the fact that Bunuel himself is seen in the film doing the slicing. According to several sources, the film gained Bunuel entry into the Surrealist group in Paris, which included Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Ernst, Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, both of whom also made a few excellent short films in the same period.

L'Age d'Or may be the better film and it's much closer to the rest of Bunuel's body of work. It starts with a group of guerillas who are nearly dead tramping up a hill to kill some priests, then moves on to the founding of Rome, and, hence, the founding of Western Civilization by bourgeoisie who arrive in boats. One particular bourgeoisie, the main character--who may be a foil for Bunuel himself--played by Gaston Modot, is seen cavorting in the mud with a pretty young flapper, apparently trying to rape her. The founders come over and arrest him, but he breaks free from them long enough to kick a poodle. He's led away by two detectives, and keeps having sexual thoughts and memories of the girl as he is led past advertising signs for leggings and hair products (Fuentes rightly notes that this might be the earliest on film critique of consumer society.)

After that, Gaston produces a note from the International Goodwill Society that claims he's an ambassador and breaks into an uppercrust party where the girl is staying, while the groundskeeper (perhaps in reference to the story of Abraham and Issac) shoots his son for slapping something out of his hand.

The man flirts with the flapper (played by Lya Lys) by humiliating some of the guests and then they sneak away into a hedged garden, where, after playing some S&M games by biting each others hands, she fellates the toe of a statue of Caesar while a small orchestra plays Wagner. The conductor wanders away from the Orchestra and into their presence, where Lya promptly starts making out with him. Meanwhile, the man has returned to her bedroom and ripped her pillows apart with a plow. After he throws everything he can find out the window, including a burning pine tree, a cow, a priest, and a paper-mache giraffe, the film cuts to Jesus and several other men leaving a De Sade-type orgy in a castle and to a final shot of women's scalps nailed to the cross.

All of this is characteristic of Bunuel, and L'Age d'Or is Bunuel at his wildest and most irreverent. It is an early sound film--some sequences are only accompanied by music, there is little actual dialogue or diegetic sound, and intertitles are still used--but, at an hour's length, it is hardly painful to watch. There is even a bizarre sequence with scorpions attacking each other and killing a rat.

The film is a riot for modern viewers, who will probably not be as shocked and offended as those who actually rioted in 1930, and I personally enjoy it a lot as both a retrospective commentary on what was considered extremely inappropriate in the 30s and as a startling example of free associational, off-the-cuff filmmaking. Even this early, the power and inventiveness of Bunuel's images is startling, although there are some points where it's obvious he has yet to really master the finer points of filmmaking.

Land Without Bread or Las Hurdes, as it's usually referred to, is a short 27-minute documentary that Bunuel made in a very poor and undeveloped region of Spain. He writes in his autobiography that he felt like he grew up in the Middle Ages, and this film bears some of that sentiment. Compared to his vicious satire of the bourgeoisie and religion in L'Age d'Or, it is almost as shocking how much care and concern he has for the villagers of Las Hurdes, although he strictly resists sentimentality, as always, and looks without a blink at the variety of horrors in the region.

I think Jonathan Rosenbaum's suggestion that this is an "unpacking" of documentary and has a comment to make on tourism is quite insightful. We hear only an offscreen narrator and music--there is no diegetic sound. There are plenty of derisive comments about the relative wealth of the church versus the poverty of the people and one is made to feel more than a little uncomfortable that the camera is here filming this and there is no evidence that help is coming.

There is even an interesting voyeuristic scene, where the filmmakers catch a starved feverish woman sleeping, unbeknownst to her, while telling us just that--a sort of sick joke about third-world tourism, if there ever was one.

Bunuel seems to delight in a couple of burned out monasteries and in filming the barefoot children at school. He's quite aware of the ecology of the place, which is invariably harsh, ultimately damning the people to poverty and disease, and there is a lot of toungue in cheek hinting toward a Marxist solution.

A few years after filming Las Hurdes, Bunuel left Spain for New York as the end of the Spanish Civil War neared. The Spanish Civil War is often thought of by historians as a testing ground for many of the weapons and ideological conflicts of World War II--the Nazi and Italian Fascists supported Franco's military coup and the Soviets, along with many volunteers from the U.S., France and Britain, fought on the side of the Republic. The only difference is that, in Spain, the Fascists won and Franco's regime lasted into the early 1970s.

It's apparent from Bunuel's autobiography that he had sympathies with the Communists in the Civil War, who were, by all accounts, the best organized resistance to Franco, but this wasn't enough to keep him from getting a job at the New York MOMA re-editing Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will as an anti-Nazi documentary to be shown to U.S. Senators. Unfortunately, Dali came to New York with Gala to publish his autobiography, which accused Bunuel of being an atheist (he was) and a communist (only a fellow traveler), and he was forced to resign and move out to Hollywood, where he lived with his wife and two children for several years co-scripting other peoples pictures before finally fleeing to Mexico at the first sight of the Hollywood Blacklist. All in all, it would be fourteen years after Las Hurdes until Bunuel released another film.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ascent to Heaven (1952)--Bunuel Review #1


Ascent to Heaven (American release title: Mexican Bus Ride), from early in Bunuel's Mexican period, is one of his gentlest pictures, in contrast to the Hell-On-Earth Neo-Realist-style masterpiece from two years earlier, Los Olvidados. It deals with the adventures of a young man, Oliverio, who must come to his mother's death bed on his wedding night to see that her will is drawn up. Oliverio (Estaban Marquez) has to travel to see a lawyer, who is several days away by bus, so he leaves his untouched bride to care for his mother, and many adventures ensue, as the bus is full of very colorful (but hardly Capra-kitschy) travelers.

Several things that happen worth noting: the bus gets stuck in a fog on the one lane dirt road leading up a mountain and comes head to head with another vehicle which can't reverse while a passenger on the bus gives birth; the bus has to cross a river and gets stuck--the up-and-coming politician insists at the point of a gun that a tractor (the symbol of progress) pull them out, but the tractor gets stuck and a little girl leading oxen saves the day; the bus driver takes all his passengers on for an extended stay with his mother, who they sing happy birthday to as he gets drunk. All the while, the hot Rita-Hayworth-looking Raquel (played by Lilia Prado, who had a long career in the Mexican film industry, including another appearance in Bunuel's adaptation of Wuthering Heights) is trying to tempt the recently married Oliverio into screwing her, which he does, without much consequence, in the bus on top of the mountain pass from which the film takes its name, Ascent to Heaven. It's a typical bit of Bunuel perversity too that Oliverio must ink his already deceased mother's finger so she can make her mark to have her will carried out.

There are several dream sequences and Bunuel, in top form, makes them blend unpretentiously into the narrative with some nice defocused transition shots. The particularly famous sequence here is Oliverio's fantasy, early in the film, of making whoopee with Raquel in the back of the bus, which has turned into a jungle, while his mother watches, peeling an apple on top of a pedestal which suggests both his high esteem for her, Eve's temptation, and Bunuel's later hilarious hour-long short about a religious ascetic who lives for years on top of a similar pedestal, 1965's Simon of the Desert.

As for finding this film, I had to download it from rapidshare, via a megadownload search, and then use some subtitles that I found via, which were excellent. This film, I believe, is available in a Spanish language edition on DVD, most likely without English subtitles, and I intend to burn a copy of it for myself.

As an afterthought, I assume this was one of Bunuel's lowest budget films (he even used a model for the bus at one point, pictured above, presumably to save money), but interestingly enough, even though it was done during his ostensibly "commercial" phase, it showcases some very characteristic Bunuelian obsessions and is quite an enjoyable film. Then again, as Bunuel says in his autobiography, My Last Sigh, he never filmed a shot that was against his personal principles and preferences.