Wednesday, September 26, 2007

BUÑUELATHON—My Last Sigh


"Amusingly enough, a great many psychiatrists and analysts [i.e., film critics] have had a great deal to say about my movies. I'm grateful for their interest, but I never read their articles, because when all is said and done, psychoanalysis [i.e., film criticism], as a therapy, is strictly an upper-class privilege. Some analysts—in despair, I suppose—have declared me 'unanalyzable,' as if I belonged to some other species or had come from another planet (which is always possible, of course). At my age, I let them say whatever they want. I still have my imagination, and in its impregnable innocence it will keep me going until the end of my days. All this compulsion to 'understand' everything fills me with horror."—Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh (University of Minnesota Press Edition, 2003:175).

I became conflicted when Flickhead first announced his blogathon on Luis Buñuel. For a few reasons. Not the least of which is what I perceive to be an increasing lack of reciprocal commentary at these blogathons, which I feel fundamentally undermines the exercise of building online community and peer rapport. This is personal acumen: the last blogathon I attended, I responded to several entries and received not a single response to my entry from anyone else, including the host! If a blogathon is merely a device to foist one's opinion out into the ether with no regard to anyone else's opinions—then what really is the point? What is shared? What is learned? I favor the communal symposium with all its attendant synergies, rather than the hierarchical lecture. It's much more rewarding to talk with others regarding a subject of mutual interest rather than to be talked at. So I approach this blogathon gingerly and with an eye towards its level of reciprocity. It will determine whether I participate in future blogathons.


Further, I am haunted by something Phillip Lopate said to me when I asked him what he thought about online film writing. There's a tendency to get "too geeky" he complained. I've mulled that comment over and over in my mind for months trying to determine exactly what "too geeky" means and I have decided it is a kind of academic film writing, notoriously on line, conspicuously cerebral, in most cases masculine, that reads like a bird list of film directors and their films where one by one directors are checked off and one by one their films are checked off, the more obscure the better. Having led ecotours in Central America for many years, including obsessed groups of Audobon Society birders, I can attest there is nothing more disheartening than to have a group sitting on a log with binoculars up to their face, all moving in exact unison when one says, "Little blue, 12:00." This while a rainforest of teeming diversity—not just birds!—thrives all around them. Comparing and sharing checklists becomes more a passion than, say, taking a walk and learning something unknown and unexpected about an environment's flora and fauna. Buñuel himself disfavored this kind of mentally exhibitionist approach, noting that in Spain such academic writing is termed sienta cátedra.

Which is to say that words—especially in the form of opinions—remain notoriously inexact and thoroughly ineffectual. And I mean that especially in reference to my own. That is why—making up this film writing thing as I go along—I've become much more interested in hearing what others have to say about any given auteur and his/her oeuvre. I prefer critical overviews to any single review. I think Dave Hudson at The Greencine Daily is clearly my guru in this respect. More specifically, I am most interested when a director speaks about his or her own work. That's why I guess time has found me soliciting interviews with the people who make films, even though they are much more arduous to transcribe than some kneejerk capsule written in reaction to something I've seen.

I have a critic friend—who considers herself a true critic—who tells me that she wouldn't possibly trust a director to talk about their own film. For her it's folly to presume that a director's intention has anything to do with the quality of a film and certainly has no bearing on how she will critique it. Hearing that, I decided once and for all that I hope to God I never become a film critic. Solipsistic to a fault and encaged in remedial opinion, I would much rather look not so much at film as artifact but at filmmaking as artistry, which we all know—even without asking—is a messy and complicated process, fraught with frustration and frequently with failure, and truthfully all the more glorious and interesting exactly for that.


So as I debated which Buñuel film I should analytically terrorize—Los Olvidados? Exterminating Angel? Nazarín?—the other day I found myself with an hour to kill in the East Bay and wandered into a used book store where I found a copy of Buñuel's autobiography My Last Sigh, most notable perhaps for how little it actually says about movies and how much it explores the fullness of a creative life, in which filmmaking is but one aspect. "This is it!" I thought, "what better way to approach Buñuel than through his own words?" What entranced me reading the book on BART were imagistic moments in Buñuel's childhood and budding adulthood that found their way into his films. I offer here a picnic selection of my favorites, taken from the University of Minnesota Press edition, translated by Abigail Israel. Buñuel believed that the imagination was a spiritual quality that, like memory, could be trained and developed. Melding memory and imagination became a frequent calisthenic for him.

* * *

"[A]lthough I'm not sure why, I also have always felt a secret but constant link between the sexual act and death. I've tried to translate this inexplicable feeling into images, as in Un Chien andalou when the man caresses the woman's bare breasts as his face slowly changes into a death mask." (2003:15)

"When I reached my early teens, I discovered the bathing cabanas in San Sebastián, fertile ground for other educational experiences. These cabanas were divided by partitions, and it was easy to enter one side, make a peephole in the wood, and watch the woman undressing on the other side. Unfortunately, long hatpins were in fashion, and once the women realized they were being spied upon, they would thrust their hatpins into the holes, blithely unconcerned about putting out curious eyes. (I used this vivid detail much later in El [This Strange Passion]." (2003:15-16)


"The drums of Calanda beat almost without pause from noon on Good Friday until noon on Saturday, in recognition of the shadows that covered the earth at the moment Christ died, as well as the earthquakes, the falling rocks, and the rending of the temple veil. It's a powerful and strangely moving communal ceremony which I heard for the first time in my cradle. Up until recently, I often beat the drums myself; in fact, I've introduced these famous drums to many friends, who were all as strongly affected as I was. …I don't really know what evokes this emotion, which resembles the kind of feeling often aroused when one listens to music. It seems to echo some secret rhythm in the outside world, and provokes a real physical shiver that defies the rational mind. My son, Juan-Luis, once made a short film about these drums, and I myself have used their somber rhythms in several movies, especially L'Age d'or and Nazarin." (2003:19-20)

Buñuel included this comment by his sister Conchita: "In Viridiana, there's a scene where a tired dog is attached by a rope to the underside of a cart as it rumbles along the road. Luis suffered when he shot this scene because in real life it was so very common. The habit was so ingrained in the Spanish peasant that to try to break it would have been like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. When we were on location, Luis had me buy a kilo of meat for the dog, or for any other animal who happened to wander in." (2003:38)


"If I had to list all the benefits derived from alcohol, it would be endless. In 1977, in Madrid, when I was in despair after a tempestuous argument with an actress who'd brought the shooting of That Obscure Object of Desire to a halt, the producer, Serge Silberman, decided to abandon the film altogether. The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar, I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved." (2003:47)


"When I returned to the Residencia, all the lodgings were full, so I shared a room for a month with Juan Centeno, the brother of my good friend Augusto. Juan was a medical student and left early every morning, although not until he'd spent a significant amount of time combing his hair. The odd thing was that he always stopped combing at the very top of his head, leaving the hair in the back, which he couldn't see in the mirror, in complete disarray. This absurd habit, repeated day in and day out, irritated me so much that after a couple of weeks I began to hate him. I was grateful to him for taking me in, but I couldn't help it; it was an irrational aversion prompted no doubt by some dark detour in my unconscious mind. Years later, I still hadn't forgotten it; there's even a scene in The Exterminating Angel reminiscent of Juan's eccentricity." (2003:52-53)

"[While at the Residencia] I was … responsible for inventing the ritual we called las mojadures de primavera, or 'the watering rites of spring,' which consisted quite simply of pouring a bucket of water over the head of the first person to come along. Shades of this ritual worked themselves into the scene in That Obscure Object of Desire where Carole Bouquet is drenched by Fernando Rey on a railroad station platform!" (2003:65)


"There was a cemetery in Madrid called the San Martín, where our great romantic poet Larra is buried. It hadn't been in use for several decades, but it had a hundred of the most beautiful cypress tress I've ever seen. One evening the entire peña [a clique of intellectuals], including d'Ors, decided to pay it a midnight visit; we'd given the guardian ten pesetas that afternoon, so we were free to do as we pleased. The cemetery was deserted, abandoned to the moonlight and the silence. I remember going down several steps into an open tomb where a coffin lay in a beam of moonlight. The top was ajar, and I could see a woman's dry, dirty hair, which had grown out through the opening. Nervous and excited, I called out, and the others immediately rushed down. That dead hair in the moonlight was one of the most striking images I've ever encountered; I used it in The Phantom of Liberty." (2003:70)

"You aren't free, no matter what you say. Your freedom is only a phantom that travels the world in a cloak of fog. You try to grab a hold of it, but it will always slip away. All you'll have left is a dampness on your fingers." (2003:109)

"Afterwards, on our way back to the inn [where we were staying in Toledo], we made the requisite pilgrimage to Berruguete's tomb of Cardinal Tavera, where we meditated for a few minutes by the cardinal's alabaster body with its pale and hollow cheeks. (This is the model for the death mask shown with Catherine Deneuve in Tristana.)" (2003:72-73)

"I love dreams, even when they're nightmares, which is usually the case. My dreams are always full of the same familiar obstacles, but it doesn't matter. My amour fou—for the dreams themselves as well as the pleasure of dreaming—is the single most important thing I shared with the surrealists. 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." (2003:92)

"When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali's house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I'd had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he'd seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he'd had the previous night. 'And what if we started right there and made a film?' he wondered aloud." (2003:103-104)

"Another dream, habitual with people in the theatre or movies, is the kind where I absolutely must go on stage in just a few minutes and play a role I haven't learned. I don't know the first word of the script. This sort of dream can be long and very complicated; I'm nervous, then I panic, the audience grows impatient and starts to hiss. I try to find someone—the stage manager, the director, anyone—and tell them I'm in agony, but they reply coldly that I must go on, the curtain's rising, I can't wait any longer. In fact, I tried to reconstitute certain images from this dream in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie." (2003:93)


"No one's really interested in other people's dreams, so I won't dwell on the subject, although I find it impossible to explain a life without talking about the part that's underground—the imaginative, the unreal. Perhaps, then, I'll just indulge myself through one or two others—for instance, the dream about my cousin Rafael: macabre, of course, yet not without its bittersweet aspects. (I reproduced this dream almost exactly in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.) Rafael has been dead for a long time, and yet, in my dream, I meet him suddenly in an empty street. 'What are you doing here?' I ask him, surprised. 'Oh, I come here every day,' he replies sadly. He turns away and walks into a house; then suddenly I too am inside. The house is dark and hung with cobwebs; I call Rafael, but he doesn't answer. When I go back outside, I'm in the same empty street, but now I call my mother. 'Mother! Mother!' I ask her. 'What are you doing wandering about among all these ghosts?'

"I had this dream for the first time when I was about seventy, and since then it's continued to affect me deeply. Yet a bit later I had another dream which moved me even more. In it I see the Virgin, shining softly, her hands outstretched to me. It's a very strong presence, an absolutely indisputable reality. She speaks to me—to me, the unbeliever—with infinite tenderness; she's bathed in the music of Schubert. (I tried to reproduce this image in The Milky Way, but it simply doesn't have the power and conviction of the original.) My eyes full of tears, I kneel down, and suddenly I feel myself inundated with a vibrant and invincible faith." (2003:94-95)


"When I was fourteen, I fantasized a scenario that was eventually expanded into Viridiana. The queen retires to her bedchamber, her servants help her undress, she gets into bed. When the maids have left, she drinks a glass of milk into which I've poured a powerful narcotic, and an instant later she falls into a heavy sleep. At that point, I slip into her royal couch and accomplish a sensational debauching." (2003:97)

"Dali sent me several ideas [for L'Age d'or], and one of them at least found its way into the film: A man with a rock on his head is walking in a public garden. He passes a statue. The statue also has a rock on its head!" (2003:116)

"I also tried working for Robert Florey, who was making The Beast With Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre. At his suggestion, I thought up a scene that shows the beast, a living hand, moving through a library. Lorre and Florey liked it, but the producer absolutely refused to use it. When I saw the film later in Mexico, there was my scene in all its original purity. I was on the verge of suing them when someone warned me that Warner Brothers had sixty-four lawyers in New York alone. Needless to say, I dropped the whole idea." (2003:189)

"My last abortive American project was the time Woody Allen proposed that I play myself in Annie Hall. He offered me thirty thousand dollars for two days' work, but since the shooting schedule conflicted with my trip to New York, I declined, albeit not without some hesitation. (Marshall McLuhan wound up doing the self-portrait in my place, in the foyer of the movie theatre.)" (2003:194)

23 comments:

Flickhead said...

Michael,

It's been over ten years since I last read My Last Sigh. Your quotes inspire me to reread it. I had poked around the book for passages on the two films I reviewed for the blogathon. Buñuel's written observations affect me as deeply as his films.

Your opening comments hit home. I initially started this blogathon as a kind of farewell to internet writing. It's become more and more frustrating for me to write, and I thank the internet -- no, Blogger -- for that. Blogs invite freeloaders and the geeks Mr. Lopate mentions. Blogs should die.

I had no real desire to open one on one discussions about Buñuel, because the blogosphere is full of people I've grown to hate. (Presently company excluded.) I just thought it would be appropriate to honor Mr. Buñuel.

But he, like me, is an anachronism in blogland. What with the release of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof on DVD this week, most blogs have no time to observe Buñuel. They're too busy writing about a movie that's two hours of unoriginality.

Masochist that I am, I'll continue writing rubbish that prompts people to tell me how little I know. Because I live in a Buñuel scenario, ants and all.

Quite sincerely, though, I do thank you for contributing your time and work to this endeavor.

girish said...

Hi, Michael -- This is my favorite filmmaker memoir, so thank you for taking the time to post these excerpts!

My copy of this book is highlighted so profusely that it looks prematuredly yellow with age.

My 2nd favorite filmmaker memoir is Renoir's. Quid pro quo, pl. allow me to link to an excerpt from it here that I posted a (thankfully) long time ago.

Adam said...

dude,

yeah, the participation aspect of Web 2.0 is supposed to be what makes it so refreshing, but, like a lot of people, I'm getting a little overwhelmed, feeling like I can't fully flesh out my thoughts with all the citations I want to when I try to stop by and make my comments. this is why i've chosen to see fewer films this year, so i can get my focus back, rather than running around willy-nilly without a centered argument.

but that's what your intro made me think about. don't know who this Luis Bunuel character is, perhaps one of those names people drop, plus he appears to be referencing The Pixies w/o giving them their due propers - Andalusia, oh-ho-ho-hoooo! slicing up eyeballs, i want you to know!!!

j/k

anyways, dude, did you get that Los Olvidados poster from that lovely store in Hayes Valley? I always want to buy up all their old Mexican movie cards when ever I step in there.

see you at MVFF!
adam

Maya said...

Flickhead, thanks for the kind acknowledgment of the winter of my discontent ... scratch that ... winter of my disgruntlement. Heh. Like yourself, I'm very clear that something has to change for me with online writing in order for me to continue, even as I actively pursue writing projects elsewhere. I am keenly appreciative of your hosting this blogathon as it afforded me the "coincidence" of finding My Last Sigh, which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I find it interesting that film is leading me back to books.

Joe D said...

Down with film critics! Up with the imagination and alcohol! There's an interesting site on Flickhead , a piece by Jean Claude Carrière. If you haven't seen it already check it out:
http://home.comcast.net/~flickhead/Luis-Bunuel.html

Maya said...

Girish, I LOVE that Renoir quote. It speaks exactly to my concerns of late, which became agitated at the Toronto International. I don't mean to always be biting the hand that feeds me, but, securing press credentials at TIFF was a mixed blessing. First, I wasn't aware that press would be attending their own festival within the festival and that--in order to see friends such as you and Darren--it involved buying public tickets. Also, last year I delighted in the fact that the filmmakers were present for Q&A for nearly every film I saw, save one. With the P&I screenings, that's not the case. If you want to talk to talent, you have to schedule it through publicists who become increasingly crazed as the festival wears on. But what caused the most agitation for me was how RUDE the P&I audiences were. They were not there to see the films as art; they were there to evaluate the films as business. Later, when I was discussing this with the GFI staff, I was advised that this is par for the course. If you're industry, for example, wanting to buy a film, you will know within 10-15 minutes if it's a film you want to buy, can afford to buy, etc. Sometimes you're there only to take stock of which other buyers are vying for the film. So, in effect, sometimes you're not there to see the film at all, but to measure who's there to see the film. That's why it's no problem if 10 minutes in you need to jump on your cellular or blackberry to respond to emails or to move on to the next film.

I found this thoroughly disgusting. Naively, it's probably the first time I've seen how others see cinema as business first, plain and simple. Films are commodities, not expressions of vision. What a weird wake-up call for me.

Maya said...

Joe D., thanks for linking to Flickhead's piece on Jean Claude Carrière, which triggered my memory. All of a sudden I recalled when Jean Claude Carrière was at the SF International back in 2006, evaluating Belle du Jour. I totally forgot that I transcribed a snippet of that speech. I actually have that entire stage presentation on tape but just never got around to it. If I weren't leaving to the Idaho International tomorrow, I'd take the time to add it to Flickhead's blogathon. Maybe it can be a late entry?

Maya said...

Adam, I assume you're talking about Polanco? I haven't bought posters there, though I have dropped a pretty penny buying art.

At this juncture I guess it's clear to say that I've been mollified by these kind comments and will commit myself to future blogathons. See? I don't ask for too much. Just a littler reciprocation and I'm a happy guy. You and Brian have, without question, championed my growth as a filmwriter, a blogger, an interviewer, whatever you want to label me, from the get-go and I am genuinely appreciative of all your kind words and your comments when no one else has said a thing. Thank you for being my friend, Adam.

Joe D said...

Please by all means post the rest of that transcription. I notice you go to a lot of film festivals, are you by any chance attending the New Orleans festival? I have a film playing there and I'd be glad to invite you if you're in NO.

Maya said...

Joe D., I wish I were attending the New Orleans Film Festival. I have fond memories of New Orleans when I visited it in my youth. What are the dates? And what's the info on your film?

Joe D said...

M.
The festival starts October 11th, night of the opening party, films screen from the 12th through the 18th. My film "One Night With You" screens Weds. October 17, 9:15 pm at the Contemporary Arts Center. It's in competition for Best Feature. If you'd like more information on it check out www.khpreleasing.com

Marilyn said...

My Last Sigh is a wonderful book, eminently quotable, with the ability to stick in the memory unlike other such works--or any works at all. Each of these quotes seemed very familiar to me, even though it has been 3 or 4 years since I read the book.

As to the Internet as a medium of communication and community, I have to say I'm not particularly satified with it. Message boards are far too anarchic and hostile. The comfort of touch is wholly absent, and streaming video just doesn't match in-person encounters.

Like "reality" shows that rely on the senses (e.g., Top Chef), the Internet is a vicarious experience.

People, I think, tend to comment if they like your persona on a blog, or if you are versed in the art of written conversation. Otherwise, a blog is a book--one-way communication. I have 199 written reviews and musings on my blog and 203 comments. I only know how to be a writer on the Internet, not a talker.

Paul Martin said...

Michael, nice post, I have to say. It really speaks to me and reflects many thoughts I've been having. Most of my online posts have been reviews of films I've seen, which I see as the starting point of a conversation, not (as you say) a lecture. I find readers more likely to contribute if the post is a discussion topic that explicitly invites participation.

I was hoping that blogging would initiate or stimulate conversation about films, which for me is both a means of ruminating on the experience of watching a film as well as gleaning new perspectives and meanings.

I find some (not all) of the intellectualism a bit off-putting and elitist. I don't see film writing as an academic exercise but rather an exploration of humanity. The cinema experience has many facets to it, but the most important to me is the projection of humanity. This might be evident from the slant I took in writing about Pedro Almdóvar as well as the interview with Alkinos Tsilimidos (have you read it yet?).

I don't feel qualified to contribute to anything about Bunuel as I have yet to see much of his work, and that which I have seen eludes me somewhat. I stumbled upon him via David Lynch who, as you may recall, I'm very fond of. Through Lynch, I learnt a little of Bunuel and reading about the latter on IMDB, discovered that his attitude to film-making as art was similar to Lynch's. I really dig the experiential, intuitive and interpretative approach that both directors espouse.

ACMI is screening Belle de jour shortly, so I'll be making a point of seeing it.

Finally, I hope you continue on here, as this blog is one of my favourites. I really like your approach to writing about film and read most of your posts, even if I don't always contribute.

ARBOGAST said...

Damn, I sure picked the wrong time to start blogging. Now I feel like an asshole.

Maya said...

Heh. There's still plenty of time to redeem yourself, Arbogast; you're off to a running start. Welcome to the Blogosphere.

Thom said...

I like this approach to the blog-a-thon topic, M. I'm a Buñuel novice and this post helps me to understand what drives a creative mind. Your choice of these particular passages also tell us something about what draws you to the filmmaker's imagination (almost like you're interviewing him). Cool idea.

Your opening remarks are food for thought. I think that there is room in the blogosphere for different types of writing, and thoughtful commentary should be encouraged. I hope that you don't get discouraged and discontinue your work here. The Evening Class is a great read and enjoyed by many even if we don't always comment.

Maya said...

Thank you, Thom. Your comments are always appreciated. I'm feeling a little bit like Dolly Levi this morning with a second lease on life now that "I've made it back to the lights of 14th Street and out of my personal haze...." Heh.

Paul, thanks likewise for your comments. I feel absolutely guilty now saying, no, haven't had a chance to read your interview yet, barely recovering from TIFF before flying to Boise; but, I promise upon my return....

Campaspe said...

Oh dear. I had been marinating a post (not much of one, admittedly) about this very book this week, and now I feel as superfluous as ... well, quite superfluous. I will say that your interviews are superb; if I don't often comment it is because there is usually too much for me to chew over. One thing I have discovered via blog writing is that while I love movies the most I also love reading about movie people, and reading the things they have to say. Thanks for this.

Paul Martin said...

For what it's worth, Michael, I got the idea for the interview from The Evening Class. I have yet to reconvene with my subject, who appears to be caught up with arranging finance for his next project. Whenever you've got time is fine.

Maya said...

You guys are just great. I'm feeling like an old dog who's getting his ears scratched. Heh.

davis said...

Need a little more scratchin'? Michael, I know why everyone mentions your interviews when they talk about why they read your blog -- I like them, too -- but my favorite post from The Evening Class is your personal meditation on Speedy Gonzalez.

Hands down.

girish said...

I have to second what Rob said...

Michael, I had the same experience the only year I went to TIFF on press cred for Senses of Cinema 5 years ago. I've since decided that it's well worth it to plunk down the few hundred bucks for a festival pass. It makes for a qualitatively different experience.

Whether you go as a press person or as a plebe (like me) next year, we'll have to make sure we try harder to sit down for a meal together, even if it's just breakfast.

Nice to see that your Tarr interview is up at Greencine.

Maya said...

I feel so incredibly confirmed by all of these kind comments and encouragements. It makes me even more committed to bringing the words of filmmakers to the public. Thank you all for the boost.