Wednesday, September 26, 2007


"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)