15 FOOTNOTES UPON THE MOUSTACHE OF BUNUEL -- EPISODES OF LUIS
by Don Harrison
Luis Bunuel is fingering rocks in his pocket, and nervously hovering over a spinning "Tristan and Isolde."
He has wired two phonographs together to coordinate background music for his motion picture, "Un Chien Andalou,"1 debuting momentarily before a crowd of 50 patrons inside Paris' cramped Studio Ursullines. Luis pretends to stare at then eedle but is actually darting one big bug-eye on the shadowy crowd mulling in the cinematique.
Luis spots the critic from "Le Tout Paris," and begins to figure the precise trajectory of a ricochet off of the back wall from his position on the side of the screen.
After the film, the 30-year-old expatriate has planned to stage surrealist "performance art" for the assembled throng, who will no doubt be revulsed by his 20 minute film. He will scatter the stones forcefully and curse the oppression of the bourgeois, taking careful aim at the perfumed dogs, the blinking fascists and the supporters of the police. Actually, that is only what he plans to say after the crowd gets unruly and he is forced to defend himself. The throng will surely (and hopefully) gather into a mob after seeing the film, which is in Bunuel's own words, "a call to murder." 2
A call to murder for Bunuel, anyway. It is April 1929 and "Un Chien Andalou's" co-scenarist, the struggling artist Salvador Dali, fellow Spaniard, flaky ne'er-do-well, is nowhere to be seen. This is remarkable when you factor in Dali'slifelong propensity to be seen whenever and wherever it was in his best interest to be seen.
"Un Chien Andalou," financed by Bunuel's well-to-do mother after she felt guilty about giving Luis' sisters extravagant wedding dowries 3, was the result of a five-day series of fever dreams that Bunuel and Dali had shared with each other. The only criteria forinclusion in the script was that no images, no plot points, no scenes could be at all logical, or could be interpreted through any kind of cheap symbolist analysis. 4
Half-remembering his favorite Fritz Lang camera angles from "Der Mude Tod" and improvising new low-budget techniques on the spot, he shot these dream scenes quickly but economically on the streets of Paris, and in friends' apartments. Technically, his camera would not succumb to easy photographic effectsbut, rather, a new form of expression through action! Action was king, but obscurity was paramount.
"Too Much is logical in today's motion pictures," he told his accomplices.
Seeing the projectionist now, giving him the cue, this was it. Action!
Luis fingers the rocks. Throwing themat the opening would surely grab the attention of Senior Andre Breton, the haughty father of the Surrealism movement. Breton was a man Bunuel greatly admired, who invented a cause -- Surrealism -- that he felt inexplicably drawn to. 5
The lights dim and the film starts. Luis lowers the Wagner, that is to say the Boom.
Within seconds, the graphic image of a woman's eye sliced by a razor blade startles the crowd into an atonal hum. A rising crescendo of timpani and strings is punctuated by a gasp anda scream. Bunuel is pacing now, wondering why he didn't pack one of his antique dueling pistols. Uh-oh.
Luis Bunuel is in a Hollywood bungalow, an honored "ambassador of Surrealist Film" visiting the U.S. on Louis B. Meyer's dime. 6
Luis is smoking an American cigarette and stifling a laugh; re-reading a cable from Andre Breton himself. It appears that Luis' film, "L' Age D'Or," has started a riot in which property was destroyed and people were injured. A throng of Right Wing thugs from the "Jeunesses Catholiques," and the anti Semitic "Ligue Antijuive" descended upon Studio 28, destroying Surrealist art hanging in the cineclub's foyer, and throwing ink and acid on the screen during the pivotal scene when a fiendish gameskeeper shoots his young son. The rioters proceeded to start amelee that eventually involved the prefect, nearby cafe-goers and a crowd of Surrealist symphatizers. 7
"A scandal," Breton -- a friend now -- exclaims. Luis could feel joy from thousands of miles away. Action, illogic, scandal!!
Bunuel inspects the liquor cabinet andsighs. This latest affair. . . after shaming Poor De Noalilles! His rich friend was now in still MORE trouble for financing and exhibiting the beast. Yesterday's cable from Jeanne mentioned expulsions and a harshresponse from the Vatican. The film is going into the De Noalilles vault, never to return.
Luis pauses and reflects on "L'Age D' Or's" last image -- the scalps of virgins nailed to a cross -- and wishes he could have re-shot it. Too dark, too late. Couldn't see the hairs. 8
Luis chuckles, finds the date of the riot ironic. The fascists had destroyed seats and ripped up paintings by Dali and Max Ernst on the very night that, in Hollywood, Bunuel was destroying Charlie Chaplin's Christmas tree at a Tinseltown soiree in front of a shocked Hollywood intelligentsia.
Bunuel was still living that one down. He hadn't been invited back.
He looks over the latest issue of the "Hollywood Examiner," which contains a capsule article about the "L' Age D'Or" riots. After his first film had been embraced by the very factions that it sought to implicate, reproduced in bourgeois magazines and hailed by society nitwits, Bunuel swore to the Surrealist gang that there would be no such confusion with "L' Age D'Or." He was making good on that promise. . .
and somehow got to visit Hollywood to boot.
Bunuel pours bootleg gin in a spotty little glass, and stares out at the Hollywood hills. Life was good, there was scandal, and he was far from its implications. It was true what his friend Benjamin Peret had said years before -- blind people do make Mortadella Sausage. 9
Luis Bunuel is fingering a gun in his pocket -- the last of the beloved pearl-handled pistols he had purchased his first week in New York City -- in the bar of the Sherry Netherland Hotel.
He is shaking with anger, waiting for his former collaborator, Salvador Dali, to join him for a drink. Bunuel plans to kill his former friend, now a fascist sympathizer, and then escape to his favorite gun shop near Times Square to sell the piece.
The angular gadfly's autobiography, "The Secret Life of Salvador Dali," is still at the top of the bestseller's list, but it has cost Bunuel his job 10 in a whirlwind of anti-communist paranoia and Catholic heresy-hunt; And his selective memory over the true authorship of his two historic, and still potent, motion pictures with Bunuel have both diminished and implicated his former partner. 11
After reading Dali's account of their collaborations of Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or in his book, a crazed, right-wing rabblerouser named Arbogast raised hell with the State Department over Bunuel's position at the Museum. The nefarious Luis Bunuel (a crazed Marxist anarchist in Dali's unyielding prattle) was living in New York City and editing documentaries for the U.S. government-- the maker of the life-hating, God-loathing L'Age D'Or!!
Bunuel resigned when the tabloids got a hold of the scandal.12
Dali's paintings, his lifestyle, his bizarre sense of humor -- all have combined into a "flavor of the month" moth-flame for the Surrealist painter in a bored, post-war NYC. His outrageous, and childlike, adherence to the dripping timepiece and the bold non-sequiter has made him and his wife/agent, the despised Gala, rich beyond reason. There is even a story in "Life Magazine" that Dali will collaborating with Alfred Hitchcock on a new suspense film. . .
Bunuel's left hand is in his pocket, fingering the trigger. He will shoot his friend first in the knee, watching him suffer, and then he will aim for the groin. Then he. . .
Dali arrives, in a torrent of flashbulbs and hullaballoo. 15 minutes late, dressed in purple velvet, his wingtip moustache caked with clear goo and shaped into sharp horns. For all the time past, he still looked to Bunuel like the lost 23-year-old he knew a decade before -- the pre-Gala Salvador! This "genius," a wide-eyed stringbean who needed his sister's hand to cross the street, an easily-confused soul who couldn't even buy a bus ticket by himself.
Dali looks the restaurant over, and looks straight through Luis, not recognizing him. The flashbulbs have blinded him. Bunuel fingers the gun, thinking that this could be his chance. Did he remember to bring bullets? 13
Luis Bunuel is directing the piano movers again.
Instead of a movie set, where a dead donkey might be stuffed, and filled with icky fake blood, and placed on top of a grand piano and moved across the room in a harness by a cuckolded lover attempting to copulate with his unwilling female, Luis is just in his Mexico City home, showing three burly men how to move a piano without scuffing the floor.
And terrorizing his wife again. 14
Startled by unfamiliar voices in the house, Jeanne Bunuel puts down the needlepoint in "her" room -- the farthest room in the house from the room where Luis' beloved bar rests -- and calls out to the foyer. "Luis, Luis. . ."
"It is just the piano movers, "Luis bellows in a cackling voice, "come to claim the piano for Tomas."
Close up of a wide-eyed woman's face. You could slice her pupil with a razor.
Jeanne Bunuel is out of her room in an instant. Luis' drunken bet from the night before had not been a bad dream, he had intended to follow through on it. Her piano, the piano on which she practiced every day and played the "Internationale" at the few parties in their home Luis would allow, was being swiveled out of the room by three burly men, her treasured upright traded to a Los Olvidados extra for a bottle of French Champagne. The piano was one of the last mementos she had of her earlier days as a carefree mademoiselle, performing recitals.
"A bet is a bet, cheree," Luis says, lighting up a butt.
She begins to cry. Like the uprooted cherry tree, like the forsaken bridge club, Luis had banished another thing of beauty -- another measure of the bourgeoisie civility she had grown to adore as a child of Paris -- from their shared home.
"There, there," Luis said, patting her on the head. "I shall buy you an accordion. Will that make it better?" 15
1 "Un Chien Andalou"-- sliced-up eyeball, armpit mouth and all -- is now shown in American high schools and standard Film 101 college courses as an example of film "art." This has more to do with the overblown reputation of co-scenarist Salvador Dali, the Leroy Neiman of Manufactured Nonsense, than any long-lasting respect for Don Luis Bunuel's revolutionary 50-year career in motion pictures.
"Un Chien Andalou" is worthy of attention, no matter whose estate reaps the rewards -- a free-form odyssey through fetish obsession, mutilation, violence and the inadequacies of the male-female union that can be said to set precedent for entire ouevres (where would David Lynch and Jan Staamaker be without it? Or Wes Craven?), entire genres of film; but it's also a witty romp, with plenty of unusual set pieces that have been plundered again and again by filmmakers looking for an easy way to simulate madness on celluloid. Violence against the eye -- figuratively and literally an assault on the senses -- would soon be assimilated into the language of the filmmaker thanks to the still searing opening. Bunuel himself would plunder the moody "ralenti" found in his first film for dream sequence after dream sequence in his later renaissance as a commercial director in Mexico.
2 Those transcendent early moments of "Un Chien Andalou" still shock, and dismay, even after decades of Hitchcock and "Friday the 13th" and "Necromantik"; Bunuel's editing jars you and attacks your gut. Thanks to this unusual and highly subjective style of cutting, at least three or four of the other elaborate dream scenes still carry weight; they remain enigmatic and unexplainable because they are tied to Bunuel and Dali's irregular dream cycles. Some sequences whiz by, and land straight into quicksand scenarios, effectively simulating the drained R.E.M of fitful rest. The closest attempt to simulating the stop-and-start fluidity of Dream Logic was in Don Luis's own "Exterminating Angel," and the "Mother/Meat" nightmare in "Los Olvidados."
Seeing this film a few years later, Carl Jung said simply, "Dementia Praecox".
Attempts to "psychoanalyze" "Un Chien Andalou," and its unique landscape of visual irregularity, didn't interest Bunuel. In "Conversations with Bunuel," a collection of rare interviews with the filmmaker conducted later in his life, he shrugged off any interpretation "For example, in the scene. . . in which the protagonist pulls a series of things, anything you like could have been tied to the ropes an umbrella, an empty taxi, an elephant, a thousand things."
3 If some enterprising scriptwriter wanted to tackle the life story of film director Luis Bunuel, he'd no doubt make much of the fact that this scourge of the Bourgeois, this hater of society's "norms," this savage critic of organized religion, was actually the son of landed Spanish gentry, a social conservative (although theoretically an anarchist) who was moved by religious events, even as his atheistic cynicism attacked convention in movie after movie.
Bunuel the Brat had spent a considerable amount of his mother's financing drinking wine in cafes; when the total had reached a little less than half he sheepishly began the production of his film with a sense of obligation to her, and a rancid stomach burn for the rest of society.
4 Bunuel did not believe in Symbolism. Nor did he put stock in sentiment, or easy motivations for his characters. This was as true for "Un Chien Andalou" as it was for his last film, 1974's "That Obscure Object of Desire," where he cast two different actresses to alternate scenes as the lead female role, assigning each of them specific aspects of the character's personality.
5 Breton, a large-headed Frenchman who adored scandalizing the middle-class, had dreamed of a body cut in half by a window and then built a highly disciplined artistic movement in the late hours of the night based on the aesthetic of nonsense.
This fever dream would gain sympathizers, cross continents, seek to destroy worlds. In the end, like everything else, Breton's brilliant and sometimes contradictory art movement would be co-opted by the very money-driven social forces that it had worked to wipe out. To Breton's credit, very few have matched the dream "logic" he usurped for his best poetry, like "Nadja," and still fewer have articulated the cause of irrationality with such passion, and fluidity. Breton was the ONLY man who had the sustained vision necessary to keep such a precious conceit (Surrealism) vital and kicking for so long, even if, in the end, he became merely one more self-important, insufferable bore with no sense of humor trying to keep his boyhood legacy afloat.
6 A visiting producer, impressed by "Un Chien Andalou," had invited the 31-year-old Surrealist Representative to see firsthand the Hollywood production machine, but Bunuel had been ceremoniously kicked out of the first set he visited. By Greta Garbo, no less.
Insulted, Bunuel never returned to the MGM lot, except to pick up his paycheck and eat lunch in the studio commissary. He visited with fellow expatriates Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin, learned how to tell good bootleg gin from poison, and sent back witty articles for Surrealist magazines about life among the Hollywood elite. The best of these was "Variations Upon the Moustache of Menjou," an appreciation of character actor Adolph Menjou, written for "Le Surrealisme au service de la Revolution."
It is not known whether the whiff of scandal blowing from "L'Age D'Or's" explosive release back in France was the cause, or that affair at Chaplin's Christmas party when a drunk Bunuel wrestled a Christmas tree to the ground, but the Hollywood brass sent Bunuel home one month early. . . happy to see him go.
7 "L'Age D'Or" was financed by the rich Vicomte de Noailles and his wife, who had also funded Jean Cocteau's debut motion picture, "The Blood of a Poet." This brilliant film contained more than a few (mostly irrelevant) images stolen from "Un Chien Andalou," which the de Noalilles had screened for him a few days before production began. Needless to say, the scandal of "L'Age D'Or" put an abrupt halt to the couple's dabblings in avant-garde cinema.
A still-pleased Bunuel would recall, years later "The de Noalilles were delighted because all of their friends and acquaintances adored cinema. They gave a private screening at ten a.m. at the Pantheon, close to the Sorbonne, with a rigorous guest list Countess So-and-So, Princess Such-and-Such. . . Le Tout Paris! The de Noalilles received everyone at the door of the cinema as if they were in their own home. . . later, as they were leaving (the theater), the guests were indignant and didn't even say goodbye. De Noailles was expelled from the Jockey Club, of which he was president out! The Pope was on the point of excommunicating him. Not me, who was unknown, but him, who had paid for this."
8 The film began with stock footage of scorpions and ended with Jesus Christ as De Sade, raping and killing virgins and placing their scalps on a wooden cross. In between the madness, an anarchist (played by Gaston Modot) walks the streets of Paris, kicking blind men, slapping mothers-in-law, shooting ministers of culture and tossing priests and -- yes -- Christmas trees out of windows. In one long, sensuous sequence, Modot's lover sucks lasciviously on the toe of a statue as the explosive strains of Wagner fills an obstacle-filled courtyard. Besides the riots, reviews from the mainstream dailies were equally as violent toward "L' Age D'Or," the second-ever sound film made in France, and a film so uncompromising and politically-charged that it would remain banned for almost 50 years.
In the right-wing "Le Figaro," one critic had called the film, "an insult to any kind of technical standard. . . a public spectacle. . . most obscene. . . disgusting and tasteless. Country and family and religion are dragged through the mud." No wonder it became unavailable almost immediately, with only bootleg prints in circulation for almost 50 years until Bunuel himself supervised a reissue in the early '70's.
That reissue proved that this movie can still drag people though the mud -- a nihilist statement that still cries out from the restrictive early days of sound cinema. Years later, when Bunuel was in exile from motion pictures following the release of this celluloid pipe-bomb, the author Henry Miller would write "Those who are disappointed because they cannot find order or reason (in "L'Age D' Or") will never find order or reason anywhere."
9 Although it passed into legend fairly quickly amongst a certain left wing contingency (most of whom never actually saw it), the controversial "L'Age D'Or" put Bunuel in a forced exile from directing motion pictures; the notoriety of his second film would follow him around for years to come.
In the mid- '30's, he left France and worked for as an uncredited line producer at the fledgling Filmofono Studios in his native Spain until Franco's fascist revolutionaries shut the operation down. When a Spanish friend won the lottery, he offered to finance Bunuel's documentary on indigenous starvation in Southern-most Spain, and "Las Hurdes," now considered a minor masterpiece, was edited by hand on Luis' kitchen table. It was to be the last movie he'd direct for nearly 20 years, and Franco's repressive regime would force him back to the United States for most of the next decade.
10 For most of the '40's, Bunuel toiled quietly and professionally as a film editor and a Latin American advisor for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, shaping and readying propaganda for the erupting World War II. Comments in Dali's unfortunate autobiography -- self-serving propaganda that signaled a definite end to any further creative collaborations with Bunuel -- forced the filmmaker's resignation at the museum in the early days of the Red Scare.
11 The truth of the matter Salvador Dali was only on the set on "Un Chien Andalou" for one day and, although many of the images in this still-remarkable movie can be attributed to him, he did not direct or oversee anything upon production and was not present during the editing (one of the film's strengths). These facts haven't stopped the public at large from believing the film was mostly his -- there are now popular bar/cafes (one in D.C.) named after this film that is marketed solely on the Dali "image" and Dali likenesses, with scarcely a mention of Bunuel.
Dali's contribution to "L' Age D' Or" was even more minimal. Bunuel said he gave the artist co-credit only out of friendship -- but this was a friendship that was falling apart due to Salvador's growing obsession with his one and only love, Gala, his wife. Bunuel despised her, and when the same kind of loose "sharing of dreams" that had worked so well in the earlier film didn't come so easily in the writing sessions for "L'Age D'Or," he angrily blamed the influence of Gala on Dali's "shallow" mind-state. One image in "L' Age D' Or" that Dali could claim, and Bunuel begrudged the statue with the rock on its head from the hilarious "city" montage.
Just compare any part of their two films together to the wildly-hyped and utterly disappointing dream sequences that Dali designed for Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound," and you'll be struck what's missing Bunuel's warped and unrepentant "dreamlogic."
12 One sublime piece of vintage motion picture memorabillia the "scandalous" issue of "Motion Picture Herald" that carried the news of the "communist" Bunuel's employment at the Museum, working on U.S. propaganda. . . accentuated by some particularly damning stills from "L'Age D'Or." A huge, angry picture of bug-eyed Luis peers out of the center spread like some kind of Peter Lorre creation, while the headline screams out the paranoia running rampant in those days of the Alger Hiss fiasco. No wonder he had to quit.
13 This potentially-volatile lunch between Dali and Bunuel at the Sherry Netherland did not end in violence, although Bunuel claims to have threatened to kill his former friend when Dali offered his hand.
"Why?" Dali asked innocently.
"Because what you have written has cost me my job!" Bunuel shouted.
Dali thought about this. "I did not write my book to put YOU on a pedestal," he said. "I wrote it to put ME on a pedestal."
They finished their lunch in mostly silence, Dali tried to stick Luis with the check They didn't talk again until the late '60's.
14 Bunuel had to move his family out of New York City, and they eventually settled into Mexico. Bunuel was frustrated during this period, and living hand-to-mouth with a wife and two young sons.
Until financier and Mexican film mogul Oscar Dancigers came along in 1947 and rescued the former bad-boy of international cinema, he had been penniless, and out of a job, for two years. The charismatic Dancigers found him work directing a commercial B-film (a musical called "Gran Casino"!) that carried only faint swashes of the celebrated surrealism and notorious acidity of his early work. The movie sunk like a stone anyway, despite having a few of Mexico's most beloved popular singers, and Bunuel would wait another two years for Dancigers to call again.
Their next collaboration, 1949's "El Gran Calavara," was a giddy comedy that became a huge popular success in Mexico, still with the occasional Bunuelian flair for the non-sequiter... but little else; its handsome gate receipts gave Bunuel the autonomy to make "Los Obvidados" in 1950 -- a true comeback film after twenty years of intellectual and creative exile, an uncompromising and utterly Bunuelian fable about a gang of savage streetchildren that he would later claim as his favorite film of all. Typically, there are no happy endings.
Bunuel's fantasy sequences in "Los Olvidados" echo the uncannily ethereal dream logic of "Un Chien Andalou"-- a young tough, sneaking into his single mother's house after a day in which he has participated in a murder, dreams of hers erving him raw meat. The victim laughs maniacally under the bed while roosters cluck, feathers rain down from above, and lightning cracks. The real killer comes from out of nowhere to steal the raw meat.
Unforced, illogical, pure surrealism.
15 A new avenue in Bunuel studies was opened early in the '90's, when Bunuel's widow, Jeanne, broke her 50 year silence and published, "Woman Without a Piano," a memoir of her long-suffering days under the near dictatorial control of her husband, the famous Luis.
Some would say Jeanne's book confirms the misogyny that (post-modern) critics often attribute to the filmmaker's portraits of female characters. In the underrated "Tristana," a later French film which details a possessive and dominating relationship similar to the one Jeanne endured, Bunuel does not flinch in making his autobiographical counterpart (Fernando Rey) the most pitiful and least sympathetic character in the picture. Was making thi sfilm some sort of open penance to his wife?
Yes and no. In "Tristana," the heroine -- played with precision by Catherine Deneuve -- eventually gets her beloved piano back; Jeanne never did.