I remember being told a story when I was a child that always stuck with me. One day in a small forest, an old owl that all the other animals considered something of a sage stepped out of his hollow in an oak tree, flew down to the forest floor, and settled himself in the middle of a clearing within the glade. He lifted his right foot casually into the air, balanced himself by holding his left wing out at a right angle, and stared obliquely into the sky above him.
After he had remained there, motionless, for about ten minutes a young squirrel happened by. The squirrel perched herself on a low branch near the clearing and contemplated the owl. “He must be telling us that the world is out of balance, food sources are depleting, and everything will devolve onto chaos”, the squirrel thought. (The squirrel attended night classes in economics.)
Soon thereafter, a fox sallied forth. He considered devouring the owl but then became curious as to what the fowl was doing. “His posture must represent the way in which the liberal left attempts to uproot the conservative right”, said the fox, who was known to watch political programs for the better part of a Sunday afternoon. Then the fox snapped up the squirrel and abandoned the scene.
Next a porcupine wandered by and was quite convinced that the owl was staging a one-bird show that depicted the futility of endeavor inasmuch as any action was immediately and irredeemably counterbalanced with an equally efficient reaction (thus right foot was counteracted by left wing). The porcupine, who worked nights as an art critic, trotted off toward the river to brag to the otter that nothing remained opaque to him for very long.
Finally a raccoon approached. He surveyed the scene, watched for any deviations in the owl’s posture, and then decided that the best way to solve a riddle was to approach the sphinx herself (or, in this case, himself). So he asked the owl, “What on earth are you doing that for?” “What does it all mean?” The owl finally gave up his strange pose, turned to the raccoon, and said “I was just curious to see what it would be like”.
This story comes to mind while watching Luis Buñuel’s comically absurdist film, The Exterminating Angel, one of the final films of his Mexican period and, in some ways, the first film that marks his final maturity (leading to his late masterpieces The Obscure Object of Desire, The Phantom of Liberty, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).
The film’s plot can be easily summarized. A group of bourgeois friends gather together for a meal after the opera. They retire to a drawing room after the repast only to find that they are unable to leave that room. Nothing blocks their way; they simply cannot or will not leave. They quickly run out of food, are forced to defecate in closets, bust a pipe within the wall to attain water, and soon turn savagely upon one another in acts of cruelty and attempted murder.
More to the point, the silly story of the owl comes to mind when viewing all of the extras that accompany the Criterion Collection’s beautifully rendered new edition of the film. This is because in all of the accompanying materials (a pleasant and informative essay by film scholar Marsha Kinder; printed excerpts of a rather banal interview between Buñuel and the film critics Tomás Pérez Turrent and José de la Colina; filmed interviews with actress Silvia Pinal and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein; and the 2008 documentary The Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel featuring the director’s son Juan Luis Buñuel), the speakers (other than Luis Buñuel himself who remains serenely reticent in his interactions with Turrent and de la Colina) turn themselves inside out attempting to discern some kind of meaning behind Buñuel’s surrealist vision, all the while casting aspersions on earlier misguided attempts to do the same.
Everyone laughs at the notion that the bear let loose in the house represents the communist threat to the bourgeoisie and most of the commentators dismiss the notion that the host of the dinner party, who at one point blindfolds a lamb and pets it lovingly with one hand while holding a knife in the other, represents Christ. Yet even Kinder’s fine essay in the booklet cannot resist succumbing to the same hermeneutic impulse by postulating that the film “demonstrates how religion provides an underlying justification for some of the worst injustices of the bourgeois social order.” This “theme”, she explains, is the reason that the film “inevitably” ends in a church.
Such speculation simultaneously gives Buñuel too much and too little credit for his achievement. It gives the director too much credit by failing to acknowledge the amount of interpretive control that Buñuel cedes to the viewer. The game that lies at the center of Buñuel’s surrealist vision is one of fill-in-the-blanks. Searching for overarching and unifying meanings gives the director too little credit for the sheer depth of his anti-programmatic approach to his art.
Photo courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Buñuel’s particular genius was for inverting expectations in an absurd manner. Thus in The Exterminating Angel guests show up and will not leave even though they realize that they are breaching etiquette by remaining. In The Phantom of Liberty, to cite the most famous of Buñeul’s inversions, members of the bourgeois gather together socially to defecate but when they want to eat, they excuse themselves and go to a private space. Thus Buñuel’s mentality, like early Dalì’s, smacks of grade-school humor.
However, it is the director’s willingness to take his inversions seriously and to follow out the development of their peculiar logic that makes his films truly subversive. Indeed, one might argue that it is for this reason that all attempts to discern an overarching key that will solve the puzzles that Buñuel lays in our path throughout any given film are always doomed to failure from the start.
The point in Buñuel is that there is no point—only subversive play. He does not provide the viewer with the relative safety of an underlying message. Perhaps it is a marker of his effectiveness that so many commentators desperately seek something concrete to say about these films. After all, such commentators assure themselves, these films must be about something. The notion of empty play seems too horrible to imagine. It is subversion without an endpoint.
This, however, is what makes Buñuel’s approach truly radical. For all of his lampooning of the bourgeois mentality, he cannot truly be said to be anti-bourgeois. That would make him purely reactionary. He certainly was not. If there were other social norms that would have suited his purposes he would have lambasted them. His films were not revolutionary in the sense of seeking to replace an illegitimate social order with a more equitable form of existence.
For Buñuel, society is always limiting and ridiculous. No matter what the form of social organization, there will always be unspoken assumptions that we live out despite their absurdity. By inverting those societal norms, Buñuel reveals that they were always already absurd. Like the owl of my childhood story, the postures assumed in a Buñuel film do not necessarily reveal any deeper reality nor do they attempt to foment revolt. Rather, his films are intent upon reveling in their own freedom to revel.
This is not to say that such films are meaningless. After all, meaning is not a message simply transmitted by a speaker and received passively by someone else. We, as viewers of these films, forge meanings out of the plethora of information and images that Buñuel provides. Much like the squirrel, fox, and porcupine of the story, we tend to find the meanings in Buñuel that we were looking for all along. This doesn’t mean we are, in any real sense, wrong. It simply indicates that our attempts to establish meaning are always provisional, never complete.
The production of meaning is characterized by endless striving, redefinition, and a continual recasting of the material out of which meaning is forged. This is true of all encounters with something outside of ourselves, but it comes into particular focus when engaging with the work of Buñuel. Perhaps the point of these films then is not simply the lack of an overarching answer to their riddles, but rather to engage with the recalcitrance of any aesthetic object (perhaps any object whatsoever) with respect to the revelation of meaning. The revelation of these films is that there can be no revelation; meaning is acted upon, not revealed.
That nothing is revealed, thankfully, does not stop us from talking about what appears before us. Indeed, the lack of revelation prods us on to further acts of loquacity, to further attempts to penetrate the beguiling surfaces Buñuel erected before us in his work and in his life. The elusive nature of the man and his art is evident in every frame of the film and reveals itself most touchingly in the documentary that accompanies it. While Buñuel’s son and his various friends and collaborators lovingly discuss Buñuel’s character and his ideas, Buñuel himself hovers just out of our ability to grasp him. He remains secretive and aloof, impossible to pin down. He remains a master at play.
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection