Past Imperfect: Luis Buñuel’s Early Work

[23 October 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Sometimes, a filmmaker’s acclaimed reputation stands in sharp contrast to their actual motion picture output. There are, typically, two reasons for this. First and foremost, scholarship can be very shortsighted. A “what have you done for the art form lately” standard can replace years of calm, considered efforts. Similarly, a few award winning celluloid statements can blot out decades of derivative aesthetic atrophy (right, Francis Coppola?).

The other issue is far more transient. You see, there are instances where a filmmaker excels so exceptionally in one particular field or genre that all other efforts outside that categorization appear as flukes. Martin Scorsese’s mob movies tend to blot out his other, more esoteric turns, while Stephen Spielberg’s varied oeuvre is constantly painted with a popcorn movie brush.

The late, great Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel easily fits into both cinematic situations. Though his career was kick-started with a monumental masterwork (his classic collaboration with painter Salvador Dali, Un chien andalou) it was decades before his place among the legitimate motion picture greats was secured. By then he had dabbled in various genres, including the documentary (España 1936), the musical, and the standard potboiling melodrama.

Indeed, the most amazing thing about his career was its haphazard, apprenticeship nature. Exiled to Hollywood during the Spanish civil war, he was a helpless hired gun, remaking Tinsel Town titles for the Spanish speaking market. By the time he left the US for Mexico, he still considered himself a relative novice.

During the production of his first two films in his new native land, he practically taught himself technique. This was the late ‘40s. It would be another 12 years before he was hailed as an actual auteur, thanks in part to 1961’s Viridiana and 1962’s The Exterminating Angels. Two years later, a relocation to France would finalize his position as a motion picture maverick.

While functioning within the certified center of new and novel outsider cinema, he would create some of his most notorious and noted classics, including Diary of a Chambermaid, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire

And yet the path to such creative redemption is often paved with plenty of unexceptional stones, as the new DVD presentation from Lionsgate, The Luis Buñuel Collection, illustrates. Representing his first film as a member of Mexico’s filmmaking factories (1947’s Gran Casino) and only one of two English language films the director ever attempted (1960’s The Young One), what we wind up with is a highly incomplete picture of what turned Buñuel into the moviemaking madman of his later, emblematic years. Even careful consideration of technique, style, art direction and design, directorial flare, subject matter, shot selection and overall mise-en-scene provides little or not hint of the unique dream logic he would use to secure his status as a cinematic icon.

From Gran Casino

From Gran Casino

Rumor has it that Buñuel hated Gran Casino. He didn’t like the storyline and still felt uncomfortable behind the camera. So naturally, he tackled such a melodramatic musical as his first foray into feature filmmaking.

The story, set in the oil fields of his newfound homeland, finds a bon vivant cad and his mechanically inclined friend holed up in jail. Seems they made ‘inappropriate advances’ on a lady, and there’s a law against that.  Before we know it, our lead is belting out a ballad while his prison pals saw through the window bars. A few choruses later, and we’re on the property of José Enrique Irigoyen. He wants desperately to pump the crude from his claims, but local thug and casino owner Mr. Fabio is keeping all potential employees away from his business. On his last legs financially, he hires our hero and his sidekick, and soon, the fields are ready to produce.

Naturally, this leads Mr. Fabio and his various hired goons to commit unspeakable acts of personal persuasion. As the corpses pile up, Irigoyen’s singer sister arrives from Argentina. With her brother “missing” and presumed unexhumable, she’s the new landowner. After initially doubting our lead’s intentions, the pair buddy up and decide to get to the bottom of Fabio’s reign of terror. Turns out, there may be bigger fish to fry, after all. All the while, characters break into song, intrigue interrupted so that stars Jorge Negrete and Libertad Lamarque can vocalize. Between the variety acts in the title entity and the moments of lyrical whimsy, Gran Casino develops some serious mood swings.

Of course, this doesn’t help our appreciation of what is, in general, an arch and rather routine silent movie storyline. We have the bad business men, the criminal element applying threats, torture, and murder to manage their interests. There’s also the noble if slightly sketchy hero whose past fails to fully illustrate his common decency. With the addition of the noble sibling dedicated to bringing her brother’s killers to justice, and a group of equally proud peasants who are simply looking for a champion to rally around, you’ve got moviemaking circa the mundane mainstream of the mid ‘40s.

Certainly Buñuel wasn’t basing his possible reputation on such simplicity. But a paycheck pushes people to do things they wouldn’t normally, and Gran Casino certainly jerks along like a journeyman day at the studio.

If you’re still looking for something, anything surreal, the goofy musical numbers may fit the bill—although you will have to stretch the definition of what one believes is the definition of directorial Dadaism. When Negeret opens his mouth to sing, he is usually accompanied by a trio of Greek chorus backup singers that croon along in a wildly animated style. They appear fully formed out of the woodwork (not literally, but proverbially) and disappear into the cast once the tune is completed. Buñuel doesn’t do much with them, and we really don’t know if they serve a purpose beyond the basic supporting part. That’s because Lionsgate decided not to translate the songs. When there’s dialogue, we get every last “Si!”. The minute the orchestration begins, the subtitles simply disappear.

And since Gran Casino is at least 30 percent music, the lack of a translation really hampers our appreciation. Imagine sitting through Singing in the Rain, or something less evocative like Top Hat, and finding that every time Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire starting scatting, one heard Sanskrit. If you’re fluent in Spanish, you will probably enjoy the songs. But for those less familiar with Spanish, the lyrical interludes act as frustrating, futile pauses in the plot – and that’s not good, when you consider the story is as transparent as a theatrical scrim. The characters are carved out of allegorical archetypes and the resolution offers only the slightest inferred twists. In truth, watching this slightly dull endeavor, it’s hard to see how Buñuel would become the ‘60s king of intercontinental quirk.

From The Young One

From The Young One

Fast forwarding 13 years does little to settle our sense of disconnect and disquiet. The Young One is in English, but it’s no clearer in its motive or meaning to an English language audience. Over cries of rape and the rampant use of the N-word, an African American musician named Traver flees for his life. He heads for the coast, grabs a small boat, and sets sail. A few moments later, he lands on a private island, a game preserve for the local hoi polloi. As he camps out, avoiding capture, our attention turns to the groundskeeper, Hap Miller. A slightly shady figure with designs on a teenage girl named Evalyn, he acts as lord and master of his tiny shotgun shack domain.

The girl, on the other hand, is an uneducated sprite who’s much wiser than her white trash demeanor. She runs into the fugitive, and the two become fast friends. Miller, a man of obvious intolerances, believes the stranger is after the same thing that he is. Yet Traver simply wants to leave this bigotry ridden region before he becomes another roadside lynching statistic.

When a sympathetic preacher happens along, offering hope for Evalyn and the man of color, it appears Miller will be undermined once and for all. But while his attitude may have changed since getting to know the object of his hate, the same can’t be said for the man’s less open-minded associates.

While not as mannered a movie as Gran Casino, The Young One is still embryonic Buñuel at best. Tackling a subject as culturally kinetic in the ‘60s as racism, the director seems to have found subject matter that sparks his creative curiosity. There is a more extroverted approach to the narrative, the filmmaker flaunting convention to deal with content as contentious as statutory rape, prejudice, and purposeful ignorance. Buñuel, who also contributed the screenplay with help from Hugo Butler and the original Peter Matthiessen story, obvious had no patience with the biased and dogmatic. He constantly contrasts Miller’s mean-spirited epithets with Traver’s cool jazz quips. It’s a country louse/ city mouse paradigm that helps pull us past the typical Tobacco Road routine.

The 14-year-old girl as the subject of sexual desire will also be highly incendiary for audiences raised on three decades of There’s Something About Amelia. Buñuel tip toes around actually showing anything remotely racy (whenever Miller begins to molest Evie, the image fades to black), but he doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to conjecture. Since she’s backward (though quite articulate and brainy), our gal is merely puzzled, not devastated, by what happens to her. Though threatened with punishment for telling anyone, Evie has no inner monologue. It will be the one intriguing element that gives the film any sense of suspense or mystery.

Those looking for his signature moves, however, will again go away unsatisfied. Though the black and white imagery is amazingly evocative, The Young One is still shot in a standard movie picture process. The plot doesn’t detour into worlds unexplored and ideas incongruent. The images all support the emotional underpinnings of the characters, and we don’t get flights of fancy as outside sketches of importance. There is more of noir than the nonsensical here, a growing sense of accomplishment if not art or aesthetic. Indeed, Buñuel is so straightforward that we wonder what caused him to convert to the exaggerated and ephemeral with his next project, 1961’s Viridiana.

Sadly, the DVDs provide little added context. The only bonus features provided for each film is an audio commentary, and in both cases, the discussion ranges from the obvious to the obtuse. For Gran Casino, Phillip Kemp gives us the breakdown on how Mexico provided an artistic oasis for Spanish performers seeking sanctuary from Franco’s fascist regime. Drawing a line between Buñuel then and what he would become, however, seems out of his conversational jurisdiction. Similarly, Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolalla decide that every facet of The Young One needs psychological and pragmatic interpretation. They go overboard in theme, analysis, and symbolism. Yet they, too, can’t really tell us how this director graduated from generic to genius.

Luis Buñuel

Luis Buñuel

This is the problem facing any attempt at cinematic archeology. Sometimes, a filmmaker’s foundation fails to accurately represent what they will end up achieving. Instead of acting like the formative years in their creative life, they provide flummoxing, flagrant contradictions. Just as Robert Altman’s work on the TV drama Combat couldn’t have clued audiences in on his later masterpieces like Nashville or 3 Women, Gran Casino and The Young One do Luis Buñuel a fundamental disservice.

Certainly, we can see the undercurrents (religion, capitalism, populism) that the filmmaker would rally against more successfully later on in his life, but they are buried under the most basic of story and structures. His later films should be considered the starting place for the curious and the converted. The Luis Buñue 2 Disc Collector’s Edition is for the obsessive and completist, only.

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