Film

Past Imperfect: Luis Buñuel's Early Work

From Gran Casino

Sometimes, filmmaking genius is evident in every movie a cinematic master makes. In the case of this famed Spanish surrealist and his two early efforts, the future achievements are well hidden.


The Luis Buñuel 2 Disc Collectors Edition

Subtitle: Gran Casino/ The Young One
Cast: Zachary Scott, Bernie Hamilton, Key Meersman, Libertad Lamarque
Director: #241;uel
Display Artist: Luis Buñuel
Studio: Lionsgate
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-07

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

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

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

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.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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