Luis Buñuel Allen Thiher

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Allen Thiher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Buñuel's first film [Un Chien andalou] is commonly understood either to be an unadulterated bit of nonsense or a symbol-laden exercise in hermeticism that only the initiated can understand. Neither of these ideas is entirely false, but neither is adequate for a full comprehension of one of the most important films of the avant-garde. (p. 38)

Our initial postulate for understanding Un Chien andalou is that surrealist practice is a ludic activity, a form of play, that attempts systematically to subvert the rules of the game, whether it be in the realm of syntax, narration, or iconic representation. Un Chien andalou is, then, an anti-game which, by the systematic way it proposes to destroy the rules of earlier cinematic games, transforms itself into a superior form of play. By systematic negation of the rules the surrealist work develops a new set of ludic definitions at the same time it acquires an ironic self-consciousness. Which is to say that Buñuel uses his film to parody, and through parody, to destroy the filmic conventions that two generations of filmmakers had evolved…. The film's opening images, which constitute a kind of prologue to the rest of the film, are thus an attack on the passivity with which the spectator accepts the conventional logic of representation—the rules of the game—as well as the passivity that this logic inflicts on the spectator.

The film's first title, "Once upon a time," opens the assault by making an ironic appeal to the conditioned response normally elicited by this kind of narrative signpost. "Once upon a time" notifies us that a certain narrative code is at work, that a sequential narrative order is at hand in which events are subordinated to the simplest form of unfolding chronology. In short, the order to be followed is the linear chronology of epic, myth, and movies. (pp. 39-40)

In thematic terms [the] prologue to Un Chien andalou is a prologue to that part of Buñuel's work in which he frequently jeers those "who have eyes and will not see."…

The prologue also presents a parodistic sexual metaphor that prefigures the sexual motifs in the rest of the film. One might even say that the severing of the eye is a rape of the spectator's vision, an idea that Buñuel corroborates in a later film, The Young One, when he prefaces the girl's rape with the same image of clouds crossing the moon, that traditional symbol of virginity. By forcing us to view unwittingly the razor's penetration of the flesh, Buñuel commits a violent transgression against our own desire to protect our privacy. With seeming impunity Buñuel forces upon the spectator a visual rape that affirms the violent freedom of desire and play over and beyond all categories of good and evil. Like the Marquis de Sade, whom the surrealists placed in their Pantheon of revered heroes, Buñuel uses a razor that cuts in two directions, for his ironic celebration of the absolute freedom of desire also recognizes the primordial violence attached to it….

Buñuel's ironic destruction of the logic of filmic narration and his celebration of violent desire point to what is perhaps of ultimate importance in this prologue and in a good deal of Buñuel's subsequent work. This celebration of violence is a supreme example of black humor. (p. 41)

Having experienced this most direct initiation to black humor, what can the spectator who has opened his eyes now expect? Buñuel offered a key to the rules of the game he and Dali played when he, in a typically laconic fashion, made the following remarks to François Truffaut on the manner in which they made the film: "Dali and I would select gags and objects that would happen to come to mind. And we rejected without mercy everything that might mean something. I have kept this taste for the irrational." The systematic avoidance of meaning—which sets up the formal rules of the game—does not mean that there is no sense to the series of irrationally associated images that follow the prologue. For the destruction of...

(The entire section is 1,484 words.)