John Russell Taylor

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1943

Never since L'Age d'Or has Buñuel's expression of his beliefs been so intense and concentrated, not even in Viridiana, the most complete later expression, since then there is a fully articulated plot to be dealt with and the film is more than twice as long. But one L'Age d'Or is enough; no man, not even Buñuel, would need to make two in one lifetime. It offers such riches all at one go that it leaves dozens of fragments of raw material just begging to be taken up again and reworked, as well as numerous ideas to be applied to an infinite number of new situations. The later films, after some twenty years' gap, set out to do precisely this; to build on the firm foundations offered by L'Age d'Or.

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Buñuel's next film, Las Hurdes (1932) also known as Land Without Bread, is a perfect illustration. At first sight it would seem the direct opposite of L'Age d'Or, a straight-forward social documentary about a depressed area in the mountains of Spain marking, one might suppose, a complete break with surrealist fantasy. And yet it is not like that at all…. Las Hurdes simply offers the reverse of the medal: Buñuel's objective camera-eye applied to the extraordinary gives it the air (all the more disturbing of course) of complete normality; applied to straight actuality, on the other hand, it somehow heightens our awareness to the point where what he sees takes on the colouring of wild surrealist fantasy. The tension in each case between, as it were, the tone of voice and what the voice is saying is exactly the same, and the ultimate effect is astonishingly consistent; not for nothing does Buñuel class Las Hurdes, without explanation, or, apparently, a second thought, among 'my surrealist films'. (pp. 89-90)

[Los Olvidados] was the first unmistakably 'Buñuel' film since Las Hurdes, fully characteristic of his mature vision and showing a quite extraordinary consistency of style and inspiration with the works of his early surrealist heyday.

At one stage, indeed, this was to have been even more evident, since Buñuel intended to include in the film moments of surrealist commentary on the principal story of juvenile delinquents in the slums of Mexico City: the camera, travelling reflectively over a wasteland, would pick out a symphony orchestra playing away in the skeleton of an unfinished building, and then return without lingering to the principal characters, and so on. But ultimately this idea was abandoned, and instead we are given what appears to be a straightforward realistic film, its fantasy carefully limited to a symbolic dream sequence. Appearances, however, are deceptive, as they were with Las Hurdes: what Buñuel is really about is the exploration of his private world, under the guise of realism. In Los Olvidados, in fact, he has hit at once on precisely the sort of ambivalence which has enabled him subsequently to make his own films quite happily within the commercial system. At one level the film works quite acceptably on the level of an humane social document … and that is the level on which it has appealed to a vast public. On another level, though, one can see it as not realistic at all, any more than Las Hurdes was realistic; and if this time the effect stops short of an empassioned call to murder, nevertheless the nightmarish, hallucinatory quality of the film is uniquely disturbing.

This result is achieved—though perhaps Buñuel would resent intensely one's saying it—by Buñuel's power to invest the most unexpected things with poetry. Not, of course, poetry in the sense that the appearance of Gabriel Figueroa, Mexico's foremost expert in lush atmospherics, as the film's cameraman might lead one to expect; the photography is throughout bare and stripped of extraneous effects, even in the dream sequence. Rather is it the sort of imagist poetry which comes from an intense heightening of individual sense impressions, so that certain selected objects take on the quality of a fetish, an instrument of ritual significance in the reenactment of some private myth. So in Los Olvidados it is with the cockerels which infest the action, heralding doom; with the dove whose soft body caresses the back of an invalid; the raw meat which sets the tone of the dream sequence; the terrible old blind man's stick; the milk which the girl Meche pours over herself to make her skin beautiful. Nothing is ever allowed to be completely and merely what it appears, any more than is the film as a whole. (pp. 92-3)

But as with Las Hurdes the apparent ruthless objectivity is only a matter of tone of voice; what is said in this tone of voice is selected with the utmost precision and phrased in such a way as to produce exactly the effect intended by the speaker and no other. Buñuel shines such a hard, unflinching light on external reality that it begins little by little to give itself over to him, to reveal its secrets from the darker, hidden world of instinctive needs or impulses. We look at the reality Buñuel has selected for us so closely and fixedly through his eyes that we begin to lose consciousness of any other criteria: reality takes on something of the feverish intensity of a dream; dreams, when they come, something of the cool matter-of-factness of reality; distinctions begin to blur and dissolve, leaving dream and waking reality alike as projections of Buñuel's own ideas on human life. All is stunted and twisted at the root by society and religion, which organize and limit man in such a way that love without inhibition is impossible, and when the instincts are trammelled in this way they can find expression only in misery, perversion, crime, and death.

As well as being Buñuel's first consistent and successful attempt to accommodate his anarchic, surrealist ideals to the commercial cinema, Los Olvidados offers a very fair example of his mature film technique. It is, as far as the use of the camera is concerned, remarkable only in its complete unremarkability. There are no startling 'effects', no beautiful photography, if beauty in photography is conceived only in terms of the arty and artificial, no virtuoso camera movements, no tours-de-force of editing. It sounds, therefore, rather as though it must be a dull, conventional film, but not at all. The angle of each shot is chosen and it is framed with an absolutely unerring instinct for conveying the precise nuance intended with the minimum of trouble; the editing style is smooth and free, without any commerce with conventional notions of montage—Buñuel simply cuts from one thing he wants to show to another, with no nonsense about covering and matching or what is and is not academically permissible; if it works he does it, and at least by the time the film is shown it always does. (pp. 94-5)

El is one of the most bitter, and the most frenziedly intense, of all Buñuel's films. His denunciation of Christianity, both directly and indirectly, through the portrait of the 'good Christian' Francisco, has never been so uncompromising, and the transposition of the message of L'Age d'Or to a superficially realistic setting if anything increases its power…. El is also, perhaps necessarily, Buñuel's most elaborate film technically: the overheated mind of Francisco, his inextricable mingling of fantasy and reality, is allowed to work on the spectator in a number of scenes through the use of technical devices usually confined by Buñuel to dream sequences; especially in the church sequence near the end, where we are shown in rapid alternation the priest, choir and congregation as they are and as they appear to Francisco, grimacing and mocking him. But Buñuel's talent for the extremely simple, unobtrusively right has not deserted him either; the sequences of the knitting-needles and the midnight sewing are all the more nightmarish and terrifying for being recorded quite calmly and straightforwardly, even remotely, with something of the documentary quality we noticed in Las Hurdes. (pp. 101-02)

Buñuel's prime interest in the cinema seems to lie in what he is saying; he does not start with a literary original and make it cinematic; it is simply that he expresses himself in cinematic terms because he creates films as unselfconsciously as other men write poems or paint pictures. This means that, as in the case of a very different director with whom nevertheless Buñuel has certain affinities, Jean Renoir, there is hardly ever any cinematic effect which forces itself on one's attention and calls for comment, as there is constantly in the work of Welles or Bergman. Effects are achieved instead for the most part with the utmost simplicity; it is simply (in the context that word has an ironic ring) a matter of putting the camera in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, consequently, Buñuel's films, like Renoir's, seem careless from their very ease and informality; he is not, we say, making the most of his material, getting all he can out of it. Ah, but isn't he? Even with his most casual, free-and-easy films like The Young One, which looks as if it was made up as Buñuel went along, and probably was, as soon as one comes to consider possible improvements, alternative, better ways of shooting a scene, the complete rightness and inevitability of the way Buñuel has done it is borne forcibly in on one. (pp. 112-13)

[The] highest tribute one can pay to Buñuel's direction is to say that one is hardly ever conscious of it. All the elements are at least competent, and in Viridiana … they are all … outstandingly good. Yet still the parts are subservient to the whole, and it is the overall effect which one takes away, not the excitements of individual elements. (p. 113)

Indeed, one might almost carry the argument a stage further and maintain—except that this would seem to devalue the individual films unduly—that Buñuel's total oeuvre is greater than the sum of its parts: certainly each addition to it enlarges and clarifies the significance of what has gone before, while the recurrent motifs, though hardly obscure at first sight, take on further layers of significance when studied as they gradually develop from film to film. Buñuel maintains that he never deliberately 'puts in the symbolism': that he lets his instinct carry him along and often does not know why he has done something until someone else points it out to him (Francisco's zigzag walk at the end of El, for example, corresponding to that at the height of his insane frenzy of jealousy, was put in according to Buñuel 'just because I liked the effect'—and yet the significance that emerges from it is ummistakable). But whether consciously or unconsciously, Buñuel forgets nothing…. In a study such as this one can only barely indicate something of the unique coherence of Buñuel's work, which is perhaps more completely stamped with its creator's personality than any other in the cinema. Even less can one exemplify its specifically cinematic quality; there is, happily, no substitute for seeing the films, as only that way can the sublime simplicity and case of Buñuel's art be appreciated. (p. 114)

John Russell Taylor, "Luis Buñuel," in his Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear: Some Key Film-Makers of the Sixties (reprinted by permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; in Canada, by AD Peters & Co Ltd; copyright © 1964 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1964, pp. 82-114.

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