Randall Conrad

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The Golden Age [or L'Age d'Or] is an attack on repressive society but Bunuel views social repression and individual inhibition as two sides of a single reality. The ambivalent symbolism of The Golden Age enables Bunuel to capture a dialectic between the outer prison—"imperial Rome", Christian civilization, bourgeois society—and the inner prison: the guilt which denies pleasure, inhibits instincts and conditions man to conformity. Each side reflects the other; both form an indissoluble whole. It is the whole which is Bunuel's target.

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For Bunuel the key to liberation is desire, the mainspring of human activity. The perfect ideological complement to The Golden Age is Freud's contemporaneous study, Civilization and its Discontents—civilization originated with the sublimation of the sexual urge, a process reflected in the development of the individual….

[The] inhibiting brick and concrete civilization which surrounds us is vulnerable only when our vision is sharpened by passion. During the mock documentary, a row of house-fronts along an empty street falls apart in a series of billowing explosions. For the most part in The Golden Age, however, the buildings of imperial Rome remain standing—society is impenetrable to all who don't see through it. (p. 3)

The Golden Age constitutes a whole mythology of society and its conflicts, thanks to the double character of its symbols; at the same time, it constitutes an attack upon society, an aggravation of the conflicts.

Furthermore, it is our own society, bourgeois society, which Bunuel attacks. The subversive radicalism of The Golden Age has often been identified with Marxism….

The real history of society is irrelevant in The Golden Age since its unconscious premises are permanent. The sole dynamic force in The Golden Age is sexual desire inasmuch as it negates civilization. In return, the essence of civilization is summed up by its unanimous reaction to one man's erection….

Nowadays The Golden Age seems more pertinent to the Freudian critique of civilization than to dialectical materialism; left-wing critics are obliged to perform an exercise of interpretation if they want to reopen a Marxist dialogue with Bunuel's film. Yet in its own time, The Golden Age was readily accepted as a politically revolutionary work. (p. 4)

Without being a Marxist film, The Golden Age presents strong analogies to a Marxist critique. It insists on the concrete nature of the real world. It tramples upon reactionary ideology—religion, romance, bourgeois rationalism—and it is open to a class conscious and historically conscious reading. (p. 6)

The Golden Age is a surrealist film above all and a Marxist film only by association.

Bunuel's next film, the third and last of his surrealist period, was the short documentary Land Without Bread…. Using nothing but objective data about one of the most barren regions in Europe and concealing himself in the role of the neutral reporter, Bunuel achieves a reading of reality that is perhaps his purest surrealist work.

It is the very objectivity of Land Without Bread which makes it an unbearable experience, a surrealist experience. The element of subjective aggravation is no longer a theme of the film itself (as in The Golden Age); it is now the spectator's own consciousness which is aggravated.

Bunuel's achievement in Land Without Bread is due as much to his choice of subject—an impoverished area of Spain cut off from society—as to his construction of the film, which proceeds by systematic contradictions of the viewer's logical reactions….

The depiction of labor is an essential theme in Land Without Bread but it is not labor as we know it in the civilized world, labor contributing to the furtherance of a developed social system. The labor of the peasants of Las Hurdes is an effort to tame a hostile nature for the first time, an effort which invariably ends in failure and puts their embryonic society back at zero…. Bunuel identifies the essential component of the peasants' life as hunger. Not the hunger which can be satisfied and which historically generates political systems (and rebellions against the systems when they no longer meet the primary needs), but a permanent unsatisfied hunger which is identical to life itself. The peasants' famished condition is an objective equivalent to desire in Bunuel's other films. Unlike desire, however, this morbid condition can never be a positive force….

Upon this overall fatalism Bunuel imposes structures which do nothing to relieve the horror but on the contrary create tensions and contradictions in our perception of it that cannot be resolved. (p. 7)

What about help from the outside? The Church is present but its decayed edifices are like the ruins of an ancient colonization which withered long ago. As a bearer of progress the Church is a mockery, for it does nothing for the peasants but mirror the presence of death.

The peasants, however, have one point of contact with modern society, the recently built schoolhouse. The liberal viewer's reflex is to count on this imported education as a potential improvement in the peasants' lives. But the sequence proves only that an education which teaches mathematics to children who are starving is impotent. Worse, the bourgeois education which illustrates the ragged childrens' lesson with a picture of an 18th Century lady in her finery and which teaches them to "respect the property of others" is monstrous….

In miniature the commentary reproduces the contradictions in the bourgeois education it is describing. The humanist consciousness (education is the same everywhere) is vaguely aware that it is out of tune with reality (starvation, rags, bare feet) but never quite renders the discrepancy as an outright contradiction. (p. 8)

Bunuel couches his documentary entirely within the tradition of a socially useless humanism and ethnology, then surreptitiously articulates it upon the premise that that tradition—including documentary film-making—is impotent. The film actually destroys its own premises and, in so doing, it destroys the refuge of humanism.

Made in the midst of violent political upheavals, a sharpening clash between Right and Left in Spain and throughout Europe, Land Without Bread strips society of its historical and political aspect and exposes its prehistoric form, when the struggle against nature was the all-consuming task. Yet it insists that this society—the primeval horror of which we had almost banished from consciousness—is a part of our civilization. The ultimate horror of Bunuel's film consists in our dissociation, our helplessness, whenever we try to identify the peasants' lives with our own. They are after all men and women like ourselves, going about the daily business of living. Yet their every effort is deflected, by some primal urgency we can scarcely believe, from the goals we would consider normal.

Land Without Bread is nevertheless open to a contemporary political reading—its negation of the 'progressive' options in bourgeois ideology, including liberal politics, make it a radical work. (pp. 8-9)

With Spain 1937 we are in the forefront of political history, at the opposite extreme from the ahistorical community of Land Without Bread. What is more, historical events are conceived and structured according to an ideology that was external to Bunuel's prior films, a Marxist analysis only slightly blurred by the dual rhetoric of 'progressive' politics. (p. 10)

What is difficult to characterize … is Bunuel's relationship to the ostensible politics of this film. His cinematic contribution to it generally consists in adding an element of ironic distance or an unexpected turn of perspective to the chronicle of events. While these touches never contradict the political narrative, they do at times veer a bit from the political norms established in the commentary.

Primarily, Bunuel brings a necessary distance to the chaos of events. Spain 1937 at first seems related to Land Without Bread in its dry commentary, which avoids sentimentality and simply relates facts. The objective tone, however, stops short of the applied cruelty of Bunuel's earlier documentary, for it has after all a strictly political task—to publicize the hidden war and win our sympathy and solidarity for the republicans. The understated narration in this case is simply the best means of making both the reality of the war and its political analysis credible to viewers.

Yet Bunuel occasionally contributes another kind of distance, a more facetious irony, with an unexpected cut or image or turn of phrase. Certain discrepancies between word and image give the impression that the editor is at odds with the commentary on some topics and is trying to make the images say something else.

The narrator asserts that the new Popular Front government is a progressive one—"The republic begins to move forward again. Each day brings new progress, opening new perspectives for the Spanish people." Over "new perspectives", however, we are only watching politicians making their way down some official stairway; what is more, the editors have left in one or two jump-cuts, so that the down-ward progress of the politicians seems endless. (pp. 10-11)

There is a black humor in some of Bunuel's images of the ironies of war. Men and women surprised by an air raid run for shelter while a triple Charlie Chaplin looks on quizzically from some wall posters advertising Modern Times. There is black humor, too, in this line about the defense of Madrid at Torija: "The soldiers wept with rage because their swollen and bleeding feet wouldn't let them chase the enemy any further." The same perverse spirit guides Bunuel's construction of parallel sequences contrasting the fascists' annihilation of the Basque country (including "the sanctuaries of Basque freedom") with a sanctuary in which wives and children of nationalists are prisoners of the republicans—"The republic also watches over the lives of its enemy's children."…

The music is a surrealist element. Bunuel uses Beethoven. A mincing waltz from the First Symphony accompanies the right-wing politicians; the Egmont Overture accompanies the rest of the film, including the fascist bombings and the people's counterattacks. Bunuel is undecided whether to use the overture independently, as in Land Without Bread, or to assign it a narrower symbolic function—it is often (though not consistently) associated with the aggressors….

Throughout the conflict—and in contrast to the collapsing cities—an impassive nature continues to flourish in the foregrounds and backgrounds of scenes, indifferent to the human tragedy yet inseparable from it….

The collapse of civilization portrayed in The Golden Age and Land Without Bread materializes in the identical imagery of the actuality footage of Spain 1937. But Bunuel subordinates his surrealism to his Marxism. The people are victims, but victors, too. (p. 11)

On the surface Bunuel's politics move back and forth between the positive class consciousness of Men Call it Dawn and the anarchist pessimism of The Young and the Damned [Los Olvidados], between Marxism and the Freudian politics of surrealism. More exactly, Bunuel aims to obtain a permanent dialectic between the two ideologies; at the very least the surrealist basis is overlaid with a deliberate Marxist slant which is Bunuel's caution that his message of revolt will advance revolution, not reaction….

All relationships in The Young and the Damned are based on violence, including those in institutions which are supposed to foster goodness like family and school. Specifically, Bunuel's violent, primary characters are unwitting victims of the oedipal conflicts at work inside their damaged family relations, the source of their violence. (p. 10)

Bunuel … displays a consistent preference for melodrama, most obviously in his film's many horror scenes, but also in the film's abundance of coincidence (Jaibo reappears just as Pedro is let out on good behavior) and in the intercutting of different episodes involving different characters so as to afford us a superior dramatic vantage…. Melodrama enables us to see the whole picture, heightened. The Young and the Damned stands nearly alone even among Bunuel's films in achieving, in the guise of realism, a synthesis of inner and outer realities.

By the same token, however, The Young and the Damned is by no means a politically encouraging work. The poor are amoral and vicious, and every character is the plaything of destructive forces as inescapable as destiny in ancient tragedy. What for Bunuel is ultimate realism, perhaps the true test of our compassion for humanity, can also look like reactionary propaganda. (pp. 10-11)

Men Call it Dawn belongs to a politically didactic tradition on the left, the drama of class consciousness expressed through the options of a petty bourgeois character obliged to decide between a life of compromise and a moral stand which in this case is not strictly political but entails a shift of class identity nevertheless. Bunuel virtually puts a cinema of identification in the service of a class typology. It is the petty bourgeois who changes sides: Sandro has no freedom in Bunuel's view. The class spectrum in Men Call it Dawn is actually a simple one. It is impossible not to hate the sinister capitalist Sandro kills, while quite to the contrary of The Young and the Damned, we sympathize easily with the peasants and workers like Sandro.

Bunuel's placement of Valerio's consuming love in a parallel relationship to his quasi-political gesture in hiding Sandro is intended to complicate as well as heighten the moral choice Valerio makes, beyond the canon acceptable to a positive realism. Valerio is an adulterer and Sandro a murderer. Still, we never doubt they are good men….

Many of Bunuel's films of the early 1950's are domestic comedies or melodramas. Bunuel exploits the archetypes which are the stuff of melodrama; at the same time he abolishes the sentimentality, the cinema of identification that normally conceals the real social content of those archetypes….

Bunuel uses melodramatic coincidence to symbolize a fatality that really is the expression of subconscious impulse. This is reflected at the end of This Strange Passion [El] when Francisco's paranoia weaves random experience (noises, faces glimpsed) into an obsessive hallucination. It is, precisely, no coincidence that in his delirium Francisco attacks the priest in the very church which has stifled his emotional and sexual happiness in the guise of protecting it. However, one speculates about the subconsciously willed quality of the film's coincidences only in retrospect; what is striking on the screen is their absurdity.

Despite its dark themes, This Strange Passion is a work of sustained humor. Bunuel's technique consists of having the actors play the most extreme scenes perfectly seriously with each other, rather than playing to the audience for laughs or pathos. This distancing technique reinforces Bunuel's demonstration by the absurd; it is also at the basis of Bunuel's mock-behaviorism, a curious feeling akin to the clinical detachment with which, one imagines, Marx and Freud made man's irrational behavior the object of scientific study. (p. 11)

In many films Bunuel surreptitiously undermines the normal authority of the family, exposing its perversity, its exclusion of passion, its crippling of children….

In Tristana, the quasi-incestuous 'marriage' which Lope creates for his own convenience is a false sexual freedom which oppresses Tristana and finally Lope too. This travesty of a family is Bunuel's symbol for the false consciousness which confines both Lope and Tristana in reactionary sexual, family and class relations while allowing them to believe they are free individuals….

Lope's contradictory class ideology also reflects his false freedom in objective social terms. He calls himself a socialist, yet despises work and lives the life of a propertied, honor-obsessed gentleman in a Spain on the brink of civil war….

The Brute [El Bruto] is an unusually class conscious melodrama which approaches the politically didactic model, for it is expressly about a crisis of class allegiance in the hero. (p. 12)

What animates the class conflict in The Brute is Bunuel's parallel between Pedro's dawning class consciousness and his archetypal progression from brutality to humanity, to civilization, through his new love. Bunuel is able thus to say two things at once. The capitalist form of society we live in is not civilization at all, but a brutal state preceding it…. On the other hand, Bunuel implies through the themes of father-killing and other taboo-breaking that Pedro's violence, while finally revolutionary, inescapably revives the archetypal murder. Revolution itself, without necessarily losing its positive value, is thus assimilated to the irrational rebellion which underlies civilization permanently and generates its conflicts. (pp. 12-13)

Bunuel's survival stories set in jungles or on islands are case studies of civilization's conflicts. Bunuel lifts his characters from their normal immersion in the decadent society to which they were more or less adapted and drops them into a primitive context: they must struggle against an indifferent natural environment and recreate civilization.

A handful of outcasts bound to each other only by bad faith and hostility are forced to keep company as they escape from a riot-torn mining town through an impenetrable rain forest in Death in This Garden [La Mort en ce jardin]. Once the dubious protection of civilization is left behind, Bunuel reverses the conventional scale of values….

Beyond the surface drama, Bunuel allows us to watch the unspoken dynamics that really move this society in cross-section. We feel—and it is an important clue to the exact nature of Bunuel's pessimism—that the characters must play out their destructive games before we can glimpse the possibility (and perhaps no more than that) of genuine relationships….

Bunuel … obtains a political perspective upon the survival theme. The refugees all believe that they have no connection with [the society they have decided to leave]. But the religion, venality, and bourgeois ambition which finally undo them originate precisely in this near-fascist society and bind them to it even as they seek freedom.

Bunuel's retelling of a castaway's single-handed reinvention of civilization to keep himself from savagery, Robinson Crusoe, contains a more ambitious yet ambivalent effort to integrate the study of civilization with a specific political critique. Crusoe painfully masters nature although he cannot abolish his own solitude. Bunuel contrasts Crusoe's hard-won material success (bread, clothing, etc.) with his spiritual consolation, the Bible….

Bunuel is exploring two things at the same time. On the one hand, Friday stands for a taboo, cannibalism, which Crusoe must overcome anew if his civilization's promise of friendship is to be realized. At the same time Bunuel is out to expose the arbitrariness—the racist imperialism—with which Crusoe's civilization asserts superiority over that of Friday….

The character of Friday must thus do double duty, symbolizing both a pre-civilized way of life which must be domesticated anyhow and a way of life which just happens to be alien to Crusoe and thus reveals Crusoe's unconscious norms. The barbarity of Crusoe's civilization is fully visible when Crusoe winds up teaching the former savage, once his potential enemy, to use firearms to defend themselves against an invasion by plundering, murderous mutineers from Crusoe's own country.

Bunuel's irony in Robinson Crusoe is not always adequate to the sometimes contradictory implications of Friday's role, though the general intent can be seen. (p. 14)

Bunuel's ironic twists [in The Young One] demonstrate that relative good is accomplished, if at all, only by applying pressure from a position of power, not through moral argument. At the same time the possibility of a breakthrough to truly human relations born of concrete experience is always present. For Bunuel there is a covert dialectic between Miller's budding love for Evvie and his prejudice against the black man…. The real meaning of the rapist stereotype, Bunuel implies, is that for Miller Travers represents love and freedom, an unknown tenderness which he fears and which it is easier to repress than to liberate.

Bunuel makes castaways of a group of refined bourgeois in The Exterminating Angel, not by lifting them out of their decadent society but by imprisoning them right inside it….

Incarcerated in the midst of their own urbanity, the bourgeois are as cut off from sustenance as the castaways in the midst of nature in Death in This Garden and Robinson Crusoe. On the other hand, where the castaways must recreate the ways of civilization, the bourgeois drop the cover of sophistication only to reveal plain hostility. Where the castaways must be amoral, violent, murderous in order to lay the basis for civilization, the characters who survive the longest in The Exterminating Angel are those whose roles in life are disciplined by professional dedication with an element of resignation: the doctor, the head servant (who "studied with the Jesuits"), and the host himself, who alone among the bourgeois has consciously assimilated the civilized proprieties as a necessity, not a convenience.

Bunuel uses a narrative made of repetition with variation, a mock dialectic which achieves critical perspective by moving freely from the particular to the general, concrete to abstract, reality to myth and back. The bourgeois' collective hallucination becomes the prototype of organized religion when they suddenly find themselves trapped all over again in their church….

Bunuel allows us to glimpse the larger political world—the fascists' demonstration in Cherbourg—only in a fragmentary sequence at the very end of Diary of a Chambermaid. He simply thrusts the demonstration upon us; the political references (to Chiappe for example) are actual, but not explained. If Bunuel draws no tighter connection between Celestine's private drama and the political developments, it is because the real theme of Diary of a Chambermaid is precisely the disproportion between the private and public dramas….

Bunuel's parallel resolutions and discontinuous political finale abruptly force the 'individual drama' into the context of the social 'relationship.' Bunuel offers no positive image of freedom, political or moral; he demonstrates what freedom is not. Diary of a Chambermaid can be taken as a perfectly class conscious demonstration of the proposition that individual freedom is a bourgeois illusion, and worse, an illusion that conceals and perpetuates oppression. It can just as readily be taken as a statement of utter pessimism, a closed universe…. It is Bunuel's denunciation of fascism itself which is the ambivalent element in Diary of a Chambermaid. It makes the film one of Bunuel's strongest politically, yet at the same time it is a global expression of the pessimism which is after all inherent in Bunuel's vision.

Nazarin and Diary of a Chambermaid are not realist cinema, but their style nevertheless gives full weight to the visible, materially determined world. On the other hand, the surrealism of Bunuel's non-narrative films, which give equal weight to fantasy and reality, seriously qualifies any political understanding of the materialist critique we have identified so far. Bunuel realizes his fundamental poetic aim: to create a total mythology encompassing, potentially, the ahole of society, symbolizing its psychological determinants equally with its political ones….

The Phantom of Liberté … treats violence and obsession with death as something fundamental, society's reason for existing, paradoxically. The class aspect of that society is identified but not emphasized.

Each scene is originally some commonplace of melodrama, of bourgeois society's self-image, but some discordant element enters the picture, makes nonsense of the conventional content, and uncovers the archetypal meaning of the commonplace, which always has to do with a latent fear of death….

Finally all of civilization in The Phantom of Liberté appears as no more than a frantic concerted effort to deny death. Mortality nevertheless leaves its horrid calling card in the psyche of the body. It is the letter the dreamer finds in his pocket upon awakening and it is the cancer which an x-ray reveals in another character's innards. But the doctors whom these two individuals consult refuse to face the final mystery of death. That is not their job; it is not anybody's job; there is no social convention for it, and so death appears, unexpected and disturbing, in everything….

Bunuel insists, whether dialectically or pessimistically, on seeing freedom and life only in terms of oppression and death. Death, as it flits among the unconnected lives in Bunuel's film, may be the only form in which we glimpse the phantom of freedom.

With its unusual effort to treat political and psychological realities as parts of an indissoluble whole, Bunuel's work not only reflects but responds to the struggle between idealism and materialism. Hence the paradoxes which keep Bunuel's art alive and which make it politically challenging to the left it presumably serves. Bunuel is a materialist who nevertheless insists on subjective reality, an idealist who is dialectical, a determinist who exalts the will to freedom. (p. 18)

It is significant that Grand Casino, the first of Bunuel's commercial films, opens like several others with a jailbreak. It is no less significant that the hero's escape is accompanied by a sardonic discussion among the cellmates as to whether it's better to break out or stay in. Bunuel rejected the label 'pessimist' at the time of The Young and the Damned, yet volunteered it at the time of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Ultimately for this 'good pessimist', society is founded on a basis so conflicted that its essential injustice cannot perhaps be eradicated; yet it is nothing other than the constant effort to eradicate it which defines humanity. (p. 51)

Randall Conrad, "'The Minister Bunuel of the Interior Is on the Telephone': The Early Films of Luis Bunuel" and "'A Magnificent and Dangerous Weapon': The Politics of Luis Bunuel's Later Films," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1976, 1977 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. VII, Nos, 3 & 4, 1976–77, pp. 2-14, 10-18, 51.

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