Raymond Durgnat

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782

If the inexplicable abounds in Buñuel's work, it is so that his moral arguments are constantly related to the inner world of desires and feelings, related in a way which asserts their irrational existence as categorical imperatives of man's nature. Buñuel is a moralist, but also protests against the rationalist, as well as puritan, attempt to apply moral standards to every impulse and feeling of man.

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In his detachment from his own lyricism, Buñuel is more Brechtian than Brecht. He has no need of alienation effects, which in practice delight us aesthetically, thus de-alienating themselves. In his theories, Brecht was a rhetorician, and he pays the price for it. Buñuel needs no alienation effects, because the complexity of his characters and of their predicaments, and the sardonic restraint of his style, force the spectator to careful moral judgements at every turn. (p. 16)

The lack of sympathy for Buñuel's characters, in their absurdity, is often the spectator's response, not the director's. For example many critics thought of Don Jaime (Viridiana's uncle) simply as a morbid fetishist. Buñuel, pointed out that whatever his faults might be, there was a great deal of kindness and nobility in his attitudes. Once one refrains from, in effect, destroying Don Jaime by ridicule, his story takes on a more deeply tragic tone without so immersing the spectator in the tragic that he can't see the tragically derisive too. (pp. 16-17)

Buñuel's films are profoundly dialectical in that every character, every event, is not an assertion of any one point, but is a synthesis between opposing polarities…. Excessive simple-mindedness prevails if the spectator feels that because Don Jaime is ridiculous, he isn't tragic, or that, conversely, because the hero of El finishes in a tragic predicament, he isn't also funny. The play of contradictions in Buñuel's work is extremely sharp.

Aristotelian logic also underlies the common distortion of works of art by the attribution of excessively cut-and-dried symbolic meanings, although artists work by conglomerates of associations. Nowhere is this associative quality more apparent than in the Buñuelian motif of insects. (p. 17)

Buñuel's own remarks on his 'entomological' interest in people strengthens one's impression that Buñuel characters who have lost their biological integrity as a result of tabus, repressions, and so on, to become mere units in the social ant-heap, often take on insect-like movements. The insect world is a metaphor for all that is tragically derisory in alienated man…. Buñuel's motifs are … occasions for dissonances, contradictions, ambivalences, for a radically non-hierarchical view of the universe.

This sense of life's disorder explains, too, why Buñuel's films are often visually messy. His characters' rooms or surroundings are often littered with objects: tools, stores, objects of every kind. Formal pleasure is degraded by the impurity of things. The world around is non-symbolic; it is just what it is, a disorder from which man selects what he needs to live with, and whose selected objects also lie around in something of a mess. (p. 18)

So marked is Buñuel's lyrical reticence, and so often does his lyricism run at cross-purposes to conventional expectation, that Buñuel's films often disappoint the sophisticated spectator when he sees them for the first time. If he likes them it is because, as Jean-Luc Godard observed, a film doesn't have to be consistently exciting to please audiences. All it needs is a few bold ideas or moments which will hold up the duller parts. But even when initially they disappoint, Buñuel's films prove barbed….

His films abound also in argument. But we may be misled by this word unless we remember that the logic of Buñuel's films is of course, a dramatic logic. Its content may be moral and philosophical, but its form is dramatic. Fiction is so much a matter of particular people, particular circumstances, particular cases, that the relationship between the particular story and reality in general can never be logically established. Dramatic logic is suggestive rather than exclusive, divergent rather than convergent. It's not 'this must follow from that …' but 'had you realised that these apparently distinct factors could be related?' The value of dramatic logic lies not in its irrefutability, but in the insights which it offers, and the lived experience of those insights. By sharing certain experiences with the screen characters, the spectator explores himself and others simultaneously. What he had cursorily dismissed now becomes, not only a theoretical possibility, but in the fullest sense, comprehensible. (p. 20)

Raymond Durgnat, in his Luis Bunuel (copyright © 1967 by Movie Magazine Limited; copyright © 1977 by Raymond Durgnat; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), University of California Press, 1977, 176 p.

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