“Look at me. I’d rather be hanged than work!” Tristana, by Luis Bunuel. Don Lope may be a predatory lecher, but he has some good ideas!
Revisiting my high school days, I watched Wuthering Heights (1939) and read Emily Brontë’s novel again – better than I remembered! Well, not entirely: This bit was no less fantastic then than now.
How she does stare! It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’
What is this book?! It is unlike any other I know, and I have read a lot of 19th century gothic romances. Wuthering Heights trades in some features of the gothic – the supernatural, the barren and forbidding setting, weird, demonic characters – but compared to it, stories such as Melmoth the Wanderer and the like are child’s play. The horror and the fright in Wuthering Heights is all born out of psychology, twisted and implacable. More likely, the book has provided the template for a host of latter-day gothic horror stories set in windy inhospitable places filled with creepy dangerous people, and houses filled with sadistic perversity.
There is so much to this novel: the role of women of course; the place of servants; sexual perversity bordering on necrophilia; and psychopathology. For the surrealists, it was a touchstone of l’amour fou, although the film adaptation by the master, Luis Bunuel, The Abyss of Passion (not to be confused with the current telenovella of the same name!) misses the mark widely.
The story involves two households and two families on the moors of northern England. Local color is given by the deep Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, the insufferably pious hypocrite and loyal house servant. There are no towns nearby – the action is all local, except when the characters charge out of the novel’s frame to elope, or emigrate to America to gain a fortune, and reports of their doings filter back by letter or word of mouth. The family trees get tangled, and it’s a good idea to have a clear one before you when you read the story since there is Catherine Earnshaw, and Cathy Linton, and Healthcliff (no other name, as in Cher, or Sting) and Mr. Heathcliff, his despised son, and so forth. Heathcliff wreaks havoc on them all.
The demonic Heathcliff is adopted informally to the family by Mr. Earnshaw who finds him homeless on the streets of Liverpool during a business trip. His act of generosity is the undoing of his descendants and community: is there a moral here? Heathcliff and Cathy develop an intense bond as children – is this unhealthy? – and Cathy’s brother is jealous of his prerogatives as the heir to the manor. When kindly Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is banished to the stables.
The book is filled with servants, telling as it does the tale of local country gentry. In fact, the main characters are surrounded by people, but most of them are never seen. Stableboys, field hands, servant girls, all toiling to produce the wealth that sustains the Earnshaws and the Lintons. Heathcliff runs away to escape the humiliation heaped upon him as one without a lineage or property, and he returns rich: where did he get his money? Nobody knows. He seeks vengeance on the landed proprietors that cast him out. No wonder this book was popular with Marxists literary critics!
In the end, Heathcliff appears to be successful in his quest: He lost Cathy to an early death, but he is assured of being buried next to her, an essential arrangement for him. In fact, he can barely restrain himself from embracing her corpse that he has ordered exhumed in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book. He has driven Cathy’s brother to ruin, pushed her husband into an early grave, financially and emotionally emasculated his former tormentor, the son of his benefactor, and is on the way to thoroughly degrading the son of Cathy’s brother, who should be the heir to the Heights, but doesn’t even realize he’s being cheated of his birthright. Oh, and Heathcliff has a son, whom he despises, born of Cathy’s sister, who was idiotically attracted to his dark, handsome prospect, and was quick to realize she had practically married Satan. She, at least, had the good sense to flee.
But Heathcliff is undone by love. His own obsessive love for the dead Cathy haunts him to distraction. And the genuine love and affection that springs up between Cathy and Hareton, despite his best efforts to turn them against one another, irritates him beyond endurance. Cathy has inherited the stubbornness and defiance of her mother, and turns it, with love, against Heathcliff. He just dies…
And then there is Nellie, the servant who narrates most of the book. She is often in the position of doing something that she doesn’t think is quite right, and that she would not do for her own family, but which her subservient position compels her to do. And then, sometimes she just concludes that it’s not worth the effort to try and oppose the wishes of her masters: after all, they are the masters, and she just a servant, even though she knows she is right and they are wrong. I wonder if she is, after all, the voice of Emily in the book.
Man, what an imagination that woman had!
The 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is very fine in its Hollywood-romantic way, although it deals only with the first generation of pain in Wuthering Heights, ending with the death of Catherine Earnshaw. Olivier is wonderful in embodying the dark attraction of the Heathcliff as well as his frenzied, obsessional love. And his supercilious blank stares when he is playing cat and mouse with his gentry opponents is brilliant.
I saw An Andalusian Dog when I was sixteen, in a public library of all places. I wonder if any librarian would dare screen it today! Now I can see it on Netflix whenever I want to, and I watched it last night. A wonderful thing about this 1929 milestone of cinema and surrealism is that it simply is as it appears – weird. Luis Bunuel used to make jokes about the deep interpretations that critics would apply to his montages and visual non sequiturs: I just liked how it looked, he would say.
Check out this comic by Max, Bardin, The Superrealist for a wild ride inspired in part by Dali, Bunuel, and their Andalusian Dog.
Death in the Garden is a film from 1956 by Luis Bunuel. The plot is one we have seen many times in cinema: an unlikely group of characters is forced to work together in order to survive in hostile circumstances, outside of the boundaries of civilization, and in the process, their personalities and the old class distinctions begin to disintegrate. Nothing at all surprising here, and the film is, in fact, rather straightforward for those expecting a wild dash of surrealism, but that is not to say it’s boring. No, it was a wonderful, surprising, and sometimes poignant movie. It’s also in stunning 1950s color.
Our group comprises a rather uptight priest, a brash prostitute used to running her own show, an elderly miner, her former customer, who has decided to marry her and take her back home to France with him, the miner’s daughter, a pretty young woman who is mute, and a handsome adventurer running from the law. They all must flee their one-horse town in the South American wilderness when the high-handed actions of the corrupt local military man provoke an armed uprising. The miner and adventurer are falsely accused of crimes, the whore is implicated with the miner, and the priest…at first he is taken against his will, but after that, he’s a marked man too.
With the setting of the Amazonian jungle, it’s clear that The Garden refers to Eden. The philosophical and religious themes are piled on one after another, but with delicious irony and humor – you could ignore them if you wish and just enjoy a really good adventure yarn. Now and then, there is a touch that jumps out as distinctly Bunuel, but mostly his presence is felt in the sure direction, the interplay of image and idea, and the portrayal of human culture and norms as just this side of bizarre when seen in the context of nature’s ‘garden.’
I had never seen Simone Signoret as anything but a plump and almost matronly older figure. Here she is in her early bombshell days: first meeting with Chark, who is happy to pay for her company; in the jungle with the priest for company, desparately in need of a bath.
Chark kills a snake, and saves them from starvation. Later, the priest sees the remains swarming with ants. What would a Bunuel film be without ants? Was the priest having a vision, or does he really see it?
We see a shot of Paris at night, cars honking, and suddenly it’s an old snapshot of Paris by the light of their jungle campfire, the film suddenly runs down and the audio stops… Reminds me of the film breaking in Bergman’s Personna-which came first?
They are saved when they come upon the wreck of an airplane that was carrying a load of rich vacationers. Suitcases yield food, drink, fancy clothes, and even jewels! We see a well dressed woman opening a jewel box, and then are jolted to see it is the young Maria, dressed up, searching through the luggage. The priest tries to inject a note of law and order, but the lovely young girl is dazzled by the apples, er…jewels.
Djin, the whore, “looks like a real lady,” and makes quite an impression on Chark. They like each other, but they have to get past the fact that she turned him in to the police for a cut of his cash. What a bizarre shot this is – high fashion in the wilderness.
Obviously, this idea has a lot of appeal for people today.
The images below say it all: bare skin, the jungle, raw passion, jewels, civilization stripped away…I saw the advert on a huge billboard driving home from the airport after watching the movie on my flight. It exploits the jewels on naked-savage-skin opposition for different ends.
She’s tempted, but she’s innocent. Two of the group survive to escape down the river in a shot that brought to mind the end of The Great Escape, when Charles Bronson floats down a stream to freedom in a small boat.
That’s what Oscar Wilde said, life imitates art, not the other way ’round. I’ve been watching some Luis Bunuel films, and both he and Oscar would be amused by this pair of images, or appalled, maybe.
The one on the left is from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie from 1972. The one on the right is of the Bush Gang on his ranch in 2007. A similar, but better image appeared on the front page of the NY Times and I immediately thought of the lost souls of La charme discret, walking, walking, walking, never getting anywhere… [In the Times’ image, Condi was facing 3/4 backwards, as if beckoning to Georgie Bush to c’mon…] Were the editors and photographers of the paper thinking what I’m thinking now?
The movie is mostly dreams, some dreams within dreams, of two French bourgeois men who can’t ever seem to get time to eat their dinner or to have proper sex. They are always being interrupted by…reality? In one sequence, the ambassador from the Latin American nation of Miranda is at a party and repeatedly asked uncomfortable questions by guests: Is it true that Miranda has the highest homicide rate in the world? The greatest infant mortality? That poverty is at an all-time high? No, no, no. Exaggerations. Not that bad at all. Finally, the importunate questioning is too much, and he shoots one of his tormentors…and awakes.
They are all liars, hypocrites, criminals, and frauds. They deal in cocaine and denounce the degradation of the times over cocktails. The priest is deeply pious, and he even grants absolution to the man he confesses who turns out to be the killer of his parents. Then he shoots the man with a shotgun.
This is how I was introduced to Luis Bunuel. Salvador Dali facilitated the intro, and Wagner’s liebstodt provided the soundtrack. This is the opening of the Dali-Bunuel 1924 film, An Andalusian Dog. In the next second, the woman’s eye will be sliced open with the man’s razor (Bunuel’s the man, I believe), and from there, it only gets, well, more surreal. L’Age d’Or was Bunuel’s next venture with Dali, and it is a full-length film, while Un Chien runs a mere 20 minutes – could you take more? L’Age is also easier to watch, focusing as it does more on l’amour fou than rotting donkey carcasses on pianos, ants, and ocular torture. Soundtrack courtesy of Schubert’s Unfinished.
Today I watched Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones) which Bunuel made in Mexico in 1950, and about which I had heard much, but never seen. Bunuel worked productively in Mexico for many years after dropping out of sight for quite some time before and after WWII. Los Olvidados packs a terrific wallop. It’s about boys in a gang in Mexico City, and it’s brutal, totally unsentimental, and filled with images from his bizarre, personal imagination. There’s the dream of the boy Pedra in which his mother approaches him with a huge piece of red meat hanging from her hands; there’s the funny moment when the food vendor looks at Jaibo, takes his order, doesn’t see the policeman appear, and looks back to see Jaibo has…disappeared, as if by magic. The image of the blind singer-medicine man stroking the naked back of Pedra’s mother with a white dove to draw out her pain is another.
The sequence that sticks with me – even more than the last frame showing the hero’s body being dumped unceremoniously onto a garbage pile by an innocent family who don’t want to be mixed up in his death – is the one when Pedra leaves his reform school. The director, who is wise and compassionate, realizes that Pedra can go straight if he’s given half a chance and shown affection and trust. To quell the anger that Pedra feels at being in what he feels is a prison, where he has been placed unjustly, he gives him money and shows him the unguarded gate. He asks him to go into town to do an errand for him. He wants to prove to him that he is free, and that his life’s direction is up to him. We see Pedra running into town, smiling, only to be collared by the throughly depraved Jaibo, who steals the money from Pedra. Pedra starts on a quest to get back the money, but it only ends in his death. That scene is the last we see of the school and the director. What was he thinking all this time while Pedra was out trying to get back the 50 pesos?
What I love about this is that Bunuel doesn’t go for the easy ironies that are cliched. No scenes of the director shaking his head a few days later, ruefully acknowedging the failure of his experiment as days pass with no sight of the boy. No scenes of his assistant saying, “Well, boss, I guess you were wrong about that one, right? Can’t win ’em all.” Bunuel gives us all the ironies before the whole sequence starts! As the boy runs out the gate, the director and the assistant have a conversation in which he says that if he’s wrong, he will pay for his mistake with 50 pesos. “All mistakes cost something, ” he says. That remark hangs over the remainder of the film – he didn’t make a mistake, but will he ever find out? Will he know that? Just one example of why this film seems as fresh as if it were just released.