Old Favorite

October 3, 2011

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 sequitursI 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.

Children of The Grid

January 27, 2010

Manhattan is a grid of streets, and the pretentious provincialism of its chauvinistic inhabitants has been ridiculed, lovingly by many, most famously by Saul Steinberg.  I encounter the grid tribesmen occasionally, I mean those who see themselves as such, or at least a segment of that population:  white,  professional, more or less liberal.  (In Europe, perhaps they would be called bourgeois.)  Their company makes me uneasy – I feel as if I’m struggling for breath in an airless room if I’m with more than two at a time.  Bunuel makes me laugh at it.

It’s the suffocating atmosphere of caste.  I guess I am with Groucho Marx who quipped that he didn’t want to join any club that would have him as a member.   I have a bit of envy of people who can so strongly link themselves to a place and a scene, like a barnacle that’s found a home, but I also find it upleasantly restrictive. Nostalgia is not an emotion I feel very much.

It’s all very personal:  When I meet people like this, I sometimes feel as if they are checking me out unconsciously and automatically, seeking to determine if I know the secret handshake or eye movment that signifies that I am of the tribe.   Intelligent?  Went to a “good” school?  Lives in what neighborhood..?  Politics okay, check!”   “Oh hell, just tell me what you think, if you think!”

I guess I’m a wee bit oversensitive, but you see, I come from the antipodes of The Grid.  I am from The Valley.

These photos are from a high school classmate, c. 1975.  That decor, those colors, that landscape, the plush pointless comfortable mentality of it all…how I loathed it.  To move east to attend a university was my dream and my escape.  Those were the thoughts of a silly teenager – it was hardly hell on earth.  And as I learned, the urban sophisticates of the east could be equally boring and trivial, not to mention pretentious.

The Lady Vanishes

October 5, 2009


Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) reminded me of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in a way.  A group of middle-class people find themselves in a nightmare world bounded by the edge of a room, or railway car, from which they cannot escape.  This one has a happy ending.

The movie gets off to such a slow and corny start, I almost gave up on it.  There’s the rich playgirl, getting ready to return to London to settle down according to Daddy’s wishes, and marry a “check-chasing blueblood.” A pair of stereotypical, cricket-obsessed Brits who keep up a steady idiotic patter, a charming, handsome, and brash musicologist  studying local folksongs, and a slightly batty old English lady governess.  They are all trapped by an avalanche in a remote backwater of some fictional central-European country, waiting for their train connection back to England.

off_to_marriage    not_cricket

Once on the train, the playgirl and the governess become friendly, and when the girl wakes up from a snooze, the old lady is gone.  Simply gone.  Everybody claims to have never seen her!  It becomes a somewhat labored cat-and-mouse game between the girl and the passengers:  she trying to get evidence that the woman did exist; they implying or saying straight out that she’s crazy.  A bit of physical evidence convinces the music man, and they make a team.  It turns out that the passengers are in a conspiracy to abduct and kill the old lady with an elaborate switcheroo involving a fake medical expert, a nun in black high-heeled pumps, and an Italian circus performer.  Then it gets weird.

After the heroes rescue the governess, the bad guys separate the train cars and direct the passengers and the engine onto a small line that runs into the forest.  They stop the train and surround the car with armed men.  After a failed ruse to get the passengers to disembark, they direct a fusillade at the car.  Why are all these people suddenly fighting for their lives in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a rail car, simply because of some old lady? 

A pretty woman with her lover, both fleeing spouses, demands that her man use his gun to defend them.  He thinks it’s all insane – the only sensible thing is to surrender and explain everything.  She grabs his gun and starts firing.  The two Brits rise to the occasion, without visible emotion of course, and turn out to be crack shots.  One grabs the pretty lady’s gun saying, “I’ll put it to better use,” and proceeds to pick off the attackers.  With each shot, the woman starts with fear while he, surveying the situation, calmly remarks, “I’m sure that there’s a rational –bang!– explanation – bang! – for all of this.”  Indeed there is.

use_the_Gun   a_rational_explanation

Happily returned to London, the playgirl abandons her gold-digging fiancé and surrenders to the ill mannered, but charming music man in an embrace that is not what I expect from a Hitchcock film

 k1    k2    k3

Exterminating Angel

September 13, 2009


Another Bunuel film:  this one about a group of upper class (bourgeois) in Mexico City who come to a dinner party and can’t ever leave.  They can’t leave the room – can’t step over the threshold to the next one where the front door is visible.  Nor can anyone outside come in and get them.  Nobody knows why.

Not all that unlike those discretely charming ones I was watching last week.  They too are immobilized, in time, in the world, in their little world, and undone by dinner parties.  As Bunuel said in the interview printed in the pamphlet that came with the Criterion Collection DVD, “I am a man of obsessions.”

While the guests are “trapped” in the parlor, they slowly descend towards savagery.  The idiotic and not so idiotic pretensions of their upper crust culture fall away and are replaced by despair, hunger, the desire to find a sacrificial victim, and rank disgust with one another.  Not a new theme, not a deep theme, but a good theme!  And treated with humor and biting sarcasm by LB.  Of course, lots of strange, inexplicable images too, like why did that guy tie a blindfold on a sheep that got into the room?

One other thing about the interview that struck me was that the critics often presented rather involved or esoteric interpretations of things in the film, asking for a “Yes, that’s it“, or a”No” from Bunuel.  Most of the time it was a “no.”  We are so eager to explain, or have explained to us the weird or the mysterious.  Especially from artists, whom we assume must know what they mean and have a clear message (even if it’s a clunky Cold War political allegory that seems utterly incredible – one explanation of the bear’s antics in the adjoining room – he represents the USSR threatening the bourgeoisie!)  More often than not, Bunuel said something like, “Well, I just wanted a strange image,” or “it just happened that way, and I really liked how it looked.”

Life imitates art

September 8, 2009

discreet_charm  2007-08-19-ShabbeyRoad2

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.