Death in the Garden

July 2, 2010

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.

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Atheism on the sly

March 31, 2010

It’s 1715, and Louis XIV, The Sun King is near to setting.  The Duke de Saint-Simon is concerned about the state of the realm after the great king, whom he detests, has passed from the scene.  The Dauphin (the direct heir to the throne) is dead, and the most appropriate successor is only three years old:  There must be a regency while he grows up to his majority.

The Regent will, of course, be the Duke D’Orleans, the son of Louis’ brother, Philipe d’Orleans, who was simply known as Monsieur.  (He was, I believe, a homosexual, something that was tolerated in the Court for a variety of nefarious reasons. )   The Regent, an intelligent man with many good qualities, is also a bit of wag, and takes pleasure at thumbing his nose at convention.  During a long church service with much music, he was seen to be assiduously following along in a prayer book.  When congratulated afterwards by an old family retainer, he responded with a laugh, “You are a great ninny!  I was reading Rabelais – and he showed the book’s cover.”  Saint-Simon comments that this was all for show since he was quite happy to attend the mass, Rabelais or no,  being a great lover of good music.

D’Orleans was a freethinker, however, and this could cause difficulties.  Here Saint-Simon counsels the future Regent on how to discreetly maintain his atheism, if atheist he must be:

Most damaging of all, I continued, would be to proclaim his godlessness or anything approaching atheism:  for it would make enemies of all religious bodies and at the same time antagonize every decent person who cared for morality, sobriety, and religion.  He would then find turning against himself that licentious maxim which he was so fond of quoting – namely that religion is a bogy which clever men have invented in order to govern and which is therefore necessary for Kings and republics.  If for that reason only, he might think it in his best interests to respect the Church and not bring it into disrepute.  I dwelt long on this important subject, adding that he need not be a hypocrite, only avoid plain speaking, observe the conventions (which was not hard if one confined oneself to appearances), refuse to countenance improper jests or remarks, and generally live like an honest gentleman who respects his country’s faith and conceals the fact that he, personally, sets no store by it.


Head trips

January 22, 2010

Stumbling away from my cubicle at lunch time, blurred with boredom and fatigue, I find myself in an elevator going down 31 floors.  On the way, my fellow passengers are all deeply involved with their phones – texting, scrolling, listening…  I look at people doing this a lot in NYC, on the sidewalk, the train, in the lobby, and I think, “What are they doing?  Calling their kids?  Checking Twitters?  Texting a girlfriend?  Looking at the stock quotes?  Reading a Shakespeare sonnet..?”

Personally, I am happy with my primitive cell phone that I rarely use.  I have no desire to be connected, not when I am away from my work/desk, anyway.  This is not a criticism – I just don’t fathom the attraction this activity has for all these people so much of the time.

I made my way down Broadway to my favored cold-weather lunch time nap location, Trinity Church.  Inside, a service is going on, and I find my way to a padded bench in the back corner and settle in.  My attention is caught by the wonderful voice of the minister giving his homily on theodicy, the existence of evil and strife in God’s world.  Why is there tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti?  Does God cause it, let it happen?  Very few people are at the service, but the minister speaks very well – I can accept everything he says by simply jettisoning the God-stuff.

Religion does offer something!  A quiet place, a haven from the idiotic swirling frenzy of talk, arrangements, markets, advertisements, gossip, bad news, celebrity…the stuff of workaday life.  Drills down to the essential, witnessing love, a larger mission to give meaning to life, compassion, the inevitable arc of living from birth to death, all that universal stuff.

He finishes, some organ music, and I dimly sense people going forward…to take communion?, shake his hand – no, the hand shaking happened a few minutes ago… I drift in and out of sleep for fifteen minutes and awake, somewhat refreshed.