Friday, August 14, 2015

The Two Bunuels

Back in the sixties, when I was living in New York, I often took the subway to the Thalia Theater, which showed foreign films. One night I went to see Cocteau’s Blood of the Poet (it was described as a “surrealistic masterpiece”). They always had double bills at the Thalia; the other movie was from Mexico and had the unpromising title of The Young and the Damned (Los Olvidados in Spanish — The Lost Ones). Its garish poster showed some teenage hoodlum types. I had no intention of seeing it.
Poet was awful — pretentious, pointless posturing; it’s only virtue was brevity. As the music started up behind the titles for the next film, I got ready to leave; I even turned in my aisle seat. But at the first image on the screen, of a young man walking down a Mexico City street, I paused. His expression was arrogant, as if he owned the slum that teemed about him. Some younger boys called out his name — “Jaibo!” — and gathered around; Jaibo was back. . . .
The opening scenes, stark and bold, had an authority that compelled me to watch on. Gradually I was drawn down into another world. When I left the dark theater it seemed strange that the normal activities of life were still going on, as if nothing had happened.
The two surrealistic shorts that the young Luis Bunuel made with Salvador Dali caused a furor of shock and outrage. He always had an affinity for that type of thing. (In Un Chien Andalou, it is Bunuel who appears in the sequence involving a razor and a woman’s eye.) Many of his films have strong surrealistic elements; some are built entirely of oddities. Most of this ilk I don’t care for (including the one that won an Academy Award — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Even those that are intriguing (Simon of the Desert, The Exterminating Angel) have not secured an indelible place in my heart.
But in Los Olvidados, as is true with his other masterpieces — Nazarin and Viridiana — Bunuel almost abandons surrealism. Almost. When he does use it, such as the dream sequence in Los Olvidados (after you see it you’ll never forget it, though you will wish you could), it is for a purpose integral to the film. It adds impact.
So, the two Bunuels. The surrealist and the realist.
Here’s my theory as to why Bunuel chose to work in a realistic (almost primitive) style in his three great films. It has to do with passion. In Los Olvidados he had to expose conditions in the slums of Mexico City. In Nazarin Bunuel, a devout atheist, was fascinated with the idea of what would become of a mortal man who truly lived by Christ’s precepts. Viridiana was driven by anger; perhaps the Fascist regime, in inviting him back to Spain, thought the old man had mellowed, but he intended to show them how sharp his teeth still were.
To fulfill his passions Bunuel gave primacy to the scripts (which he always wrote or co-wrote). He stripped the films down to the essentials (in the case of Nazarin, to the bare bones), so that what is left is only people and plot and ideas — the old verities.
Surrealism, by itself, can do only so much — momentarily startle, horrify, fascinate — but it can’t gain access to the deeper emotions. In a sense it’s a gimmick, a special effect.
Some last points, because they’re especially relevant today. Los Olvidados is a ferocious film. It abounds in cruelty. But it is morally antithetical to movies that titillate with violence and that indulge our sadistic urges. The cruelty in this film is appalling; we shrink from it. Also, Bunuel gives us real people; we care about real people. Pedro, the main character, is a boy we want to be saved. But at the end we are left in a landscape of absolute desolation. Bunuel spares the boy — and us — nothing.
Los Olvidados was shown in theaters in Mexico City for only three days, at which point the government had it pulled from circulation. With the help of the poet Octavio Paz a copy made its way to Cannes, where Bunuel received the award for Best Director in 1951. But in a sense the film is again being pulled from circulation — by time. As I understand it, the original negative was lost for twenty years, and the versions of Los Olvidados that are now available are in deplorable condition. I recently ordered the film, and what I received was unwatchable. I have written several letters to the Criterion Collection, hoping that they could play a role in having it restored, but have never received a reply.

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