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Films: Luis Bunuel by Noel Mawer, Bullitt by Andrew Holt, Men in Black III by Randall Mawer

Luis Bunuel (1900-1977)

Noel Mawer


If you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you might remember the Woody-surrogate character’s greeting film director Luis Bunuel and surrealist painter Salvador Dali and then suggesting a movie plot to the director. The suggestion was for a movie in which a group of people are trapped in a room for days, while all kinds of bizarre behavior emerges. The joke here is that Bunuel actually did make the film, Exterminating Angel, in 1962, during one of his stays in Mexico. Does it sound a little like Sartre’s No Exit, where hell is being locked in a room with people you don’t like? It’s not that. Sartre is tame compared to Bunuel, and even hopeful: the Existentialist’s world is less bizarre than it is tedious, and Existentialism offers a sense of freedom if one can reconcile oneself to the meaninglessness of things.


Bunuel’s world is not simply meaningless, it’s positively malignant, and no one ever seems to sense the truth, much less find a way to create her own meaning in order to live with that world. Bunuel’s characters, we might say, don’t have a clue--and Bunuel is merciless toward them. His favorite targets are the bourgeois morality and sentimentality, as well as the hypocritical piety, of his native Spain, though he is willing to spread his net anywhere, most often to his neighboring France, where many of his best films were made.


Bunuel’s career began, after a Catholic education, in Spain, where he made his first film, the 1929 silent Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), in which there is no dog and no mention is made of Andalusia, unless “Andalusian Dog” is a breed, like Rhodesian Ridgeback or German Shepherd. Even if it is, there’s still no dog in the thing. The co-creator of this film was Salvador Dali, and the film is conventionally described as a “surrealist masterpiece.” Surrealism will be an element in Bunuel’s work throughout his career, though never as pronounced as it is here.


Bunuel and Dali stated that their purpose was simply to create a work in which no narrative, no meaning was intended or could be attributed. Given the human mind’s need to see pattern and meaning everywhere, that’s a lofty goal. And Bunuel and Dali seem to have achieved it, though no doubt somebody somewhere has puzzled out (or attributed) some kind of connection or theme or something to attach to it.


The film begins, most notoriously, with the slitting of an eyeball with a straight razor--staged as if the eye is a woman’s while in reality it’s a sheep’s (dead, I hope.) The horrors pile up. A man falls from a bicycle. Then his hand appears, severed from its arm (severed limbs are big in Bunuel’s movies, as are dogs--even the non-existent ones). A man and woman are in an apartment; the woman is arranging men’s ties on the bed; the man’s hand is teeming with ants, which are crawling from a hole in his palm (insects, preferably the creepy kind, will also become a Bunuel favorite). The setting shifts to a park, then to a beach. The man and woman occasionally reappear, as the film is punctuated with meaningless titles (“7 Hours Later,” etc.). A second man shoots another. A woman (the first one, I think) puts the aforesaid ties in a box. Some of this may be out of sequence, which would gratify the film-makers. There is no sequence. These are not symbols, either (though some of Bunuel’s later use of such motifs as dogs and severed appendages could be interpreted as symbols). They’re realistic objects portrayed in a way that is above or beyond reality, which may or may not be a definition of surrealism.


Anyway, it only lasts seventeen minutes, and it’s available in DVD, which many of Bunuel’s films apparently are not, in case you want to try your hand at interpretation--after all, there’s a purpose to everything and everything has a purpose, according to the Christians, and Bunuel knows how to deal with them. Bunuel’s next film, 1930’s L’Age d’ Or (The Golden Age) is, I am told, an exercise in irony where nothing depicted is at all golden. (In 1939, Henry Miller called it cinema’s last art film.) But the film had one important effect: it drove Bunuel out of Spain, and Italy, and France, where the authorities closed the theater after one showing. It didn’t even make it to the screen in Spain, and the Italians tried to arrest Bunuel.


Bunuel hung around Spain long enough to make his sole documentary, Land Without Bread, in 1932. This depiction of a rural Dogpatch where everyone is sick and starving prefigures one of Bunuel’s great themes: when driven to desperation, human beings will do anything, including stealing bread from their own children. Amid the desperation stands, of course, a lavish church. Bunuel makes no comment, but the meaning is clear: the church feeds off, rather than tends, its sheep.


Bunuel’s long exile in North America produced a whole lot of Mexican films which seem not to have made it to DVD. His next notable work would be made in France, and the title of one film suggests the theme: Nazarin (1958); additionally in 1965 Bunuel would return to Spain to make Simon of the Desert (about St. Simeon Stylites, who lived on top of a pillar for more than thirty years). Pauline Kael describes the latter film as the work of a “disenchanted idealist” (rather than of a “naughty Christian child,” as she labels Fellini). Kael observes that one problem audiences have with Bunuel is uncertainty about how we should feel about his characters. This, of course, is deliberate (and probably shared by Bunuel himself). At the heart of the bourgeois morality Bunuel despises is sentimentality, the superficial emotion that causes people to cry at weddings and grow tearful as the flag passes by. The Catholic church is the other recipient of Bunuel’s animus, but not necessarily all the believers. The most ambiguous class of characters in his films are the innocents--those who are exploited not only by the bourgeois and the church, but also by the victims of society whom they try to help.


Simon on his column is one such innocent. He exposes himself to the elements and to ridicule to bring the word of God to his people. Simon performs miracles for the pilgrims who come to see and hear him. These spectators, recipients of blessings as well as miracles, argue among themselves over the value of each miracle: is it fair, poor, excellent? The local priests slander him, and his “miracles” go awry: when a thief’s severed hands are reattached, the thief’s first act is to slap his child. Is this “innocent” just a naïve fool? But these are recognizable human types, not circus clowns like Fellini’s characters or Todd Browning’s Freaks. Without the sentimentality the picture is indeed a shock, and it’s the shock of recognition. Bunuel is showing what life is really like. Jimmy Stewart will never save his townsfolk from economic catastrophe; no God will part the waters. Really, we all will lose everything, or drown, or steal our children’s bread to survive.


Beginning in 1961, Bunuel would make a series of films, mostly in France and starring Fernando Rey and either Catherine Deneuve or Sylvia Pinal. These films, though not devoid of surreal elements, rather are more direct, uncompromising attacks on the bourgeoisie and their morality. Sylvia Pinal is Viridiana (1961), an innocent convent girl “adopted” by her lecherous uncle (Rey), whose frustration leads him to suicide. The two best known scenes in this film are the rescuing of a mistreated dog by a kindly young man--and the immediate appearance of another equally desperate dog, and another, and another … In a sea of misery, does it help to rescue one victim? No answer here. Finally, after the innocent Viridiana invites the local beggars and other unfortunates to share a feast with her, the beneficiaries enact a riotous, drunken parody of the Last Supper.


Viridiana sealed Bunuel’s fate: his blasphemy enraged the Spanish authorities, and he went back to Mexico to make the 1962 Exterminating Angel, the film described in Midnight in Paris. That most quintessential rite of the bourgeoisie, the dinner party, here becomes the scene of horror when the dining room door refuses to open and the diners are trapped for days, descending into the unspeakable behavior that Bunuel perceives as just below the surface of all of us.


In 1967’s Belle du Jour, the innocent, here portrayed by Catherine Deneuve, is in reality a lady of the day, one who varies her tedious bourgeois routine by turning tricks. In 1970’s Tristana, Deneuve will play the innocent convent girl to Rey’s lecherous old man--again a “kindly uncle” whose whole life is a sham: he is broke, selling off his possessions to survive. Both dogs and severed limbs appear again. A rabid dog is shot in the street. After humiliating and then abandoning her uncle, Tristana runs off with a handsome painter, only to return soon enough minus a leg. The stage is set for a lifetime of mutual humiliation.


1972’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie features an all-star French cast, as well as the necessary Fernando Rey: Stephane Audran, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogire, Jean Pierre Cassell, Michel Piccoli. The action takes place in the haut-bourgeois world of endless dinner parties. But this time the guests are not trapped at a single party but driven by various events to more and more bizarre and abruptly terminated gatherings. They never do manage to eat. The discreet and charming men, led by Rey portraying the ambassador from the imaginary South American country of Miranda, are involved in massive drug trafficking, and Rey is not only a drug courier but allied to the fascist dictator of his country and complicit in the atrocities committed by that ruler. This latter fact becomes a touchstone for bourgeois morality: is it rude and in bad taste to mention someone’s crimes against humanity? Bunuel’s starving peasants may be amoral, but give them wealth and power, and they’ll turn into something worse. If hardship seems to bring out the worst in people, so do privilege and good fortune.

The first time the guests arrive for dinner, the host informs them that they’ve come on the wrong night. They go on to a restaurant, which is closed: the manager has just died and is lying on the floor. Various dinners at people’s homes and in other restaurants are interrupted by soldiers arriving to billet themselves at one home and by the selling out just before their arrival of everything on a restaurant’s menu, and so on. Crime and infidelity are committed, but it’s bad form to dwell on them, so the festivities continue. Interruptions grow incredibly bizarre and then become dreams that various characters experience. At the point of catastrophe, the dreamer awakes.


Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound features a dream sequence created by Bunuel’s early collaborator, Salvador Dali, and it may or may not be relevant that Hitchcock was a great admirer of Bunuel, in 1972 calling him “the best director in the world.” As far as I can tell, Hitchcock’s admiration never led to any kind of imitation of the Spanish director beyond that one surreal dream. Hitchcock and Bunuel shared, however, what Pauline Kael called “carelessness” in cinematic technique. Bunuel didn’t seem to care if his actors were proficient, while Hitchcock used flagrantly artificial sets, most noticeably the apartment façade and its backdrop in Rear Window. Neither director made character-driven movies: the story, or the imagery, was the thing.


Bunuel’s final movie, That Obscure Object of Desire, was released in 1977, the year of his death. In his two last films Bunuel’s bitterness and rage seem to have been transformed into a rueful amusement at the spectacle of human folly. Once again, in this last film, Fernando Rey plays the lecherous old man. The poor old guy can’t consummate his affair with the young object of desire. Reprising a theme from earlier films, Bunuel portrays the innocent as a controller, a manipulator, outfoxing the old fox. Pauline Kael calls Bunuel’s final films “buoyant,” without the outrageous atrocities of the earlier films. The bourgeoisie hasn’t changed much, but the world has: this final film is punctuated by various acts of violence, but none seem to affect the characters.


It is a truism that Shakespeare’s last plays are almost gentle, emphasizing reconciliation and perhaps resignation. Parents and children, lost, find one another. There is much loss, but something remains. Whereas in earlier films Bunuel often seemed to be riding the Ferris wheel with Harry Lime in The Third Man, seeing the people below as insignificant insects, here, finally, the Rey character is not unhappy. Neither, it seems, is Bunuel, at last.




Reviewed by Andrew Holt


Wow, did I do myself a favor. I popped a bowl of popcorn, plopped down on the couch, and took in the 1968 classic “Bullitt”, starring Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and a 24-year-old Jacqueline Bisset. If you are fed up with over edited, over complicated detective thrillers that clutter the movie theaters today, then a viewing of “Bullitt” might just do you some good.


The movie is full of suspense but it is a slow burn, the viewer receives clues; but only so much as to get you to the next scene. And the beauty of the scenes lies in that they are fully fleshed out. Director Peter Yates is not ashamed of the movie making process; he’s not afraid to hold a shot for 25 seconds; he wants to give you the full picture . . . but only through the eyes of detective Bullitt (McQueen).  You’re solving the crime with him – there are no shots of the bad guys that give away the plot – present day screenwriters take note. Lieutenant Frank Bullitt is a top notch San Francisco lawman whose team is given the assignment of guarding a mafia whistle blower for forty-eight hours before shepherding him to a Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime.


But the rather routine operation goes awry when gunmen easily get access to the hiding place and shoot down the witness, with one of Bullitt’s men suffering major damage. From that point on, the grizzled detective is obsessed with solving the puzzle, born from an apparent setup, while trying to ward off meddling  and seemingly evil Senator Chalmers (Vaughn) who tries every power play in the book to somehow remedy his political fortunes after his star witness is put on life support.


The beauty of “Bullitt” is that it takes its time. The plot is enthralling yet is not delivered as if everyone’s hopped up on cocaine. Instead, the well-paced narrative allows the viewer to develop an attachment for the characters: the brooding but ethical Bullitt,  his supportive but conflicted girlfriend (Bisset),  and even his partner, a real journeyman cop named Delgetti (Don Gordon).  The characters are developed naturally within the movement of the film and the narrative is never shrouded – not even in the ground- breaking car chase.


Lordy, Lordy, Lordy - present day directors should be required to watch the car chase that started them all. Director Yates (who shamefully did not receive an Oscar nomination for this film) delivers one of the most cutting edge car chase scenes ever created – and it has a narrative.  Wide panoramic shots of freeway bends, swale ridden streets and steep hills, cameras just off the driver’s shoulders peering through the windshield,  and sparing but tactical shots of the drivers revealing the  emotional stages of the chase, make it a thing of beauty. During the nearly fifteen minute scene, the viewer is never at a loss as to what is happening, or what car is in front, or who is gaining, or what obstacle lies just ahead. It is a masterpiece.


The car chase scene is one of only many terrific visual feats in the movie. The pursuit at the airport is also gripping and, again, the narrative is allowed to breath.


After the long and arduous pursuit of the crime trail, “Bullitt” comes to an abrupt end. The meaning of it is clear and concise.  Again, it fits right into the narrative and you cannot miss it.


At the end of “Bullitt”, you feel as though you’ve been fulfilled intellectually, artistically, and emotionally.  I give “Bullitt” a solid A-.


Andrew Holt Graduated from UCLA with a degree in English Literature. He spent over 18 years in small to medium market radio broadcasting as a News/Sports Director and interview host. He hosts his own blog, “The Holt Story” at www.theholtstory.com . He is the Film Review Editor for Lost Coast Review.


Black Humor: Men in Black III

Reviewed by Randall Mawer


Men in Black III is a delight, far more satisfying than the average sequel and in some ways better than its prototype. (I didn’t see II.)


The key to its success is the willingness of director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Lowell Cunningham to venture away from the core theme of the original (there are aliens among us, and they’re funny-looking). Some of this we must have, of course, and it’s amusing enough.


But when the film takes on time travel--a chestnut in its own right, of course, but cleverly managed here--and especially when it looses Josh Brolin’s agonizingly dead-on impression of a young Tommy Lee Jones (time travel, remember?), it strikes the purest gold.


Amidst the juvenile earnestness of the season’s bloated sci-fi offerings, this one reminds us that adult wit--and an adult script--count for lots more than the most special of “effects.”


Randall R. Mawer is Poetry Editor of Lost Coast Review.  His Sycamore and Other Poems was published in 2000 by Writer’s Club Press.

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