Archive for Luis Bunuel

Untaken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

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I can recall my New york chum Jaime Christley, years and years ago before I’d actually met him, expressing dissatisfaction with Bunuel’s penultimate opus, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, arguing that with its endless parade of French stars, it resembles a gallic TOWERING INFERNO. I suggested instead that THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is the Bunuel film closer to the Irwin Allen-John Guillerman group jeopardy nonsense — a bunch of rich people in evening dress attend a swank party and are mysteriously unable to leave.

At any rate, I rather like PHANTOM, preferring it to the follow-up, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, which I really think would be pretty desultory had not Bunuel fired poor Maria Schneider and happened upon the bold idea of replacing her with two unalike actors, who alternate throughout at random. It’s a terrific trick: you know he’s doing it, but it’s really hard to concentrate on the constant substitution, since the continuity of narrative and mise-en-scene keeps telling our subconscious that it’s positively the same dame.

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While OBJECT has a great story idea and a great casting gimmick, PHANTOM, like DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE before it, has a ton of ideas and a ton of gimmicks, many of them brilliant. It lacks the unifying conceit of its predecessor, it’s true (friends try to have dinner; fail) but the way it weaves its fragmented sketches together, and the way some of them return for encores, I find dazzling. Another skeptical friend dismisses it as “slow Monty Python,” but the leisurely pace for me is part of the charm, contributing to the deadpan effect. Skits unfold pedantically, as if nothing odd were happening at all.

The missing child scenario is probably the best — every parents’ nightmare gets played out perfectly straight, save for one rogue element — the missing child is right there all the time. Characters can see and talk to her, and she talks right back. But they still believe she#s missing. Bunuel and his co-scenarist. Jean-Claude Carriere, play this stuff out as naturally as possible, with just the one alteration to the norm which makes the whole ritual of questioning teachers and putting out an All Points Bulletin completely nonsensical.

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Best of all is the unexpected pay-off several sequences later when the detective attempts to explain how the child has been recovered. “This ought to be good,” we think, awaiting the impossible explanation. But some loud extraneous noise drowns the guy out as he reaches the crucial portion (after an incongruous opening about the inhabitants of a small town being awoken by a deafening blast). It reminds me of Leo G. Carroll’s spy plot exposition in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Hitchcock wisely smothered in aircraft sound to save the audience having to listen to some boring information. Information is not drama.

In Bunuel’s version, we really want to hear the explanation, which seems set to be very dramatic indeed, so it’s hilarious when he frustrates us. Like the hot-and-cold temptress of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT, the film keeps teasing us with narrative resolutions, then crosses its legs tightly when we get close to satisfaction.

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Barking Mad

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on November 1, 2016 by dcairns

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I first heard about the ending of Bunuel’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE on the late lamented TV show Film Buff of the Year (bring it back!). It turned up as a question: what does Crusoe hear as he leaves the island, and why is this strange? the answers being, He hears his dog barking, and The dog had died some years previously. It’s a surrealist’s version of the mysterious incident of the dog in the night-time.

It was some time later that I realized that this incident wasn’t so mysterious, and could be seen as the perfect illustration of Bunuel’s clarity (when it suits him to be clear, he’s absolutely crystalline). If you’ve lived somewhere a long time, and suddenly you leave, you get a pang, an instinctive sense that you’ve forgotten something, that something remains to be done. The dog bark absolutely captures that.

Rewatching the sequence for my class on sound-and-image-separation, it struck me that Crusoe has just made a remark in VO about his memoir proving to the world that he’s not mad. And the expression on Dan O’Herlihy’s face as he hears the sound is striking. He looks quickly away and hastily wipes his nose. It’s a very sharp telegraphing of the thought, “Maybe I AM mad.” He’s purposely performing the role of a man who isn’t hearing a dog bark, in case anyone who’s watching thinks he is. So the moment isn’t as straightforward as I’d been telling myself. It might sit comfortably alongside EL, with its cheerful, playful damning of the antagonist to a lifetime of insanity.

Fiona suggests maybe now that he’s rescued, Robinson is finally able to grieve for his dead dog.

“Or maybe he’s been dead all along?” suggests a student at my seminar.

“True, this could be the first version of Lost,” I admit.

Bunuel muffs it

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 21, 2016 by dcairns

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I am second to none in my admiration for THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, which does everything THE TOWERING INFERNO does only better (a bunch of rich toffs in gowns and tuxedos gather for a party and find themselves mysteriously unable to leave) but I think I’m on the whole glad that Bunuel didn’t get to make THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS in Hollywood, as he had  wished.

Apart from anything else, it seems just that Robert Florey got to steal the film from a fellow European, the way James Whale stole FRANKENSTEIN away from him (which we certainly can’t regret). Also, Florey’s film has a variety of reasonably impressive special effects. When Bunuel includes a Crawling Hand in a dream sequence in EXTERMINATING ANGEL, the effects are just ALL WRONG.

First, the hand enters, suddenly, with a wet slap, seeming jumping onto the floor from UNDER the door, a spatial impossibility which might be kind of cool and dreamlike if it looked better. Bunuel always liked using strange, counter-intuitive sound effects — he’s great to study for that — but they quite often don’t work (think of the mewing cats in BELLE DE JOUR — effective only because of an earlier non sequitur line about “Don’t release the cats!” but kind of awkward in situ). Here, the progress of the hand, which slides across the floor exactly like a prop on a wire, rather than crawling ratlike in the approved Florey manner, is accompanied by clapping or finger-clicking, which makes conceptual sense but just isn’t scary.

The hand at this stage looks waxen, which is eerie when the hand in question is attached to a real person, like Ivor Novello upon his entrance in THE LODGER, but not what is called for in a sequence where we have to be convinced the hand is human, as is the case here,

Far worse, the sequence climaxes with the prop hand attacking its victim, and careful casual study of the shot reveals that the hand is not only a dummy, but is being worked from below by a real hand. The worst possible combination of techniques! I mean, if we’re not meant to see the edge of the wrist-stump, then just use a real hand. If we ARE meant to see it, maybe put it on a black stick or something? The last thing we want is for the prop hand to be transparently worn like a mitten by some Spanish props guy with his pale and obvious thumb sticking out.

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Don Luis, you really must try harder or you won’t make it in the digital age.