Two early Bunuel films

Un chien andalou (1929): after 80+ years, that shot doesn’t really lose much, does it? I remember the first time I saw the film at UNSW, razor met eyeball and a room full of beginning film students (who clearly had no idea what they were in for—at least I’d actually read about the film and knew what to expect) screamed. It was glorious, one of my favourite memories of university. The film itself? Hmmmmmmm… I think I used to like it more than I perhaps do now. As I think I’ve said before, I’m not exactly impressed by artists who I feel use “surrealism” essentially as an excuse for refusing to make sense, wilful weirdness that doesn’t have the grace to admit its own emptiness. (I’m looking at YOU here, Jodorowsky.) And, having decided a while ago that I should rewatch the Chien, I found myself wondering if something similar hadn’t been at work in Bunuel and Dali’s film… cos the former famously insisted nothing in the film symbolised anything, and that they’d made a kind of point of jettisoning anything they found “meaningful” (in spite of which, of course, people still insist upon looking for meaning cos that’s what we’ve been trained to do). Was there something more cynical at the heart of this 16-minute marvel than I’d ever previously considered? I wasn’t sure, and upon rewatching tonight I’m still not sure. It is, obviously, notable that André Breton (who pretty much controlled 1920s/30s Surrealism as a movement) pronounced it authentically Surrealist, and apparently Bunuel and Dali were the first filmmakers he inducted into Surrealism… a bit ironic given what the latter would say later about the film actually being opposed to the avant-garde of the period! Maybe “cynical” is an overly harsh judgement, but I do feel that the film was calculated to at least some degree, both Bunuel and Dali knew full well what they were doing and I’ve no doubt they always did. It’s good, I respect its place in film history, but I can’t help but suspect I didn’t like it tonight as much as I once did.

Las Hurdes (1933): Conversely, I don’t think I ever liked this, and what I know now about Bunuel’s treatment of some of the animals in the film frankly makes it about as morally questionable (at least in my opinion) as Cannibal Holocaust… maybe even more so, depending on how you view Bunuel’s intentions, which seem to remain as controversial as the film itself. Las Hurdes still seems to confuse people as to exactly how it should be viewed (this piece interestingly sums up some of the problems of reading it); the 1001 Movies book seems to take it mostly at face value as a documentary, although others have suggested it’s more mock than doc… if the surface of the film is an exaggeration of the reality, it could be viewed as a proto-Herzog exercise, but with a meanness of spirit I don’t get from our German friend. The people of the Las Hurdes region apparently still despise Bunuel for his work all these years later, and I don’t know that I can entirely blame them; as for myself, I obviously look at the thing from a greater distance, and I just find myself puzzled as to the motivations of the film, and unable to entirely respect it.

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