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Bravo, Buñuel 

Wednesday, Aug 13 2003
"Thank God I'm an atheist," director Luis Buñuel famously cracked. One of the founders of surrealist cinema, he was, along with Salvador Dali, responsible for films that caused riots, got banned, and still stand today as sharp criticisms of complacency. Most influentially, the Buñuel/Dali collaboration Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) showed a man slicing a woman's eyeball in half with a razor. This had two major effects: It gave film students everywhere a great excuse to make some serious mistakes, and it inspired one of the best songs ever, the Pixies' immortal "Debaser." Which is all fine and skippy, if only the kids and the rockers and the rest of us can keep in mind that surrealism was, in the 1930s, an unambiguous rejection of fascism -- not the marketing tool it is today.

Francisco Franco's fascist regime in Buñuel's natal Spain was at that time winning a civil war against the motley band of communists, anarchists, and others who were fighting the dictator. "Greed, Militarism, War: This Is Fascism" read one popular poster. In response, Buñuel and many others became determined to reflect the truth of the conformity encouraged by the autocrat back at the authorities and the people -- the bizarre, nonsensical, amoral aspects of life under the dictator (senseless violence, bald lies, ridiculous juxtapositions) became the hallmarks of a new art movement. "The real purpose of surrealism," Buñuel said, was "to explode the social order, to transform life itself."

Later, the director railed against other authorities, especially the Catholic church and the upper classes. In these films, sexual deviance is used to swat at the indolent rich, as in The Phantom of Liberty, and still-shocking images of violence are aimed straight at religion -- L'Age d'Or was banned in Spain for many years because of them.

Buñuel made movies well into the 1970s, and is probably best known in this country for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a story about a group of well-off suburbanites trying to eat a meal. Interruptions include everything from a dead restaurateur to the vagaries of time itself, but the diners trundle on, trying to reassure themselves that everything is OK. The film showcases the unexpectedly gentle humor of a man often considered to be a dangerous radical, and the effect is what made him famous: characters to laugh at and identify with, and an embrace of the inevitably ridiculous. Henry Miller wrote of him, "They call Buñuel everything: traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they do not call him. It is true, it is lunacy he portrays, but it is not his lunacy. This stinking chaos which for a brief hour or so amalgamates under his wand, this is the lunacy of civilization, the record of man's achievement after ten thousand years of refinement."

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Hiya Swanhuyser


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