Humour found in the less than ideal

An Unspeakable Betrayal
June 8, 2001

A remark by Luis Buñuel about his film Viridiana summarises his attitude to his art: "We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. I would like to continue to make films which, apart from entertaining the audience, convey to people the absolute certainty of this idea."

While none of Buñuel's films fails to honour these twin objectives, this volume of selected writings offers ample proof of an unwavering project to provide a framework of social awareness for the Surrealist flourishes of his imagination. The meditations on his own practices as a film-maker, as well as the inclusion of film scripts and synopses of films regrettably never made, follow a section devoted to his early efforts at Surrealist poetry and prose. Set beside the genius of his contemporaries, especially Federico Garcia Lorca, these may not seem the most inspired achievements of the Spanish literary tradition. Even so, while often relying on the commonplace symbolism of psychoanalysis, they at least herald the future content and form of his films.

Admittedly, some of the poems seem like inferior Lorca. In "For Myself I Would Like" (19), the imagery of fish and wind recalls the passionate turmoil of Lorca's figurative natural landscapes in The Gypsy Ballads . Yet even here, Buñuel's idiosyncratic humour, so often indebted to religion, gives these poems a characteristic touch. In "The Rainbow and the Poultice" (19), the opening line "How many Marists can fit on a footbridge?" could spring only from the mind of someone whose upbringing he himself describes as time-locked in the ecclesiastically governed traditions of medieval Spain.

Humour, which marks his writings and so many of his films, even the darkest, for example Él Nazarín or Tristana , is always linked to deeper concerns. In this respect, too, the early Surrealist sketches point the way to later film projects. The prose-poem, "Suburbs: Motifs" (1923) anticipates the squalid urban mise-en-scène of Los Olvidados , one of Buñuel's most disturbing masterpieces. The English translation of "suburbs" for suburbios does not convey the force of the Spanish, which unlike the English word's associations with neat gardens and semi-detached order, suggests instead poverty and neglect. Those are the meanings of the word suburbios here and in its later visualised form in Los Olvidados . This was one of the early films Buñuel made in Mexico, following his aborted stay in Hollywood where, in some ways perhaps not surprisingly, he failed to join the band of studio-based European émigrés. And yet, the synopsis, for instance, of his projected film Goya and the Duchess of Alba conforms to the demands of the biopic genre so popular in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. While other scripts such as Illegible , Son of a Flute a Surrealist road-movie structured around the witty conceit of suicidal policemen, might well have bewildered the more solemn of the studio executives, Goya is a narrative of passion and betrayal, of amour fou given all the hyperbolised format of a Hollywood melodrama. Buñuel repeatedly expressed his high regard for Hollywood, early on recording his admiration for the silent comic stars and D. W. Griffith, later celebrating the imagination and mystery of films such as The Portrait of Jennie . Mystery and the release of the imagination were what he discovered in the films of the German Expressionists, especially Fritz Lang's Der Müde Tod . Their pursuit in Hollywood might eventually have proved incompatible with the industry's norms.

Buñuel revived his career in Mexico, and later in Europe, where in between making his bread-and-butter genre films (even a musical) he directed some of the landmark films of world cinema, free from the interference of what he defined in this welcome selection of his writings as the inheritors of the Spanish Inquisition - the film censors of the world.

Peter Evans is professor of Hispanic studies, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.

An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel

Author - Juan Luis Buñuel and Rafael Buñuel
ISBN - 0 520 20840 4
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 263
Translator - Garrett White

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