That Wooden Leg

Michael Wood

  • An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel translated by Garrett White
    California, 266 pp, £17.50, April 2000, ISBN 0 520 20840 4

‘Studio Vingt-Huit – high up a winding street of Montmartre, in the full blasphemy of a freezing Sunday; taxis arriving, friends greeting each other, an excitable afternoon audience’. The description is Cyril Connolly’s, the occasion a showing of Luis Buñuel’s first film, Un Chien andalou. The audience seemed baffled at the end, and some of its members were angry, unprepared no doubt for what Connolly called the ‘destructive reverence’ of the film. ‘With the impression of having witnessed some infinitely ancient horror, Saturn swallowing his sons, we made our way out into the cold of February 1929, that unique and dazzling cold.’

Connolly’s sense of the horror of the work, and of its romance (‘Un Chien andalou brought out the grandeur of the conflict inherent in romantic love, the truth that the heart is made to be broken, and after it has mended, to be broken again’), led him to ignore its farcical aspects, its echoes of Buster Keaton and its complementary truth that romantic love is as often as not a matter of violent grabs and dashes, a pantomime of lust wagging its human puppets. But his experience anticipated that of thousands of others. The first film we see by any major director usually makes a mark, but we don’t always feel we have seen Saturn swallowing his sons.

The first Buñuel film seen by most people of my generation who were not film-club addicts was probably Viridiana (1961). After two Surrealist films made in France (Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’or, 1930), and an astonishing documentary made in Spain (Las Hurdes, 1932), Buñuel’s career was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. He spent some time in the United States, then in 1946 settled in Mexico, where he made 18 films, of which only Los Olvidados (1950) got any real notice. Viridiana was made in Spain under Franco, and caused a tremendous scandal. After that Buñuel made one more film in Spain (Tristana, 1970), two more films in Mexico (The Exterminating Angel, 1962, Simon of the Desert, 1965), and six films in France (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964, Belle de jour, 1966, The Milky Way, 1969, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972, The Phantom of Liberty, 1974, That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977).

Viridiana has a number of startling and now famous images – a small crucifix flicks open to become a menacing knife; riotous, feasting beggars compose themselves into a parody of Leonardo’s Last Supper, a snatch of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ blaring in the soundtrack – and a ferocious implied argument about charity. All charity which is less than infinite leaves the world unchanged, and what charity is not less than infinite? Yet the most memorable feature of Viridiana, I think, is not its imagery or its argument but the harsh, reckless intelligence behind it, its manifest intention to disturb us beyond repair. Buñuel used to say in lectures and interviews that his films are designed to show us that we don’t live in the best of worlds. They certainly do that, but the formulation is not strong enough. Whatever we think about the world we live in, Buñuel wants to send us home from the cinema feeling rattled and uncomfortable. This feeling, mysteriously, is not incompatible with being highly amused, but then the very idea of amusement seems troubling. ‘Viridiana, at heart, is a humorous film,’ Buñuel says in a typescript published in An Unspeakable Betrayal, but immediately adds that the humour is ‘corrosive’.

A few months after seeing Viridiana for the first time, I was in Spain, and met a charming man, a doctor, who claimed to know Buñuel intimately, and to have helped him recruit the beggars for that film. I can’t remember whether I believed him or not. Probably I did. Buñuel for me was as distant as Cervantes or Saint Teresa, and I didn’t even know where he lived. Then I forgot about the encounter, except for thinking kindly of the doctor and Madrid whenever I saw Viridiana again, or when my mind turned to Spain. And with time I certainly ceased to believe in the story. The doctor was entitled to his fantasy, after all; Buñuel was the kind of figure who attracted legends and anecdotes. Then some 13 years later I saw The Phantom of Liberty.

Right at the beginning of the film a group of Spanish prisoners is led out to be shot by Napoleon’s soldiers. They include Buñuel himself, as a monk; Serge Silberman, Buñuel’s producer; and the writer José Bergamín, an old friend of Buñuel’s. They also include the uncannily familiar figure of my old acquaintance the doctor, Buñuel’s pal José-Luis Barros. It took me a while to place the recognised face, and of course I didn’t fill in all the details even then. A few years later I met Buñuel in Mexico. He was delighted when I told him the story – he loved coincidences – and thought it would have been even better if Barros and I had turned out to be long-lost twins, perhaps identified by a birthmark. I hang onto that moment in the cinema because when I saw the film and found the face I realised I had caught a piece of lost time. Not only Madrid and Dr Barros and an earlier self, but Viridiana as it felt when I first saw it: blasphemous, brilliant, ragged, indifferent to the preoccupations of unity and coherence which most aesthetics demand – Saturn swallowing a daughter.

If I had been less devoted to the notion of the death of the author I might have got more out of my encounters with Buñuel himself. But I’m not sure. He was so courtly and entertaining, so willing to treat me as a new-found friend rather than a nosy writer, that I had real difficulty in thinking about our conversations as material. Material for what? For the book about his films I was trying to write, or the biography I had no intention of writing? The anecdotes he told were the ones he usually told, often ones I’d already read somewhere: his stock of stories. He was a 78-year-old famous man, he had his best memories organised, he had shaped them into tales, and he was soon to put them in a book called My Last Breath (1982), which he wrote in collaboration with his scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière. Didn’t I gather rich insights into the films? Some, but not as many as you might think. This was manifestly the Buñuel who made Buñuel’s films, there were plenty of continuities between the mind I’d met in the work and the mind I was meeting over drinks. The author was fully alive in that sense, and discussing his films with Buñuel was a delight. But I didn’t understand the films a whole lot better for talking to him, and any language I might find for writing about the films was going to be quite different from the language in which I could describe him, if I was even going to try to describe him. A person is not a film, and films have all kinds of adventures once the director has finished editing them. ‘I don’t believe one’s life can be confused with one’s work,’ Buñuel says in the book I’ve just mentioned.

What I did get from meeting Buñuel, apart from much pleasure and laughter, was a feeling for the kind of artist he was, the peculiar mixture of austerity and mischief he brought to the cinema. You can see this in the films as well, of course, but there is so much else in them, so much obsession and yearning, so much appetite for pain, so much unappeased theology. All this must have been in the person somewhere, certainly, but it wasn’t in the person you met. He had trained himself, I believe, to save his nightmares for his movies. What was left in daily life was a curious mind and an imagination always playing with possibility, but above all his craft and his career, the sense of film as an art and a discipline, a kind of experiment in which even the wildest jokes took on a certain aspect of rigour or purity.

I met Buñuel in July 1978, through an old friend, Santiago Genovés, a Mexican anthropologist. Santiago, born in Spain, always called Buñuel Don Luis, and after a bit of practice, so did I. I saw him a number of times in company over the next three years, and I had many conversations with him in the late afternoons. The last time I saw him was in June 1981. I didn’t go back to Mexico for a while after that, and he died in July 1983.

First impressions. He is old, bent, has rather crooked teeth, large intelligent eyes behind heavy glasses. An amiable, mischievous grin resides almost constantly on his face. He is very deaf, but can hear if you speak loud and clear, although communication is always a little uncertain, apt to misfire or lose its sequence. A small terrier called Tristana trots in and sits on the sofa. Don Luis, the scourge of actors and actresses, can’t get her to move or leave. ‘I am a monk,’ he says, ‘I don’t go out.’ It’s largely true. The world comes to him, insofar as he allows it to. But it doesn’t come much or often. He says he feels old, that he was ‘formidable’ between 40 and 60, and felt fine in his sixties. Now he can’t remember the name of the pills he’s supposed to take for his diabetes, he starts to do a sum and can’t remember what he has just multiplied by what. He feels dizzy at times. He says all this with genuine impatience and distaste, but also with an energy which comes out as a kind of unshakable gaiety.

Buñuel likes some contemporary directors, but not many. American films, he says. Woody Allen. Stanley Kubrick. ‘That film with those shots of the man’s eye.’ ‘A Clockwork Orange?’ ‘That’s the one.’ Nice thought, coming from the man whose film career began with the image of an eye slashed by a razor. Buñuel tells me a Hitchcock story, which he tells again in My Last Breath. There is a dinner in Buñuel’s honour at George Cukor’s house in Hollywood in 1972. Fifteen famous directors are there, including John Ford, Rouben Mamoulian, Robert Mulligan, George Stevens, Robert Wise, William Wyler, Billy Wilder. Hitchcock sits next to Buñuel, says very little, then at one point puts an arm round his companion’s shoulder and says with deep admiration: ‘Buñuel, that wooden leg in Tristana. That wooden leg.’

Buñuel and his wife Jeanne lived in a small and tidy house in the southern central part of Mexico City, the place Buñuel called ‘this metropolis without end’. Both had become Mexican citizens in 1949. The street was a quiet cul-de-sac off a busy thoroughfare; the house had a small enclosed garden. ‘Come and see me when you like,’ Buñuel would say, ‘but telephone first to set up a time.’ I would telephone, talk to Jeanne, and ask if I could see Don Luis. She would consult him, and he would invariably say: ‘How about tomorrow around five?’ So I learned not to call if I couldn’t go the next day.

Generally I would watch a film of his at the Mexican Cineteca and then drive over to his house. I would say, ‘I saw El today, or Robinson Crusoe,’ or whatever I had seen, and he would say: ‘Terrible film, the director should be shot.’ I would murmur in polite disagreement, and ask him a question about the work. One day I said I had very much liked a French film he had made in Corsica, Cela s’appelle l’Aurore (1955). ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I liked it when I made it.’ He didn’t care for technical queries, and I discovered that general questions, critics’ questions, didn’t interest him, that he didn’t want to discuss ideas or meanings. But he would talk about all kinds of things, if you could get him started on the right sort of detail the – ostrich in close-up at the end of The Phantom of Liberty, say, the garrulous duel between Jansenist and Jesuit in The Milky Way. He even loved ideas. He just didn’t like the idea of them.

One day I didn’t offer my polite disagreement. I had been to see his A Woman without Love (1951), a version of Maupassant’s novel Pierre et Jean, a truly terrible film by any standards, without a single redeeming or even interesting moment, as far as I could see. In My Last Breath, Buñuel was to say this was ‘no doubt my worst film’, but I didn’t then know that he thought that. A number of Buñuel’s Mexican works are jagged and uneven, but virtually all of them have luminous features, touches that reveal the quirky or reckless hand of the master. Not this one. I said I didn’t think the director should be shot but the film was awful, and asked what happened. Buñuel nodded, remembering. Finally he said: ‘I couldn’t think of anything’ – ‘No se me occurió nada,’ literally ‘nothing occurred to me.’ He couldn’t think of anything? Yes, he knew the film was boring from the start but assumed something would occur to him while he was shooting, some gag or angle or twist that would liven it up. That was how he worked, and almost always something occurred to him. There is a little fable about art here. You plan carefully, and you leave room for inspiration, in fact you rely on its arrival. But then inspiration, always an uncertain dancing partner, fails to show up, and you just keep going and finish the job. Then you make another plan.

I was then rather keen on the idea of Buñuel as a permanent Surrealist, of Surrealism as a continuing state of mind, and so was slightly shocked to hear him place the movement so firmly in the past. ‘When I was a Surrealist’, he said, and ‘in the days of the Surrealists’ – as if the group was a club or a team you could join or leave. He was right, of course, Surrealism was always a thinner, more privileged form of revolt than it liked to imagine it was – or than I liked to imagine it was. The bourgeoisie revolting against the bourgeoisie, Buñuel said in My Last Breath. But there is a continuing mentality, too, which has to do not with shock or rebellion but with resistance to settled or predictable meanings: resistance to interpretation itself, if by ‘interpretation’ we mean not just trying to make sense of things but succeeding in doing it. Early in our first conversation we spoke about That Obscure Object of Desire, then a recent film, which was to be Buñuel’s last. This work, notoriously, has two actresses playing a single role, that of the taunting, endlessly desired Conchita, the role played by Marlene Dietrich (on her own) when Sternberg made The Devil Is a Woman, his film based on the same novel. There is a single fictional character, with a name and a mother and a place in the plot, and indeed a single voice on the soundtrack, that of Carole Bouquet. On the screen, though, we see Carole Bouquet alternating with Angela Molina. They look quite different, although audience reactions to this trick have varied immensely: some people haven’t noticed it, and some haven’t been able to take their minds off it, and many have had reactions situated somewhere in between. The point, for most viewers, is to make meaning out of the alternation. The point for Buñuel was to defeat meaning. There was to be nothing psychological about the switches, he said to me, no Jekyll and Hyde story, only random alternation.

Buñuel’s films are full of touches like this, there to scramble old meanings, not to provide new ones, and they could have been fuller of them. Buñuel himself was proud of the idea of the two actresses but was ready to agree that it was crazy – he had started shooting, in Paris and Madrid, with one actress, Maria Schneider, and when he fired her thought the production was over – but Serge Silberman, his producer, took to the suggestion instantly. Unlike Oscar Dancigers, the producer of Los Olvidados, who had persuaded Buñuel to take a series of similar moves out of the film: a full symphony orchestra playing in a building under construction, a glossy top hat briefly glimpsed on a stove in a Mexico City hovel. Most viewers would miss these moments, Buñuel thought, and those who saw them would wonder what they had seen, just as we wonder, in That Obscure Object of Desire, whether we have really seen two actresses or weirdly misremembered just one. Dancigers’s view, which Buñuel accepted in practice without agreeing to the principle, was that the director was ruining the film. ‘I don’t care if I ruin films, Buñuel said. This could be a motto for him: when he is lucky, his films are the ruins of films he didn’t want to make.

My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary at the Buñuels’ house in 1978. There were a number of guests, much festivity, champagne, many Spanish jokes. Everyone had a good time, and I had a small illumination. This orderly, good-humoured house, these kindly people: isn’t there something odd here? Only what Buñuel has taught us to find odd. We are the people who managed to have a meal together, unlike the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. When the meal is over, we shall be able to leave (we were able to leave), unlike the characters in The Exterminating Angel. Buñuel himself is not outside the world he criticises, he is part of it, and so are his friends and family. Social arrangements are foolish and apparently fragile, because they are so arbitrary and groundless. Everything about them could be different, and is different in other times and places. ‘Everyone is a barbarian for someone,’ as a character says in The Phantom of Liberty: ‘on est toujours le barbare de quelqu’un.’ And yet it is because these arrangements are arbitrary and groundless that we have so little purchase on them, and they seem so strangely unchangeable. The radical instability of things in Buñuel’s films is a wish, an act of fictional defiance, the expression of a political and moral need. Their durability in reality is their discreet and remorseless excess of charm. Buñuel’s great subject is the intimate failure of the bourgeoisie to revolt against the bourgeoisie.

Hence Buñuel’s fondness for heretics, and stories about heretics. Heretics are not atheists, outsiders, they are believers who believe something different, they are with us and not with us. That’s why we have to persecute them, or why, if we are the heretics, we get persecuted. The Milky Way, Buñuel said, could have been made about any form of heresy, artistic, scientific, sociological. He chose religious heresies because he happened to know something about them – because of his Jesuit education, he said. Buñuel attended a school in Zaragoza that sounds at all points identical with the school Stephen Dedalus attends in Dublin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There is something disingenuous, even mischievous, about this claim, since Buñuel’s religious preoccupations are clearly more firmly anchored than the remark suggests, more like a trauma than an option. But the intellectual reach of the idea is interesting, and says something about the intimacy of failed revolt in Buñuel’s works, from L’Age d’or through Los Olvidados, Nazarín, Viridiana, Tristana and The Phantom of Liberty. Heretics often suffer dreadfully because they are so close to the doctrine they dissent from. But then they are close to it. Even their dissent can be seen as a form of complicity, a failure to get outside the engulfing system. This is a revolt which can’t escape its family of thought, which will always have been the secret friend of its worst enemy.

Buñuel was born in Calanda, near Teruel, in Spain, just over a hundred years ago (22 February 1900), but he insisted that the place itself plunged him into an older time. ‘My infancy slipped by in an almost medieval atmosphere’; ‘I had the good fortune of spending my childhood in the Middle Ages.’ One effect of this ancientness was that his films, after a certain point, stopped ageing, since they so fluently mingled contemporary violence, drugs, high-tech killers, up-to-date political jokes with much older customs. When a car hits a tree in The Milky Way, a voice comes out of the car radio preaching a sermon on the pains of hell. The text is from a work by Fray Luis de Granada, a medieval mystic. The voice is Buñuel’s. Although Buñuel thought that film, as a medium, was peculiarly the ‘victim of time’, he managed if not to refute time at least to confuse it. When the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar uses the word ‘Buñuel’ as an adjective he means skipping without warning ‘from Actium to the Anschluss’ – or as happens in L’Age d’or, from an imagined foundation of Rome to a troubled 1930.

This is not quite the impression we get from the rather miscellaneous collection of materials in An Unspeakable Betrayal. Time’s hand is all over this work, pushing everything remorselessly towards the past. The book is an English-language version of a French book published in 1995, which in turn contained work assembled in Spanish in 1982. Some of the material was even gathered in Francisco Aranda’s biography of Buñuel, published in Spanish in 1969, and available in English in 1975.

The book opens with a selection of whimsical prose pieces Buñuel published between 1922 and 1927. Some are Surrealist avant la lettre – Buñuel says in My Last Breath that he wasn’t much interested in Surrealism until well after he moved from Madrid, where he had studied, to Paris in 1925 – and some are literally Surrealist. The cymbals in an orchestra are said to be ‘light shattered into fragments’; a personified wind, ‘howling with delight’, uproots trees, spins houses round and turns ‘three priests sneaking down the street into as many inverted umbrellas’. A piece of roasted meat takes a walk, has all kinds of adventures. The least dated of these self-consciously artful pieces is perhaps ‘La Sancta Misa Vaticanae’, which describes a competition held in Rome to see who can say mass fastest:

At the word ‘go’, the priests begin to say mass as fast as they can. Turning toward the faithful to say the Dominus vobiscum, making the sign of the cross etc, they reach incredible speeds, while the altar boy goes back and forth with the missal and the other ritual objects. A few fall down exhausted, like boxers. Finally, Mosén Rendueles, of Huesca, is declared the winner, having said the entire mass in a record 1 minute and 45 seconds. As a prize he receives a monstrance and a large Aragonian wicker basket.

An Unspeakable Betrayal also has the texts of a brief pre-Surrealist play called ‘Hamlet’, which Buñuel put on with his friends in the cellar of the Café Select in Montparnasse (‘At the end of each act, the peasants will be foreshadowed’; ‘Marquises artificially bleed to death along the nauseating walls’), and of a rather learned lecture on the puppet theatre. The rest of the book offers a selection from Buñuel’s film criticism, a handful of more theoretical pronouncements on the cinema, some notes on three of his own films (L’Age d’or Las Hurdes and Viridiana), some screenplays and/or synopses, including the version of Un Chien andalou which Buñuel published in La Révolution surréaliste in 1929, and some autobiographical jottings.

Already in the late 1920s Buñuel liked American films, especially the comic shorts of Ben Turpin, Harry Langdon and above all Buster Keaton. ‘The finest poems that cinema has produced’, he said of American two-reelers, ‘far more Surrealist than the films of Man Ray’. ‘Keaton’s films,’ Buñuel wrote, ‘give lessons to reality itself.’ He loved Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (‘the humanity in these faces floods the screen and fills the room’), and was very funny about Adolphe Menjou’s moustache (‘a page of Proust brought to life on the upper lip’). What Buñuel has to say about film as a medium, about découpage and close-ups and the rest, is rather disappointing, since it seems like watered-down Eisenstein – but then we have the films. Among the later work in the volume is a set of film ideas which Buñuel noted down some time in the 1940s (probably), and called ‘Gags’. This one anticipates a moment in The Exterminating Angel:

the owners of the castle and their guests, some six or seven people in all, climb the staircase of the main hall to go to bed. In the corridor on the second floor, where various doors lead to their rooms, they bid one another good night and retire. A short while later, one of the guests cautiously leaves his room on a mysterious expedition. As he approaches the staircase he hears the nearby voices of people coming up the stairs. They are exactly the same people as before, who again say good night and retire to their rooms.

And this one has several echoes in Buñuel’s last films, especially The Phantom of Liberty: ‘in a room, with four candles placed around it, is a coffin in which lies a very beautiful woman who might be the bride. As the protagonist draws near her, the corpse opens its eyes and says: “Would you mind leaving me in peace?” ’

There is also an unlikely treatment, written in English in 1937 for Paramount, for a film about Goya and the Duchess of Alba, which is so terrible that Buñuel must have had the time of his life writing it. Goya is ‘a large man, warm, passionate, yet retaining the peasant’s virtues of simplicity and sincerity’. He saves the Duchess from a street escapade, but she doesn’t yet know who he is. ‘He leads her into the atelier where the walls are covered with paintings that are famous all through Spain. The Duchess regards them in amazement. “You are Goya!” she exclaims. He nods.’

Buñuel said of Un Chien andalou that it was ‘nothing other than a desperate, impassioned call for murder’, although his misguided audiences (‘this imbecilic crowd’) kept finding it ‘beautiful’ or ‘poetic’. Buñuel’s sons Juan Luis and Rafael rather ungratefully repeat the charge in a brief afterword to this book. ‘That’s what his films and writing were all about. To provoke, to shock, to destroy a society that he found corrupt and idiotic, to ridicule a religion that had oppressed millions of people and continues to do so ... Now many of his books and belongings have been put into museums.’ Or even reprinted in works published by university presses. We might rather say, as I think Buñuel himself would later have said, that if an audience can mistake a call for murder for a beautiful poem, there is something wrong with the work as well as the audience. Or something wrong with the description of the work. What Buñuel learned magnificently to do as a filmmaker was to make it impossible for us to settle for beauty and poetry, however much we liked the works. The desperate call for murder was more than a metaphor but less than a programme, a response to the pain of a world which not even the most extreme violence could alter.

The last time I saw Buñuel we had an extended talk about chance. I had said how much I liked the moments in Tristana where the main character forces herself or her companions to make choices between two virtually identical things, to prefer one over the other: the chickpeas on her plate, the pillars of a colonnade in a courtyard, two narrow streets in Toledo. Buñuel said that the things are not different but you can make them different. You look at any two identical things, two copies of the same book, two objects of the same colour, and they begin to seem different. ‘This red is more red.’ Then you act on this invented difference and your life changes – or it doesn’t. This way of thinking is about as far from determinism as it could be, but it doesn’t seem to afford much human freedom. Our acts would have scarcely any antecedents, we could literally go either way with the chickpeas or the streets or the books or the colours: chance masquerading as choice. But then these same acts are heavy with consequences, just as they would be if we had made fully considered choices between radically different alternatives. We create a moment of meaningless freedom and then we squander it. Or perhaps we create the momentary flicker of freedom because we know the larger options are not available to us. When Tristana chooses between two chickpeas or two pillars, she insists on the real but slight difference between the candidates: ‘there’s always a little something that makes me like one of them more.’ The despairing corollary to this view would be that differences as slight as this convert every choice into a self-deluding game. On the other hand, when Tristana takes the street to the right rather than to the left, she meets the man who is to become her lover. Would she otherwise have missed him? What we call causes, Buñuel says in My Last Breath, are really a limitless profusion of chances. ‘Chance is the great master of all things. Necessity arrives only afterwards.’ Did Buñuel believe this? Not exclusively or always, but it was one of his favourite stories about human behaviour, and I suddenly remember that at one time he was planning to make a film of Gide’s Les Caves du Vatican, a novel predicated on the notion of the acte gratuit. The acts in Tristana are gratuitous in their making, but a mere phantom of liberty in their effect.