The filmmaker Luis Buñuel was born in Spain on February 22, 1900, one hundred and ten years ago this week.
If they’re aggressive about it, most contemporary American filmgoers don’t get to Buñuel until their college years. By then, they’ve probably had their first run-ins with Fellini and Bergman (definitely 8 ½, maybe Persona), and have very likely sampled the early Godard, if they’re that way inclined (I wasn’t). There are variations of course (I saw Fanny and Alexander and worked backwards), but any way you get them, these are the filmmakers who picked us up from the prom, drove us up to Make Out Point, and took our Hollywood virginity.
Then, a year or so later, Buñuel creeps in there. And I do mean creeps. Maybe it was some clove-smoking girl in college, maybe it was rakish professor of World Cinema, or maybe it was the greasy guy at the video store. In either case, there comes a point when the young cinephile exhausts the Italians and the French (and Bergman), and uncovers the strange and often wonderful world of Luis Buñuel. It happens to everyone. Just as babies start to walk, children learn to speak, and grownups find their favorite drink. (Buñuel’s, but the way, was a martini. He wrote, “To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of a martini…Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative powers of the Holy Ghost pierced the virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window – leaving it unbroken.”)
I’ve digressed, but that’s how Buñuel would want it. He’d also want you to imagine me – a scholarly type, and published, soon to be twice published – with my pants down as I write this, or, like the famous scene from The Phantom of Liberty, sitting contemplatively on a gleaming white toilet, imagining myself in bed with a cold, cold, legless woman who is actually the English Prime Minster, a man, but played by a woman.
An all-around anarchist, Buñuel wants to explode everything – literal and figurative – including government buildings, traditional narrative forms, sexual mores, and Jesus Christ. As a college student beginning to understand the joys of explodability, Buñuel was just what the medcin ordered, and in films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Obscure Object of Desire, (perennial favorite) Belle du Jour, and (my favorite) The Exterminating Angel, all aspects of civilized life were fair target. Cut to: “Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, leaving only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.”
But just as I fell for Buñuel, I crept away from him. And I do mean crept. Buñuel’s refined esoteric sensibility (not to mention his undeniable talent) will keep his films in fashion as long as people are making movies – a terrific thing, and quite deserved – but it makes it difficult to admit – at least publicly – that in the days since college, he and I have had a tiny falling out.
Over time, I saw the mechanism behind his satire begin to creak. I saw the jabs coming, and they were the same jabs he’d been jabbing his whole life. (Part of the problem, I think, was that he was so good so early in his career – Un Chien Andalou was 1929 – that it didn’t leave him too far to go.) Buñuel, who seemed the most grown-up filmmaker – the only filmmaker ever to truly intimidate Hitchcock – seemed to me, around the time I left college, a case of arrested development. Like Hitch, he was, in the end, shackled by his perversities. He never blew them up.