|Tuesday 19 September, 2000
Luis Buñuel: In The Directors' Chair
Luis Buñuel was the master of the surrealist screen. Whilst his trademark dream sequences shocked audiences, his political commentary outraged the establishment and by his death in 1983, he had become a celebrated artist in celluloid.
In Meridian Screen, British film director, Alex Cox, talks to those who knew the artist best and separates the reality from the myth that surrounds the great filmmaker.
Luis Buñuel began his career as a filmmaker in France. His first film, Un Chien Andalou was a huge success and his second, L’age D’or, was a disastrous failure.
For almost 20 years he wandered back and forth across the Atlantic – from France, to Los Angeles; Spain to New York. In the mid 1940s he moved to Mexico City and began the most productive phase of his career. Though he worked in other countries, he remained in Mexico until his death. Along the way he had become Spain’s, France’s and Mexico’s most notorious film director.
Born into a cultured Spanish family in Calanda, Aragon, Luis Buñuel was the eldest of Leonardo and Maria Portoles Buñuel 's six children. Buñuel’s father came from an old, but not rich, local family, and had made his money in Cuba by importing European goods into the Caribbean.
Soon after Buñuel 's birth the family moved from Calanda to Zaragosa, spending their summers in Calanda and by the sea. Of his family Buñuel was later to say:
‘The fact of the matter, was that my father did absolutely nothing. ... We were the last scions of an ancient way of life.’
Buñuel was educated at the College of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart and then at the Jesuit Colegio del Salvador. He served at Mass and sang in the choir, but the repressive system of instruction left a lasting impression upon him. At the age of 16 he turned against the Roman Catholic Church. His wife later said that,
‘He hated the spiritual power of the Church, and its money.’
In 1917, he enrolled at the University of Madrid to study engineering. Here he became friends with the artist Salvador Dali and poet, Federico Garcia Lorca.
Film and Family Interest
In 1925 Buñuel went to Paris, at this stage he had no idea where his future lay. However it was here that Fritz Lang's Der Mude Tod turned his interest towards films.
In Paris, he acquired a taste for American jazz and took up the banjo. He also met Jeanne Rucar, a gymnastics teacher who had won an Olympic bronze medal. He courted her in a formal Aragonese manner, complete with a chaperone, and in 1934 they were married.
Buñuel the Filmmaker
Between 1926- 1928 Buñuel was a pupil at the Academie du Cinema and worked for the renowned film director, Jean Epstein. Although he was acquiring the skills that would form his career, Buñuel was extremely principled and refused to work with Epsteins mentor, Abel Gance.
Epstein and Buñuel soon fell out, and so, using money sent to him by his mother, Buñuel made his first film, Un Chien Andalou (1928), in collaboration with Dali.
The film set out as a reaction against the avant-garde and so as to shock the bourgeois audiences. It became a testament to surrealism and includes classic Dali images, such as a hand crawling with ants, as well as, now famous cinema moments, such as the razor blade slicing the eye.
The influence of Surrealism on Buñuel was fundamental and lasting, although Epstein warned him about his ‘surrealist tendencies’. In 1930, his second film, L'Age d'Or, opened and caused a riot during which the cinema was attacked.
The film maintains a typically nonsensical surrealist plot, that includes priests, donkeys, lovers in the mud and mountains. It is heavily laden with symbolism and has become a surrealist classic, despite originally being withdrawn from the screens.
When the scandal and subsequent withdrawal of L’Age d’Or occurred, Bunuel was in Hollywood working as a dubbing director for Paramount and Warner Brothers.
Returning to Spain, Buñuel borrowed a camera and financed his next film with lottery winnings. The result was Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1932), a documentary about suffering in an impoverished part of Spain. Realism was creeping into his work and the film’s political implications quickly led to its limited circulation.
In 1936, at the outbreak of Civil War, Buñuel left Spain to produce a documentary in Paris about the war. He was then invited to Hollywood to make anti-Nazi films and documentaries for the American army. The work was welcome to him as he had a family to support, but he was denounced by Dali in his autobiography as an atheist and a communist. Buñuel was later sacked from his job on the suspicion that he had a communist background.
In 1945, Buñuel was working as head of Warner Brothers Spanish department but, with the money he had made, he set out for Mexico. He would live here for the rest of his life and assumed citizenship in 1949.
During this period he directed a number of low budget, commercial successes which included a comedy which was successful enough to allow him to go on to make Los Olvidados (1950). This film was criticised by many Mexicans for blackening the country's name, but its international success revived Buñuel's reputation.
He returned to France in 1955 and was swamped with offers of work. Filming Viridiana (1961) presented him with his first opportunity to work in Spain since the scandal caused by Las Hurdes. His iconoclastic humour, which included a burlesque on the Last Supper, caused Viridiana to be banned immediately.
Despite his insistence that martinis’ allowed him to dream, by 1983 alcohol had ravaged his body. In July of that year Buñuel died of cirrhosis of the liver, he was 83 years old.
The arch-enemy of the Spanish establishment - his themes were Communism, hatred of Franco and the Catholic Church – he had become an admired and respected figure in the development of cinema.
| Quote, Unquote
|Luis Buñuel once claimed,
‘I never made a single scene that compromised my convictions or my personal morality.’