Viridiana, a ferocious imagery that startled movie-goers at its time. The Left ethos that encapsulated everything from Le Chien Andalou ( 1929) , The Young One,The Damned, Stranger in the Room, The Roots, etc. Like Bergman and Fellini this was the view of the human condition of considerable importance. Part of a period of movies that had become more subtle than they once were, where the film director joined the philosopher, the theologian, the scientist and the historian to spin with them the great vortex of explanations of our world. However the film director enjoys a psychological advantage over these other worthy occupations. Since discussions of the human condition fatigue the mind and strain the will, we tend to welcome views that can be assimilated easily; we may agree or disagree with stated opinions, but we rarely quarrel with images; they are immediately persuasive.
Before the Great Depression, film was considered a vulgar art, or no art at all except as a source of sensations for the masses with a few heavy, obvious references to the modern condition. In films like Chaplin’s City Lights, the comedy and pathos were central, and we were left to form our own conclusions about tender tramps and drunken millionaires. Chaplin’s later films became intellectually ambitious, his thinking becomes primary, and Monsieur Verdoux being led to execution says “numbers sanctify.”
The state may slaughter men in quantities , but private enterprise in death leads to the gallows and the guillotine. The thought is not original; what is new is the appearance of larger intellectual ambition in the movies.
Bunuel’s was certainly ambitious and intellectual; it is also truly impressive. He viewed himself as a sort of poet, and he was a radical and uncompromising thinker. Since Le Chien Andalou, the short surrealist picture he made with Salvador Dali in the late 1920′s, his social and religious concerns were plainly visible. In a typical sequence from that film a lover whose face is stained with desire pursues a woman who understandably, even in surrealist fantasy, shrinks from him because he has a halter about his neck and is pulling a load that consists of two grand pianos, two dead donkeys, decomposing and slimy, and two priests in full clerical garb. These same elements: passion, terror, religion, death, bourgeois culture ( the pianos) were always present in his later work, though in richer, more mature form.
Bunuel’s films were shot in many countries and always deal with poverty. In almost all of them, the starving, the crippled, the sick, the blind, the dead, are shown vividly and violently after the manner of Lazarillo de Tormes and of Garcia de Quevedo and Perez Galdos, Spanish masters who are famous for their hardness.
Bunuel’s Land Without Bread, which must be the most naked record of death by starvation ever made, was banned in Spain not, as I had imagined, by Franco but by the Republican government. Bunuel spares us nothing, nor himself, for there is nothing resembling sentimental manipulation in any of these films, no effort to exploit easy sympathies or to prick the heart and make it bleed a bit, a pleasant enough thing for the audience, in careful moderation. Unlike Fellini, who in La Dolce Vita, hovers over his horrors and often betrays an Italianate softness in the presence of blood and death, Bunuel strikes his blows in quick succession and does not linger over his effects.
Bnuel’s views of Christianity were always controversial, and his Viridiana, which won a prize at Cannes, was condemned by the Vatican for anti-clericism. The beauty of the picture is miraculously inseparable from its horrors. Too weird and intrinsically surreal, it touches on necrophilia, suicide, sex, the lack of morals of the poor, the interchangeability of piety for sensuality, a non-stop assault of surreal nihilism aimed ostensibly at the bourgeois, but is dependent on the same for its cinematic impact, a kind of early incarnations of the dissent industry as mass entertainment, in fact serving to reinforce the structures he rails against with such vigor. Its not garden variety atheism, but a neo-realism that subsumes categories of goodness and sin, a reality that is social and collective to be sure, and not from the particular. Ironically, Bunuel’s philosophy reminds of Clement Greenberg on abstract painting, and modern art, where he asserted that spirituality is incidental or at best an accidental byproduct of the art, derived from the play of materials. Bunuel is very much part of this anti-spiritual where the transcendental is distilled into quantifiable forms. The Janus face of Franco’s fascism, and in its own way a vulgar art as well that bullshitized te lives of the poor and oppressed into a series of neat little boxes to fight his personal wars for him.
Its another version of the making of a new man, a shedding of the old self pursuing old goals, a yearning for utopia that embraces a deeper awareness of what all men have in common, of which he is not able to show us what these forms might be, but in that, he is hardly alone.