“Bunuel was not a surrealist from 1932 onwards: He was a dedicated melodramatist and moralist. People mistakenly use his first two shorts as a keystone, when they should be using Las Hurdes.”
There are clear surrealist techniques he uses, it’s not like he abandoned them. Early Bunuel is surrealist, Mid Bunuel is melodramatist, late Bunuel is a delicate mixture of the two. Discreet Charm is a great example of surrealist techniques. The problem with early Bunuel style surrealism (and other players in that movement) is that it was so stylistically overblown that the underlying and longer lasting techniques of surrealism get looked over. “Oh man a priest dragging dead horses bodies and a hand with ants! Fucked up shit!” distracts from the fact that when you’re looking for a reaction shot you end up with an in/out of frame.
The Milky Way is a good case in point. Basically a narrative film; the surrealist ‘play’ going on here is simply taking Biblical literalism and making it literalism. The result? “What is going on? Oh wait…” Using narrative structure, Bunuel leads the audience into absurdities; this is consistent throughout his careeer, and justifies the use of the descriptor ‘surrealism.’
Using narrative structure, Bunuel leads the audience into absurdities; this is consistent throughout his careeer, and justifies the use of the descriptor ‘surrealism.’
No, I reject this. Surrealism is a “how”, not a “what”. Even a movie like Phantom of Liberty is filmed with intense realism. Like a documentary.
“The Milky Way is a good case in point.”
To Jerry’s point, Bunuel shot The Milky Way in sequence on the journey between Spain and France, much like how he would have shot a documentary on the subject.
What makes his later films surreal has more to do with the content of the images rather than the style and construction of the images themselves. In other words, the surrealism is related primarily to the content as opposed to the form (i.e. Conchita being played by two actresses, the elliptical nature of Discreet Charm, or the guests being trapped in the room in The Exterminating Angel). They’re surreal situations illustrated without the use of special effects.
The construction of the image is essentially the content of the image. There’s a reason Bunuel’s Mexican dramas look so much like his later French films, even considering the wide differences in “content.” Exterminating Angel is far, far, far closer in essentially every single conceivable aspect to something like El Bruto or even La mort en ce jardin than it is to Un chien andalou.
“The construction of the image is essentially the content of the image.”
Then you might as well argue two paintings of the same bedroom are one and the same by virtue of them both being paintings of the same bedroom.
Yes, if I ignored the form for the content, then I would be doing exactly that.
But seeing as form determines content (which is what I was arguing, and the exact opposite of what you were arguing) two paintings of the same thing can be radically different.
here we go again…
What makes his later films surreal has more to do with the content of the images rather than the style and construction of the images themselves. In other words, the surrealism is related primarily to the content as opposed to the form (i.e. Conchita being played by two actresses, the elliptical nature of Discreet Charm, or the guests being trapped in the room in The Exterminating Angel).
As Falderal points out, Bunuel filmed his Mexican genre films and his Euro-art statements the same way. There has probably never been a more consistent director outside of Naruse and Ozu. Bunuel’s content is the most diverse in cinema history. He made masterpieces in experimental cinema, documentary agit-prop, mexican studio, hollywood studio, intercontinental artfilm. The “surrealism” charge only applies to the first and last example, and ignores the 70% of his output in between.
“Surrealism is a “how”, not a “what”.”
That’s what I said.
“Even a movie like Phantom of Liberty is filmed with intense realism. Like a documentary.”
… that subverts your narrative expectations of realism and documentary…
See: Inez Hedges’ book on Dadaist and surrealist art, Breaking the Frames.
“What makes his later films surreal has more to do with the content of the images rather than the style and construction of the images themselves.”
I disagree. For instance, in The Obscure Object of Desire, the two actresses play one character. The one character is the content of the images. The two actresses are the construction of that character (and her duplicitous nature). The effect is surreal.
“They’re surreal situations illustrated without the use of special effects.”
Exactly. Un chien andalou was in some part Bunuel trying to move avant-garde films away from what he deemed ‘special effects films’ which at the time referred to more in-camera effects (nevertheless, Un chien andalou still features double exposures and so forth). To take on experimental film at its structure of meaning, not build on preexisting narrative with mere optical tricks. It’s rough but so was Welles’ first film.
I agree with Falderal’s point that his different eras films ‘look the same’ but have drastically different content, but I do see a change in his approach over his lifetime from an experimental to an experienced to a mature filmmaker and I see that change operating mostly on the level of how he is able to direct and misdirect the audience. In a way I feel like the Mexican melodrama era was a period to prove to himself he could do it in genre frames of reference without anybody noticing and expecting the same things as, i.e., L’Age d’or.
“Bunuel filmed his Mexican genre films and his Euro-art statements the same way.”
He has the same eye for composition and he knows how to play it straight when he has to. Doesn’t make him not a surrealist when he decides to pull that rug out from under you, just because previously he was fine to let you sit on it, it being his rug and all.
Wait… When I said the “content” differs it was meant as a satirical point, really.
His melodramas still sexualize young women (even underage girls, like in the aptly titled The Young One), they still have an odd obsession with legs and feet, still have a very direct, unwavering political ideology (like the Marxist Gran Casino), still the same confrontational attitude towards Catholicism, and the same kind of dark comedy. <—-In fact, all of those aspects are, to me, what make The Devil and the Flesh his absolute best film.
So same kind of content, same kind of aesthetic and formal approach, but more toilets and seemingly random animals… SURREALISM!!!
Wait, so you read an absurd review that compared The Phantom of Liberty with Monty Python and you now criticize the movie and Bunuel for not living up to your opinion of someone else’s opinion? Seriously? I can assure you Bunuel’s intentions are not the same as Monty Python – although both make humorous films in their own way.
“His melodramas still sexualize young women (even underage girls, like in the aptly titled The Young One), they still have an odd obsession with legs and feet, still have a very direct, unwavering political ideology (like the Marxist Gran Casino), still the same confrontational attitude towards Catholicism, and the same kind of dark comedy. "
But they are otherwise narratively structured whereas his later stuff even without the toilets and seemingly random animals break narrative structures.
I’m not arguing the ‘what’ I’m arguing the ‘how.’ Otherwise I would have posted screencaps of toilets to call out Jerry’s “realism”.
Fun times though. Three people who all watched his films closely and broadly, using mostly the same language and terminology, and then arguing all about it.
I’m confused over what the point of disagreement is here. What are the definitions of the category surrealism y’all are using? ‘Cause it seems to me that Bunuel felt free to use the sorts of “irrational” juxtapositions of events or objects which was a signal part of the surrealist movement, so I’d be hard pressed to say he didn’t maintain a connection to the ideas of surrealists even if he wasn’t “officially” making works that fit the most rigorous definition of the category in later years.
But lacking a narrative structure isn’t necessarily a surrealistic trait. Un chien andalou, L’Age d’or and Las Hurdes all use a defined narrative structure as a means to deconstruct narrative in cinema.
Something like Phantom of Liberty, Milky Way and Exterminating Angel all do away with structure in its entirety, rather than ever breaking from it.
And even when he does break from any narrative he’s created, the ending of Simon of the Desert, it follows a line of logic created in the film, unlike in Un chien andalou where eight years pass between night and day.
As far as I’m able to discern, I am arguing against Jerry’s assertion:
“Bunuel was not a surrealist from 1932 onwards”
and Falderal is popping in between the discussion to clarify points about content and form as they are being debated. I neither disagree with Jerry’s statement that
nor with anything Falderal is pointing out about content, form, and Bunuel’s career specifics of both. I think he’s mostly running clarification of terms and angles work here.
“But lacking a narrative structure isn’t necessarily a surrealistic trait”
And that is not what I said. I said it breaks the frames of narrative structure to surrealist effect. To say that I’m saying his movies are lacking narrative structure (they’re not) or that lack itself necessitates a surrealist trait (it doesn’t) is like nitpicking my comparisons to tangential narratives of neorealism and broken narratives of Antonioni by telling me that Bunuel isn’t neorealist (never the point I was making) nor concerned with the same issues as Antonioni (never the point I was making).
I’m also referring to a term, “breaking the frames,” that is explained in Inez Hedges book, that may be being misunderstood and I can admit I’m not explaining it too well. What Hedges does is describes Dadaism and surrealism through a cognitive psychology perspective: she points out how these art forms set up ‘frames’ that the audience is familiar with with the purpose of generating a cognitive expectation as to the resultant ‘meaning’. Then it ‘breaks the frame’ by replacing its expected resolution with something else:
“How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
Duck’s aren’t surreal. It’s not the ‘what’. It’s that ‘change a light bulb’ jokes create an expectation in the ‘audience’ of “This number, for this ironic and humorous reason”. Now that example is more of an exaggeration. Another good surrealist joke would be
“There are two type of people in this world, those who need closure, and
That is why some surrealist writers would write completely grammatically correct sentences, but the words themselves would make the meaning absurd. Random words strung together are just absurd, not surreal. Giving them a formal grammar, making our mind actually attach to their meaning, is what makes them surreal.
Hence, Bunuel uses narrative framing for surreal purposes. You have a character so there’s continuity as to what we read as her ‘personality’, but you switch her with two actors and that physiological surrealism informs the narrative that is about duplicitous personality. The cognitive confusion of the lead character in That Obscure Object of Desire becomes our own even if his obsession isn’t.
The Phantom of Liberty is compared to Monty Python because of tangential, skit-like narrative (and Python has its own sort of surrealism that is more content based than structural). I’m pointing out that the narratives aren’t skits. Jerry is taking issue with my structural explanation why by stating that Bunuel isn’t a surrealist despite the stylistic content of his first two features. Since then the onus has been on me to explain that I don’t consider Bunuel a surrealist because of the stylistic content, either of that peppered throughout his career or because of his first two films. Falderal is coming in from a completely different angle pointing out some of his regular concerns such as young women and legs et al and so on, or that broken narratives are not necessarily surrealism. Also not my point.
Yeah, I get some of that, and I would guess that the argument is as much over the boundaries and concept of what makes for surrealism as anything since it appears that Falderal and Jerry are taking a more categorical approach by referencing the Surrealist Movement to some extent, whereas I am tending to side with what I take to be your approach Polaris and thinking more in terms of what the surrealists seemed to be suggesting about the nature of art regardless of whether the artists was connected directly to the movement and/or time period with which it is claimed to have operated.
The idea of surrealism seemed to me to be more about the power of the “irrational” in art where seemingly unassociated artifacts when linked gained greater force through their lack of logical connection than would more rationally or logically contextual artifacts. (Artifacts meaning objects or other concrete denotative symbols whether in writing or visual.) Given that I tend to appreciate this view and have comparatively little interest in more strictly defined category membership determined by those trying to trace the movement in terms of strict boundaries, names, and dates I will not argue against the desire to limit the definition of “surreal” more tightly, I just wanted to find out whether it was the boundaries more than the possible underlying concepts being argued over.
Granted, I am more interested in structures than categories.
Bunuel’s general approach to ‘meaning’, as I’ve seen it, is in reference to the irrational (in both what he reveals about the subjects of his movies, and how he goes about talking about them (if anything he’s at least evasive about their rational meaning)), which should make his work categorically surrealist if we want to take that approach.
And now, AFTER all of that, THEN we can always just refer back to dinner parties on toilets. How is calling Bunuel ‘surrealist’ controversial? ;-P
I wouldn’t have much problem with the idea that Bunuel maintained the sentiments of surrealism without adhering to its concepts in a rigorous way. By which I mean that one could argue that Bunuel was often interested in bringing together things which people do not wish to associate with one another, but which do maintain a “rational” connection, like the idea of toilets and eating. This juxtaposition then would have something of the effect of surrealism by our psychological severing of otherwise “rationally” connected objects. Having two women play the same woman could likewise be argued as a “rational” perspective, even if not literally possible, given the way we might tend to think about personality. I think you can only go so far with that approach however, as Bunuel has a way of making even more “conventional” connections seem charged with greater meaning by the emphasis he places on them without strict logical cause. The way he plays with the various signifying characteristics of the people in The Young One, for example, goes beyond what we might tend to think of as personality traits and becomes something more essential so the juxtaposition of the elements gains greater force. That isn’t “surrealist” exactly, but it seems potentially informed by it in some ways.
So again, to cover the conversation:
DiB: “Here is how Bunuel uses surrealist techniques in The Phantom of Liberty that differentiates it from a skit comedy a la Monty Python.”
Jerry: “Bunuel wasn’t a surrealist after 1932.”
DiB: “Yes he was, here is how he uses surrealist techniques in some movies after 1932.”
Jerry: “But it’s in the how, not the what.”
DiB: “That’s what I said, here is how he uses surrealist techniques.”
Some regular rehashing of the semantic confusions behind ‘content’ and ‘form.’
Falderal: “But in your reference to your early, mid, late Bunuel breakdown*, he used consistent motifs.”
DiB: “Yes he does.”
Greg: “What’s being debated here?”
DiB: “That Bunuel uses surrealist techniques in some movies after 1932.”
Greg: “Right, he does, but I think the issue is of the categorization of surrealist, to which I can’t discount Jerry’s and Falderal’s points.”
DiB: “Right, I’m not making a point about categorization, but his techniques.”
Greg: “Right, but Bunuel maintained the techniques of surrealism without adhering to its categorization.”
So good. How ’bout this:
Bunuel is not ‘a surrealist,’ he uses surrealist techniques. Early, mid, and late Bunuel are all Bunuel concerned with Bunuellian motifs and themes and variously uses surrealist techniques. He uses realism and melodrama for those motifs and themes too. We all good here?
I mean, I kind of feel like my statements are being scrutinized in a way where, if I took Falderal’s “Well Milky Way’s production was a sort of documentary style in its linear production progression” and decided to scrutinize it with the same semantics, I would take that statement as meaning that we could then infer that Dead Poet’s Society is a documentary, because it was produced in the same linear progression method as Milky Way. But I don’t assume that Falderal is calling The Milky Way a documentary just because elements of its production match documentary style production, and I’m not making semantical arguments like, “Using a documentary production method doesn’t necessarily make it a documentary style or realist movie, though,” because I’m not a prescriptivist and I’m sure without asking that Falderal and I can agree that The Milky Way doesn’t even look like a documentary. If you disagree that Bunuel is ‘a surrealist’ you should still know what I mean by how he uses surrealism. THERE’S A DINNER TABLE SURROUNDED BY FUCKING TOILETS. The rest is pure nitpicking of semantics, and otherwise not useful for expanding on the OP’s comparison to Monty Python by attempting to isolate technical differences between sketch comedy and what Bunuel is doing specifically with The Phantom of Liberty.
I’m tired and annoyed over nothing and going to bed. Tomorrow I shoot an actual documentary and it will look nothing like The Milky Way because it’s a documentary. Good day.
Um, Polaris, I was mostly agreeing with you ya know, and only trying to find the place where Falderal and Jerry are diverging to see if it can be reconciled with what seems to e our largely shared point of view.
Phantom of Liberty is ok, but I think of it as a slight lull between one really great (Discreet Charm) and one very good (That Obscure Object) Bunuel film.
I laughed a lot during The Milky Way. He has his funny bone.