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Critical Eye
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Truth and Consequences
The films of Luis Buñuel reveal a vision of human violence that is complicated, unsentimental, and always honest

by Lee Siegel

May 7, 1998

bunuelbk picture The Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel adored paradox. His belief in man's inherent sinfulness made him a peculiar sort of communist; his atheism made him a strange sort of Catholic; his tragic sense of life made him an odd sort of surrealist. I think I would have liked him. John Baxter, Buñuel's latest biographer, relates how a firm that produced beverages once asked Buñuel to film a commercial for it. He proposed a crucifixion scene in which Christ, hanging on the cross, says "I thirst," and a Roman soldier offers him a bottle of the company's mineral water. Baxter's life of Buñuel, just republished by Carroll & Graf, is long on such vivid and colorful anecdotes but, unfortunately, short on analysis of Buñuel's character and work. Yet breezy and superficial as Baxter's celebrity bio is, it made me revisit some of Buñuel's films. And that made me wonder about human values in present-day filmmaking.
Previously in Critical Eye:

"Posing for Egon Schiele" (February 1998)
Lee Siegel on the artist, the critics, and the importance of being jaded.

Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Related Links:

Filmography of Luis Buñuel

A list of Buñuel's films with links to reviews and information about the actors.

Movie Guide Database: Luis Buñuel
A short biography of Buñuel.

Everyman Cinema -- Director Links
A list of links to Web sites with information on Buñuel.
Buñuel considers human beings to be sentenced to violence by nature and fate. And he knows that violence has consequences that are always measured in moral terms, even if good and bad are defined strictly by self-preservation. Today's serious American films, on the other hand, use a formulaic psychologizing to acquit their characters of their violence, thereby making it a neutral spectacle. That's how American movie cruelty can brim with such optimism. Celluloid violence is a problem to be solved (as in The Silence of the Lambs, in which Jodie Foster, the FBI agent, just needs to do a little conscientious introspecting to connect with the insane killer and thus solve the crime) or a condition ultimately to be celebrated (as in Straw Dogs or The Godfather). In movies like Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and all of Tarantino's films, wilful physical harming simultaneously gets treated, with various degrees of archness, as cultural pastime and film convention. Hollywood violence is everything but violence itself.

That would not be so bad if movie violence were just the plain old rough-and-ready catharsis it was in the past. In many Hollywood movies, though, violence is also a moral palliative. Take Taxi Driver, more than twenty years old, but still the overpraised classic of violent American films. At film's end Martin Scorsese equates Travis Bickle's psychotic vigilante shooting spree with the lies told by American politicians. Society rewards both, you see. Bickle becomes a hero because no one sees the mad self-absorption behind his actions; the politician in the subplot gets elected because no one sees the asocial self-interest behind his rhetoric. They are interchangeable.

On a different level, recall The English Patient. In that ultimately disappointing attempt at a romantic epic, the love between a man and a woman makes all wartime cruelty, Nazi and Allied alike, morally equivalent. The love story and the action qualify the movie as entertainment. The moral equivalence gives it an intellectual weight, like that of the Oscar statuette, whose physical heft momentarily surprises. Or consider The Godfather, especially parts two and three, where Francis Ford Coppola equates his gangsters with businessmen, politicians, and the Catholic Church; or, most recently (and less artfully), The Peacemaker, in which New York City cops are equated with Bosnian Serb snipers in a moronic parable of U.S. inaction in Bosnia and its tragic effects. The message in all these films is that you are, ultimately, what you hate and fear. The idea is diluted Freud and puréed egalitarianism mashed together with a strain of New Left gruel, and it is the only way contemporary Hollywood can think of to be "serious." Quentin Tarantino's films are so successful because they represent this scheme taken to its furthest extreme: there are neither ambiguously bad characters about to dissolve into good characters nor ambiguously good characters about to dissolve into bad characters. Everyone in his movies is a casually amoral synthesis of both types.

Alongside all this pap, the icy and cynical Buñuel warms and uplifts my heart. In the hothouse of European politics during the thirties, his surrealist preoccupation with Freud ripened into a psychological realism wedded to acute observations of social milieu. Though he left Spain at the outbreak of the civil war, his already dark outlook was radically refined by the impossible betrayals, the shifting alliances and misalliances, and protean brutality of that conflict.

Steeped in surrealism's belief in the strength of subconscious forces -- always sexual and violent -- Buñuel took violence for granted as a universal condition. His art consists of the way he sculpts particular events out of that condition. His most sensational violence occurs on a continuum of motive, act, and consequence. The individuals who commit the violence are connected to other individuals, and to social and political structures somewhere down the line. But each violent moment is violent in its own way.

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A scene from Los Olvidados

Los Olvidados (1950), for example, is a gritty neo-realist film spiced with surrealism, set in the slums of Mexico City. The urban dialects lilt with despair, the web of antagonisms thickens, helpless characters prey on even more-helpless characters -- in this densely braided scenario violence is a natural phenomenon, like sweat produced by exertion. Having established violence as the film's all-embracing condition, Buñuel doesn't need to democratize it with sentimental equivalences. Instead he can portray the division between good and evil, and he can do it without a distorting simplicity. When someone caves in the head of a sympathetic character from behind, you do not see evil triumphing over good. You see death triumphing over life. Buñuel has embedded in existence moral categories that are not abstractly interchangeable. The consequences of the murder extend beyond psychology into society, where they have different effects on different people.

In the extraordinary film The Phantom of Liberty (1974), Buñuel actually creates weird equivalences in order to make moral distinctions. Life is turned utterly upside down in this film. One of the most extreme reversals has a sniper chillingly cutting down pedestrians with a rifle from the upper floor of an office building under construction. He goes on trial for his crimes, gets convicted, and is then let go with handshakes and good wishes from everyone in court. The equivalence Buñuel makes between the sniper and an ordinary man -- he treats the sniper as if he were on a shopping, rather than a shooting spree -- is outrageous and repugnant, and it serves to drive home the difference between a sniper and an ordinary man. The end of the movie has police descending on a zoo from which the animals are escaping, as if they were descending on a prison from which convicts were fleeing. There is a volley of gunshots, and the film abruptly finishes with a frozen shot of an ostrich staring into the camera. Buñuel seems to be asking, Is all this safely absurd and unreal? If you think so, he answers, you have your head buried in the sand and are unable to see that life is as absurd and unreal as it is in this film, and unable to recognize that the cultural and political atmosphere still rings with the memory of police slaughtering students in Mexico City just a few years before as if they were animals. Yet, again, Buñuel makes no simplistic division between good and evil. The world is a place where anything can happen because people are capable of anything. But not everyone does what he or she is capable of.

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A scene from Viridiana

The central image in Viridiana (1961) -- to my mind Buñuel's masterpiece and, along with Nazarín (1959), his modern sequel to Don Quixote -- is a jump rope. It is at the cold conflagrant heart of Buñuel's work. A little girl plays with it; an elderly man hangs himself with it; a beggar touchingly uses it as a belt to hitch up his ill-fitting pants; Viridiana, a former nun, grabs hold of one of its wooden handles as the same beggar rapes her. It is like the rope Don Quixote uses to lower himself into the Cave of Montesinos, where he witnesses the black underside of his chivalric vision. It is multi-ply, like life itself. Violence in Buñuel is not, as in Hollywood, a distraction from what we are. It is an essential part of what we are. It is horrifying. And it is fortifying. Viva Buñuel's honest vision.

Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Lee Siegel is a contributor to several publications, including The New Republic and The New York Times Book Review. He has written recently for The Atlantic on
Jane Austen and contemporary women novelists and for Atlantic Unbound on Egon Schiele.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Artwork reproduced courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art Stills Archive.
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