Last Script: Remembering Luis Buñuel

Designed as a loosely chronological visual “scrapbook” marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Luis Buñuel in Mexico City, El Último guión: Buñuel en la memoria (The Last Script, Gaizka Urresti and Javier Espada, 2007) (2) is also a relaxed chat between two men – Juan Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière – both intimately connected with the life of Luis Buñuel and both distinguished artists in their own right.

Angela Molina and Juan Luis Buñuel - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

Buñuel’s eldest son, Juan Luis (b. in Paris, 1934), and frequent co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (b. 1931) stroll through places associated with Luis Buñuel’s life and work, and the past becomes a living history superimposed on the present. (3) Some settings are still recognizable; others have changed irrevocably. We sense that these two ageless men enjoy each other’s company. Now and then others join in this duet: Federico García Lorca scholar Ian Gibson, actresses Silvia Pinal and Angela Molina, the son of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (who also has the name Gabriel, like his father). (4) We also catch glimpses (in photographs) of directors who touched Buñuel’s life: Jean Epstein, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Cocteau. This 113-minute documentary, directed by Gaizka Urrestí and Centro Buñuel de Calanda director Javier Espada, circumambulates the places most prominent in Buñuel’s life story: Calanda, Zaragosa, Madrid, Toledo, Paris, the U.S.(NYC and Hollywood), Mexico, with some additional time in Spain and France. The music (by Miguel Ángel Remero) changes with each new “page” of this visual scrapbook, and the peripatetic narrative mirrors the trajectories of Buñuel’s life, a life Juan Luis and Jean-Claude shared for many years. As Carrière remarks while strolling down a Madrid avenue: “I can almost see him walking here”, yet he also notes with a wry smile that Buñuel at the time of Viridiana (1961) was younger than the two narrators are now. A relaxed ambiance travels between these two raconteurs as they follow traces – some lingering, others irredeemably gone. What evocative traces! It seems like the engaging rhythm of those dialogues could spin on forever as we listen to the narrators (and recorded clips of Luis Buñuel) speaking in Spanish, French and English.

Luis Buñuel, Jeanne Rucar and Georgette Rucar - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

The documentary offers us delightful reminders of Luis Buñuel’s occasional early roles as an actor of stage and screen, and archival footage of the poet Federico García Lorca and his itinerant theatrical troupe, La Barraca. We are also treated to some footage of Luis Buñuel’s filming of legendary flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya, and of his film España leal en armas shown in the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. We revisit the time when Luis Buñuel rode on a bus dressed as a flirtatious nun, causing general panic. The facts and stories are not all new, but they are presented with a new immediacy.

Extended sojourns here and there, each marked by a new mood. Buñuel’s was a life in perpetual exile from various forms of totalitarianism, or in his own words, from “fanatical anti-fanaticism” (5). Professor Víctor Fuentes writes of the “ironic exilic nostalgia” in Buñuel films like La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969); this documentary leaves us with a sense of the contours of such a life of exile. (6) We are reminded that Buñuel’s life was a celebration and an accusation. In more than 30 films, shot between 1928 and 1977, he changed the map of the cinema. For those who thought films were for comfort and light entertainment, he brought us a profound cinema of discomfort and revelation. His life spanned historical cataclysms; his art reflected those changes and helped shape them as well. (The documentarists insert the sound of bombers over present-day Madrid to remind us that the Spanish Civil War was not so long ago.) Like Pau Casals, Buñuel found a hospitable haven outside of Spain, but essentially lost his homeland.

Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí and Dalí’s sister - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

A close friend of Lorca, Buñuel rarely talked about him in later years, but Juan Luis affirmed that his father mourned throughout his life for the poet’s untimely death at the hands of Franco’s fascistic forces. Our two narrators also talk of the betrayal of another of Buñuel’s colleagues from the heady atmosphere of the Residencia de Estudiantes days, the painter Salvador Dalí.

In his foreword to the shooting script of Un Chien andalou (1929), the great but short-lived filmmaker Jean Vigo reminded us that “in this film we will have to view with something more than the everyday eye” (7). In the same way, if we view El Último guión as merely an exercise in nostalgia, we are missing the point. Vigo continues: “M. Buñuel is a fine marksman who disdains the stab in the back.” Juan Luis stresses repeatedly that there was nothing symbolic in his father’s films: “The striped tie in Un Chien andalou that so many scholars have tried to analyze – it’s just something my mother had bought that morning.”

As the narrators of El Último guión visit halls and streets now named after Buñuel, I recall how Juan Luis reported in his foreword to Luis Buñuel: New Readings: “He told me once, as he looked up at the new ‘Luis Buñuel’ street sign: ‘They name a street after me now; a few years ago they would have put me up against a wall.’” (8) He was unhappy if his films were too successful. In an essay entitled “Pessimism”, he wrote, “I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it.” (9) Juan Luis once commented to me that he regrets the “solemn and overcomplicated” attitude many people adopt towards his father’s films, how they overflow with humour, especially the kind of dark, absurdist humour called esperpento in Spanish. “He laughed while he was shooting. All the time. There are […] puns on the characters, the actors, the audience and, of course, on himself.” (10) With the help of cinematographers like Gabriel Figueroa, José Agayo and Edmond Richard, Luis Buñuel exposed the hypocrisies of the Church, the horrors of Fascism and the inadequacies of an excessive sense of conquest. He freely peppered his realism with the grotesque and the carnivalesque.

The Buñuel house in Los Angeles - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

Some of the revisitings are purely nostalgic (the relatively unchanged old Pathé studio); others bring surprises (the Studio des Ursulines, where the shocking Un Chien andalou was first screened is now full of chattering children watching a kids’ flick.) The narrators declare these places “llena de fantasmas y recuerdos” (“full of ghosts and memories”). We revisit the small Buñuel house in Los Angeles, accompanied by younger brother Rafael and his daughter. The Buñuel houses were never lavish. The plain wooden closet in the home in Mexico where reels of Un Chien andalou were kept attests to the relative austerity of the Buñuel family, as does Juan Luis’ story of travelling from Cleveland to Mexico City by bus when he was a student of English literature at Oberlin University, for lack of plane fare. (11) Looking backwards has its perils, one of which is being frozen in time, but also the peril of a keen awareness of how much time has passed. We sense a moment like this when Juan Luis visits his former home in Mexico for the first time in 25 years, and orders the camera to “Cut” (in other words, to get out of his face!). These revisitings are both physical and emotional.

Juan Luis Buñuel with a group of matadors - Photo courtesy of Bjoern Eichstaedt

What emerges from these testimonies is that surrealism, for Buñuel, carried with it a sense of morality, along with a sense of playfulness and experimentation. The commentaries open up new links between the films: for example, Jean-Claude describes Las Hurdes: tierra sin pan (Land Without Bread, 1932) as Luis Buñuel’s way of “leaving Surrealism without falling into Realism”.

Jean-Claude Carrière first met Buñuel at the Cannes Film Festival of 1961 where Viridiana won the Palme d’Or, much to the chagrin of the Spanish government. The documentarists insert a photo of a young Juan Luis with a group of matadors as he helped with the dangerous task of smuggling the reels of that controversial film under the matadors’ cloaks to get them past Franco’s border guards so they could be developed safely in Paris. This film had the distinction of promoting a scandal, and receiving a ban from the Vatican and the Spanish government alike. (In November 1982, the Spanish Supreme Court finally gave Viridiana a Spanish nationality.)

Jean-Claude Carrière and Luis Buñuel - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

As the documentary progresses, we find ourselves in the hotel room in Paris where Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière would write from time to time, and where the Spanish director would stare out from the balcony to the cemetery below, courting his comic sense of death. And we revisit the narrow Parisian arcade, lined with shops, where Luis Buñuel filmed for the last time. The two men fall silent for a moment after speaking of the last times they saw him – father and friend, mentor.

El Último guión helps restore some of Luis Buñuel’s presence. We return to the world Buñuel created for a breath of fresh air, and we still find a knife cutting through hypocrisy and complacency. Famously, he wrote: “In the hands of a free spirit, the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon.” (12) In the best of his films, he reminded us that, if we don’t watch out for the forces that wear away at our lives, we will sit down at tables full of sumptuous promise and remain unsatisfied. As one of my students wrote after seeing Le Charme discret de la bourgeoise (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972) for the first time: “There’s no escape from the brutality of the world, not even in dreams.” And yet, in the interest of not becoming overly solemn, I will also quote from Buñuel’s statement: “When my films are a little short, I add a dream.” (13)

Jean-Claude Carrière and Juan Luis Buñuel in Studio 28 - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

What comes across in El Último guión is a portrait of a man of vision, but without any attempt to portray a perfect man. This is a story of real people. The film opens with a vignette from the past: Juan Luis’ recollection of the summer house, Torre María, near Calanda, where his father would listen to a record of Wagnerian music while village children with flies on their lips gathered in the window to listen. Juan Luis goes on to tell us of his family’s obsessive fear of spiders. Luis Buñuel is shown as another Spanish filmmaker, José Luis Borau, described him: “one of the most unclassifiable myths, one of the most paradoxical men of the century” (14). Luis Buñuel was a wild poet of the cinema who understood, in his own words, that “we are our own worse enemy”. In films like Las Hurdes, Los Olvidados (1950) and Simón del desierto (Simon of the Desert, 1965), Buñuel held a bright light to the poverty of the land and the poverty of our spirit. In films like Viridiana, Belle de jour (1967) and Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974), he reminded us of the chasm beneath our surface decorum. The wit of his surrealistic montage sequences in films like Un Chien andalou, L’Age d’or (1930) and La Ilusión viaja en tranvía (Illusion Travels by Streetcar, 1954) taught us again the language of our dreams.

The elusive surrealist object resists any categorization as it calls for a leap of imagination (yet remains an everyday object). El Último guión is informative, entertaining, enticing and a great service in its preservation and amalgamation of images and stories. By the end, I couldn’t help but recall what Buñuel himself would say when someone would ask him what was inside the little box the Asian man in Belle de Jour showed to Catherine Deneuve: “What would you like to see in there?” (15)

Calanda: 40 Years Later (Calanda 40 años después, 29 minutes, 2007)

Like Goya (the subject of Buñuel’s first screenplay), Luis Buñuel became increasingly deaf as he aged. Could the drums of Calanda have been the cause? El Último guión offers us a glimpse of Luis Buñuel striking a drum, and then images of several of Buñuel’s films that include strong drumbeats (L’Age d’or, Nazarín (1959), Simon of the Desert).

Calanda: 40 Years Later - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

Those drumbeats are the subject of Calanda: 40 Years Later, a documentary directed by Juan Luis Buñuel, which serves as an exercise in remembrance and recording, and a follow-up to his original documentary, Calanda (1966). (16) Behind all of the images is the memory of the father, Luis Buñuel, who described Calanda in the following way:

“In my village – at the time of my early teens, around 1913 – one might say that we lived in the Middle Ages. It was an isolated, unchanging society, with a very marked class difference […] Life in the town, as directed by the bells in the tower of Our Lady of Pilar, glided by horizontally in an admirable and ordered stillness […]” (17)

The towering presence of the filmmaker, Juan Luis, and the quiet presence of his son, Diego, as cameraman mark the Buñuel lineage, as does the brief figure of the younger brother Rafael who was invited from the States to start off the festival (the rompida, breaking of the hour) by striking the first drumbeat. At the time of this filming, Diego (himself a cameraman in the war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo) was the same age Juan Luis had been when he filmed Calanda the first time. The dynamic camerawork – moving in and out of the crowd – and the energetic editing reveals Juan Luis and Diego’s personal approach to this Semana Santa festival.

Here is how Luis Buñuel described those drumbeats of his childhood:

“Their noise evokes the darkness and the crashing of rocks that shook the world at the moment of Christ’s death. And in effect, their sonic conjuring makes the earth shake and the walls shudder; the ground vibrations move through your feet up to your chest.” (18)

The new film is punctuated with interviews of local residents: a shepherd, the mayor, drummakers, a young woman who has adopted a little girl from China, men from Morocco, Uruguayan bar owners. The world comes home to Calanda in unexpected ways. A city official speaks positively of the influx of immigrants, from the south of Spain and abroad, who help populate this northern town slowly being drained of is own young people who are attracted to life in the larger cities. Juan Luis contrasts the monster-like mechanization of the factories, and their polluting billows of smoke, with the work of craftsmen who still make the drums largely by hand.

The drumming continues for 26 hours. Even if it is 5 a.m. and rain is pouring down, the drumming doesn’t cease. Men in a café, entranced by the rhythm, pound on the table in unison as if it too were a drum. Each strike against the skin of the drum ties the heartbeat of the drummer to the heartbeat of tradition and the land. Older participants beat their drums with inspiring fervour, but some of the younger drummers (a few in Mohawk haircuts or dreadlocks) take breaks to flirt with others in the crowd. A drummer holds a baton in one hand and a cell phone in another (how can he hear?!).

Calanda: 40 Years Later - Photo courtesy of Juan Luis Buñuel

The streets are packed with people and, in his off-screen narration, Juan Luis notes that there are more drums now than forty years ago. People of all ages are drawn to appear in this costumed pageantry, and anachronistic costumes of suits of armour look oddly appropriate on those cobblestone streets. The figures draped in white cloth, head to toe, will send shudders of recognition to viewers aware of how the racist organization KKK borrowed the disguise.

What does colour add to this revisiting? Broken drum heads, and blistered knuckles, link the two films, as do the high-angle shots of the close-packed crowds and the figures peering out from balconies overhead. Scarlet bloodstains on the skin of the drums offer a more visceral impact in colour than in black and white. And yet, the earlier black-and-white footage remains surprisingly vibrant. The 1966 film opens with a man in a full suit of armour walking solemnly down a village street. In the 2007 film, a whole group of modern-day knights arrive on motorcycle. A more intense atmosphere pervades the earlier festival filmed during the dictatorial Franco period. The camera panned along a sea of older women dressed in black from head to foot, who eyed the recording device with a mixture of resignation and fear.

Calanda - Photo courtesy of Bjoern Eichstaedt

A cross-cut between a young man in the 1966 film, and now forty years later – still drumming energetically – offers a poignant reminder of the vestiges of time. In an offhand comment, Juan Luis surmises that Diego can perhaps return in 40 years to film the celebration one more time. “Pity I can’t”, he tosses over his shoulder at the close of the film.

Calanda: 40 Years Later ends with the blessing of an unexpected rain as loud thunder takes over the work of the earthbound musicians. The final credits roll, appropriately, over the sound of a drum and a jota aragonesa folk song that trails away.

Memoirs

When Juan Luis was leaving Cleveland after a guest lecture at Case Western Reserve University, I suggested to him that he should write his memoirs. He informed me that he had, indeed, already written a set of memoirs (approx. 200 pages, single-spaced) for his children. He sent me the entire manuscript (as an attachment) and I found it a vibrant chronicle of a life making films and interacting with many luminaries of world cinema. (Now they are scheduled to be included as part of a biography of Juan Luis by Bjoern Eichstaedt and Sebastian Selig, which will be published by the German press Belleville in 2009-10, under the title Trommelfeuer: Juan Luis Buñuel – ein leben zwischen kino, kunst, krawallen und kanonen (Drumfire: A Life Between Cinema, Art, Riots and Guns).)

Juan Luis Buñuel, with brother, father and Jeanne Moreau - Photo courtesy of Bjoern Eichstaedt

The memoirs are actually a letter to his children, full of insightful, often humorous and irreverent, commentaries, plus observations on encounters with great names of the cinema and public life: Liv Ullman, Mickey Rooney, a dying Eldridge Cleaver, Henry Miller, Man Ray, Jacques Prévert, Anthony Quinn, Simone Signoret, Jack Lemmon, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve … a long list of vignettes. Fluent in three languages, Juan Luis records memories of his time assisting Orson Welles in Mexico on his (unfinished) Don Quixote, and his work with Louis Malle on Viva Maria (1965) and Le Voleur (1967). (19) His engaging stories range from dealing with “monkey spectators” while serving as a young assistant director for a French documentary in Cambodia to his recollection, with amusement, of how – when Alexander Calder and his wife sheltered the young Buñuel family during a particularly hard time in NYC – Calder would make small toys for Juan Luis out of wire that he, in typical child fashion, would play with and then toss in the garbage!

What the memoirs never entertain is pretentiousness or stuffiness. A bon vivant, Juan Luis is as happy singing the praises of a restaurant set up in a humble clapboard shack on a Spanish roadside (“La Alegría de Italica”) as he is drinking martinis with Francois Mitterand or dining at Maxims. In fact, he’s probably happier. Interspersed throughout the memoirs are practical tips for his children (How to make good rice … why one should touch an electric wire with the back of the hand …). Occasionally, he allows us entry into his dreams, and into family stories and a string of (near-death) accidents.

In his interview on Aragón Television with Anton Castro (14 June 2007), Juan Luis revealed how he considers himself a person without a homeland and so is able to feel at home almost anywhere.

Endnotes

  1. El Útimo guión was produced by Imval Produccions, in co-operation with Aragón TV and Tarana Films (Spain), Mil Colores Media (Germany) and Cinefusión-the University of Guadalajara (Mexico). The documentary was screened at the Berlinale, the Amsterdam Film Museum, in film festivals around Spain, and in Brussels, Nantes, Havana, and Cartagena. It has been released on television in France and Germany.
  2. El Último guión is available as an extra feature on the recent Criterion DVD of Buñuel’s El Ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962). Also included in this Criterion package are an essay by film scholar Marsha Kinder (“Exterminating Civilization”), a reprint of excerpts of an interview with Luis Buñuel and Tomás Pérez Turrent (from Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel), and stills provided by the Iconothèque de la Cinémathèque Française and Video Mercury Films.
  3. Jean-Claude Carrière – screenwriter, playwright, and novelist – was co-screenwriter with Luis Buñuel on Belle de jour (1967), La Voie lactée (The Milky Way, 1969), Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972), Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974), Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977), as well as on two films directed by Juan Luis Buñuel, La Femme aux bottes rouges (The Woman with Red Boots, 1974) and Leonor (1975). He has also worked with Louis Malle, Miloš Forman, Luis Berlanga, Jean-Luc Godard, Carlos Saura, Andrzej Wajda, Nagisa Oshima, Peter Brook, Volker Schlöndorff, Hector Babenco and Wayne Wang, among others.Juan Luis Buñuel has directed three full-length films: Au Rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse (At the Meeting with Joyous Death, 1973), shot in France with Gérard Depardieu, La Femme aux bottes rouges, shot in Spain with Catherine Deneuve and Fernando Rey, available on video in the U.S., and Leonor (1975), shot in Spain with Liv Ullmann and Michel Picolli. His first film received the George Sadoul Prize in France and the Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival. In addition, he has made television and film documentaries in a host of countries, including Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, England, Paris, Chile and Cambodia. One-man exhibitions of his sculpture have been held in Mexico City, San Francisco, New York, Paris, Barcelona and Madrid. He studied drawing with Rufino Tamayo and was co-founder of the Salón de Independientes in Mexico City. He also assisted his father in the filming of The Young One (1960), Viridiana (1961), Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964), and That Obscure Object of Desire.
  4. Silvia Pinal tells an especially funny story of the time an impeccably groomed Marilyn Monroe visited the house where The Exterminating Angel was being filmed. It happened that the actors in the film that day were especially filthy (covered in honey and dirt). “The things he made me do!”, Pinal exclaims.
  5. My Last Sigh (New York: Knopf, 1983). This book (with the assistance of Jean-Claude Carrière) first appeared in French as Mon dernièr soupir. The Spanish translation (Mi último suspiro: memorias) was published by Plaza y Janes in 1982. Note the review by Katherine S. Kovacs in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Spring 1983), pp. 95-8.
  6. Víctor Fuentes, “The Constant of Exile in Buñuel”, in Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolla (Eds), Luis Buñuel: New Readings (London: Bfi, 2004), p. 168. He quotes Sánchez Vázquez’s definition of the condition of perpetual exile: “whether one returns or not, one will never stop being an exile”. A. Sánchez Vázquez, Recuerdos y reflexiones del exilio (Barcelona: Gezel, 1997), p. 47.
  7. Jean Vigo, “Vers un cinéma social” (1939), included as a foreword to Un Chien andalou (London: Faber & Faber, 1994), p. xxv.
  8. Juan Luis Buñuel, “Foreword: A Desperate Call for Murder”, in Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolla (Eds), p. xi.
  9. Luis Buñuel, translated by Garrett White, An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 258.
  10. Personal correspondence.
  11. Juan Luis received his B.A. from Oberlin University in 1957, as part of a program to assist the children of those who had fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
  12. Buñuel, “Cinema as an Instrument of Poetry”, in An Unspeakable Betrayal, p. 138.
  13. Personal correspondence, Juan Luis Buñuel, 2006.
  14. José Luis Borau, “A Woman Without a Piano, A Book Without a Mark”, in Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1989-90), p. 12.
  15. Juan Luis recalls another version of this story from the time of the shooting of that scene. When his father asked those present what he could put in the box, no one had any ideas, so he suggested that it include two chicken feet. This met with screams from the women on the set. “So I’ll put nothing in it”, he replied. (Personal correspondence, March 2009).
  16. Filmed over a week, Calanda: 40 Years Later was assisted by the Centro Buñuel de Calanda (CBC). The first film (Calanda) was shown in festivals in London and New York, and the more recent one in festivals in Belin and Tehran, and throughout Spain. Calanda won the top prize (César) at the Tours Documentary Film Festival, and was also screened at the New York Film Festival (Lincoln Center). The producers (IMVAL with the help of Aragón TV, the government of Aragón and the Centro Buñuel de Calanda) are working on releasing Calanda: 40 Years Later in the U.S. as well.
  17. “Medieval Memoirs of Lower Aragón”, in An Unspeakable Betrayal, p. 237.
  18. Ibid, p. 240.
  19. Juan Luis also served as assistant director to J. A. Bardem, Hugo Butler and Jacques Doniol Valcroze.