Bunuel and Surrealist Cinema: Career of Brilliant Director

The late Spanish director Luis Bunuel (1900-1983) was undoubtedly one of most important and innovative filmmakers in the world.

Yet over the past six or seven years, while teaching film courses at major schools across the country (UCLA, Columbia, NYU), I was disappointed to find out that few students (graduate included) are familiar with Bunuel’s rich oeuvre, produced in a career spanning fifty years and three continents.

For some reason, unlike Hitchcock, who was his contemporary (Born in 1899, Hitchcock was younger by one year), Bunuel has not excited students or scholars to revisit and reexamine his work.

Upon arrival at ASU, in 1990, as a professor of film and sociology, I established the region’s first Film Society. We lauched it with a retrospective of Bunuel’s oeuvre (12 films), to commemorate his 90th birthday.

When Bunuel began his career, in Paris in the late 1920s, avant-garde filmmakers and surrealist cinema were at the forefront of the creative process and intellectual life. Bunuel was an active figure of both silent and sound Surrealist cinema.

A contemporary of Salvador Dali, with whom he collaborated on his first surrealistic films, Bunuel created a rich body of films that were at once entertaining, challenging, bold, provocative, and occasionally scandalous.

Un Chien Andalou

During a three-day exchange of fantasies and dreams, Bunuel and Dali wrote a script for a surrealist film, which the former shot in two weeks. The resulting 24-minute film, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), consisted of a series of seemingly unexplainable but powerful images: a hand devoured by ants; a woman’s eyeball slashed methodically with a razor.

The film, which illustrates the surrealist revolt against rational categories of representation, was enthusiastically received by Parisian artists, who accepted Bunuel and Dali into their ranks.

In 1930, Bunuel directed his surrealist masterpiece, L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age), in which he laid the ideological foundations for his subsequent work. His savage assault on the Church and middle-class morality, first launched in this film, thus became a lifelong obsessive mission.

The Critical success of “LÁge dÓr”’secured Bunuel and invitation from Hollywood and contract from MGM, which he turned down after visiting the industry.

In 1946, Bunuel moved to Mexico, where many of Spain’s intellectuals and artists had emigrated after the Spanish Civil War.

Bunuel returned to Europe in the 1960s, settling in Paris, where he made his best-known and most commercially accessible films.

Most of Bunuel’s films were made in exile, in Mexico and Europe because of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. The exception is Viridiana (1961) which, strangely enough was produced in Spain with the blessings of the government. Only after the film was released, Franco realized its meaning and the film was promptly banned. However, Bunuel’s chief target continued to be the Church, which he attacked with ferocity, irony and black humor (“Thank God I am still an atheist,” was his frequent expression).

Bunuel is unique among cinema’s leading directors in his disregard of technical virtuosity. His films are told in a straightforward manner with little stylistic adornment or visual effects. Yet his ideas come across not only as an intellectual, but also as an aesthetic, experience.

Bunuel’s preoccupation with “sexual aberrations” and “fetishes” (as some critics have charged) and the iconoclastic nature of his work have made him the subject of public outcry since the beginning of his career. In the early 1930s, during the L’Age d’Or controversy, the American writer Henry Miller wrote: “They call Bunuel everything: traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. It is lunacy he portrays, but it is not his lunacy, this is the lunacy of civilization.”

In the last decade of his career, Bunuel’s biting criticism of social mores somewhat mellowed, but he still spoke with one of the boldest voices in the international film industry. Through such subtle and sophisticated satires as Belle de Jour (1967), Tristana (1970), and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), he maintained his long-standing reputation for integrity and courageous candor.

Oscar Recognition

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie won the 1972 Best Foreign Language Oscar and was also nominated for Screenplay, which Bunuel wrote with his frequent collaborator, Jean-Claude Carriere.

That Obscure Object of Desire was nominated for Best Screenplay, penned by Bunuel and Carriere.