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The Poetic Genius of Luis Buñuel The Poetic Genius of Luis Buñuel

“Sometimes there’s a profound abyss between reality and my imagination”

- Luis Bunuel, The Last Sigh

Luis Buñuel’s films have been called by some poetry on the screen. One writer goes so far as to say about Buñuel’s controversial film, Un Chien andalou (The Andalusan Dog) that it is “little more than filmed poetry” (Mellen 156). Actually, few people can watch the film without squirming in their seats as a woman’s eye is sliced open with a razor. Where is the meaning in this scene? What were its author’s intentions?

Was Luis Buñuel a madman or a poetic genius? Was he a man disgruntled with a bourgeoisie society or an artist portraying reality? Was he just a grown up child rebelling against his society’s institutions or was he part of a movement that exploded the art scene forever? Perhaps he was all of those things, but most certainly, he was a poet, with all the chaotic confusion that comes with that title.

To get at the genius that was Buñuel one must read, read, and read some more about Buñuel’s life and the era in which he came to filmmaking. Of course, one must also watch the films and to do so one needs to approach the mastery of the artist with the devotion that Buñuel himself created them. Many have tried to unmask the man and certainly every one of them has failed, including Buñuel himself.

In typical Buñuelian manner, the surrealist filmmaker quite often contradicts himself on the subject of how and why he made his films. He sometimes insists Un Chien andalou is poetry on the screen and other times he insists that the film means absolutely nothing. In fact, Buñuel has been quoted as remarking on the supposed ‘meaning’ in Un Chien andalou, “NOTHING, in the film, SYMBOLIZES ANYTHING. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis” (Mellen 153).

He also says that Un Chien andalou has nothing to do with dreams, yet in his autobiography, The Last Sigh, he specifically states that he and painter Salvador Dali began the film from dreams they had. “I made Un Chien andalou, which came from an encounter between two dreams” (Buñuel 103). The scene of the moon being sliced by a cloud was Buñuel’s and the ants marching from a hand were from a dream Dali had.

To understand Buñuel’s poetics it is necessary to understand the surrealist movement in which he was firmly entrenched. Andre Breton sums up the surrealist manifesto, “Preoccupied as I still was at that time with Freud, ... I resolved to obtain from myself what one seeks to obtain from (psychiatric) patients, namely a monologue poured out as rapidly as possible, over which the subject’s critical faculty has no control... and which as much as possible represents spoken thought” (Gascoyne 46). The surrealists, and the neorealists that came after them, were very immersed in expressing reality in nonreal terms. “The French regarded it (film) as the vehicle of revelation, and the knowledge revealed was not always expressible in words” (Hill 66).

Salvador Dali recalled the surrealists ideology, "It is possible to systematize confusion thanks to a paranoia and active process of thought and so assist in discrediting completely the world of reality" (Gould 37). Like the French Impressionists, Surrealists made films that portrayed dreamlike states, actual dreams, nonlinear movement, and violent interactions. They express emotions, especially the dark emotions that societies and people in general try to hide from themselves.

In The Last Sigh, Buñuel says of the surrealist movement, “The real purpose of surrealism was not to create a new literary, artistic, or even philosophical movement, but to explode the social order, to transform life itself” (Buñuel 107). As with any good poet, Buñuel and his surrealist friends hoped their art would perform the transformation. But he goes on to point out that even though many of the surrealists became famous, “one good look around is evidence enough of our failure” (Buñuel 123). Andre Breton says to Buñuel, “It’s sad, mon cher Luis, but it’s no longer possible to scandalize anybody!” (Buñuel 114).

This statement from a Japanese magazine article illustrates the driving force behind Buñuel’s artistic endeavors. “The greater theme running through his best films is that institutions such as church, state, and family are corrupting only because they give man an entirely false idea of himself” (Mellen 111). For Buñuel, as well as the other surrealists, men could never live an authentic life if they insisted on living the mythic life created for them by the institutions.

The great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats discusses in his essays the concept that we are all raised in a myth. We are all taught to exist as metaphors, as symbols of something supposedly greater than ourselves. If we are, as Yeats postulates, merely symbols of something greater then how are we to uncover first what that symbol represents, and second, how that symbol represents our true self? As people become symbols they become abstract, something ideal rather than real. Thus, we are all living an illusory existence, an existence created by others. This is the truth that Buñuel brings to the screen. He attempts to expose the lie – which is not really a lie, it is the truth that society refuses to reveal, even to itself.

So, those who fail to recognize their lives as metaphor constitute the larger population, and those who do recognize their lives as metaphor constitute the smallest population. But it is in that smallest population that redemption and truths are found, because you cannot find truth while living the lie. Writer Pardo Bazin says that surrealistic poetry and film attempts “to mirror reality exactly as it is” (Mellen 139). It is in this context that Buñuel creates.

To be special means to accept and then refute the metaphor – either of your own accord or someone else’s. And the danger in discarding the ‘special’ is that we may very well be discarding the one person who can teach us the truth. Poet or madman – there is no doubt that Buñuel is one of these special people.

Regardless, the films, writings, and paintings of the surrealist movement are universal and timeless in the sense that in every period of time, societies are struggling with the balance of power among its members, and there are always budding poets ready to take up the sword of battle. To wage the war the surrealists were forever dreaming up new ways to scandalize. “…we all felt a certain destructive impulse, a feeling that for me has been even stronger than the creative urge” (Buñuel 107). They all felt the need to be as outrageous and scandalous as possible in order to point out to society the decadence and immorality of its institutions. They doggedly went about achieving their goal through what Buñuel calls “surrealist capers”. These ‘capers’ were meant to cause scandal.

In this endeavor – creating scandals - they succeeded admirably. Buñuel was only one of the surrealist artists that was considered a madman. The entire group of them were in and out of prison, had their art banned, audiences threw rocks at them, and the Pope excommunicated many of them. Buñuel states that,

“The novelist (filmmaker) will have acquitted himself honorably of his task when, by means of an accurate portrait of authentic social relations, he will have destroyed the conventional view of the nature of those relations, shattered the optimism of the bourgeois world, and forced the reader to question the permanency of the prevailing order, and this even if the author does not offer us any solutions, even if he does not clearly take sides” (Mellen 110).

Many of Buñuel’s films were banned, including L’Age d’or, which was, in Buñuel’s words, “a film about passion, l’amour fou, the irresistible force that thrusts two people together, and about the impossibility of their ever becoming one” (Buñuel 117). The film was actually an attack on the bourgeoisie and religion. In one scene two drunks drive a horsecart through a room full of people having a party, seemingly indifferent to the bourgeoisie’s activities, illustrating the hostility felt towards the bourgeoisie.

Additionally, the cinematography of L’Age d’or is beautiful in its artistry. The scenes dissolve into one another, moving from one sexual image to another. A man and a woman are fighting desire and passion throughout the film. The scenes move into one another, juxtaposing the man and woman against other scenes, such as a child being killed, a band of soldiers dying, a cross with hair on it, etc. Regardless of location – church, stores, bedrooms – the sexuality of the couple penetrate the entire film, illustrating the darker passions society keeps hidden from itself.

The viewing of L’Age d’or produced “the scandal of L’Age d’or” in Paris. Buñuel actually hid behind a screen with rocks in pockets when the film was first released – he feared the audience might riot. They didn’t that time but eventually the film did cause extensive rioting in France and it was banned from France. It did not reopen until 1980 in New York and 1981 in Paris. (Buñuel 118).

The surrealists many tenets centered around the imagination and the irrational. For them, individual images held stories themselves and the artists spent considerable time creating their art from single images, the more irrational the better. On the topic of inspiration Buñuel says of his work, “It may be a picture I’ve seen: for example, an image of St. Viridiana, an image capable of triggering off other images, which in turn lead to a complete idea” (Mellen 116).

This is the way Buñuel and Dali created Un Chien andalou. The film is made entirely of irrational images strung together in a haphazard form. The film follows no narrative sequence – it is not linear, it is not circular – like the workings of the inner states of being the film is pure visual sensation. The film careens through a landscape of utter despair with scenes of murder, sexuality, and hideous dreamlike images that seem to fulfill no purpose.

What could all of these images mean – a man harnessed to a horse with two people being dragged (one of them portrayed by Dali himself), ants marching purposefully from a hole in a mans hand, a woman’s breasts being roughly fondled, and of course the famous scene where a woman is getting her eye sliced open with a razor? Were Buñuel and Dali attempting to create the rational out of the irrational? Not exactly. Michael Gould states in Surrealism and the Cinema, "If the vision revealed is too much for the rational mind to absorb (too intense, too threatening, too 'real') yet cannot be rejected, then it leaves the consciousness and comes to exist on a sublime level as pure surrealism" (Gould 13).

This brings us to the problematic nature of meaning. Buñuel’s films defy meaning. Buñuel’s films are rife with miscommunications, skewed meanings, and misread intentions. We find ourselves yearning to know the intention of the author. We have two main characters – a man and a woman – but we are lost as to where these two characters are moving. They never really do anything that we can ascribe a ‘meaning’ to.

Un Chien andalou creates a dream like state and we feel that we are moving swiftly through someone’s subconscious. In Poetry and Cinema, Buñuel says, “A film is like an involuntary imitation of a dream” (Mellen 107). One of the ways Buñuel accomplishes this is by allowing time and space to be distorted with use of dissolves and montages. If one watches the movie with the understanding that there is no meaning then Un Chien andalou u becomes ‘readable’, even if it does defy interpretation. Buñuel says, “you don’t announce: ‘This is a dream.’ Because then the viewer will say: ‘Ah, this is a dream. Then it’s not important. The Public is disappointed, and the film loses its mystery, its power to disturb people” (Lenti 212). Dali stated in 1928, of the film’s theme: "the pure and correct line of ‘conduct’ of a human who pursues love through wretched humanitarian, patriotic ideals and the other miserable workings of reality" (Sadoul 391).

In addition to the problematic nature of meaning, there is no sense of destination in Un Chien andalou. The film begins with the title “Once upon a time…” and the audience is deluded into believing they are going to be presented with a story, with a narrative. Nothing really happens. The entire film consists of vignettes, small episodic scenes that are moving only from one scene of violence and sexuality to another. To further confound the audience, after Buñuel unceremoniously slices open the woman’s eye with his razor, the audience is offered another title – “Eight years later…”. The audience wonders if now the narrative will begin. It doesn’t.

If you take away the plot line (the narrative structure) and you take away the character study, what do you have left? What you have left is simply a documentary of real life – or in Buñuel’s case, a documentary of inner life. What you have left is poetry. “…in all films, good or bad – and beyond and despite the intentions of directors – cinematic poetry struggles to come to the surface and reveal itself” (Mellen 107). What the surrealists were reaching for is more clearly defined in the terms of poetry. Buñuel says, “…each person pours a certain dose of subjective feeling into what he is looking at, because no one sees things as they are but as his desires and his state of mind make him see them” (Mellen 109). Which means that, as in poetry, each viewer (reader) brings their own ‘reading’ to the film, based on their own past experiences. If the images cause the viewer uncomfortable sensations and feelings then perhaps the viewer needs to open his eyes and examine why.

Buñuel says in a 1953 address called Poetry and Cinema “The cinema seems to have been invented to express the life of the subconscious, the roots of which penetrate poetry so deeply” (Mellen 107). Poetry is written to create an emotion within the reader, to put into words emotions that are impossible to express – this is done through the use of metaphor. What Buñuel has succeeded in doing is taking that idea a step further, not putting into words the emotionally charged images, but actually showing the emotional images on the screen.

Buñuel says further, “Mystery, the essential element of every work of art, is in general lacking in films. Authors, directors and producers are at pains not to disturb our peace, by leaving the window on to the liberating world of poetry tightly closed” (Mellen). Buñuel’s films take pains to disturb our peace. Everything you see in Un Chien andalou will disturb and horrify and, ultimately, liberate.

Still, you have to worry about the sanity of a man who says in his autobiography, “The symbolic significance of terrorism has a certain attraction for me: the idea of destroying the whole social order, the entire human species” (Buñuel 126). But then how many of us have not at some time or another been so disgusted with the moral order of our society that we have not thought the very same thing? Buñuel simply has the courage (or audacity) to speak the thought out loud. Which is precisely where he is headed in his films – to speak the unspeakable, which is actually one of the many definitions of poetry.

We have to face the fact that Buñuel himself is not sure of his direction Un Chien andalou. He asks, "What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press and the inane herd that saw beauty and poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate call for murder?" (Bauche 9). But then in another interview he states, “The sources from which the film draws inspiration are those of poetry, freed from the ballast of reason and tradition” (Mellen 151).

Which statement are we to believe? Does Buñuel even know? Perhaps what he is trying to suggest is that the emotions that are “a desperate call for murder” are expressed poetically, “freed from reason and tradition”. Tradition is the key word here. Buñuel’s art is mired in a rejection of tradition, a rejection of the social and cultural force that shapes his world. Like so many poets before him, Buñuel uses his films to unmask the myths that society have placed on its members.

Finally, Buñuel’s films are universal and timeless in the sense that in every period of time, societies are struggling with the balance of power among its members, “the entrapment by the bourgeoisie” (Mellen 3). In a 1939 article for Cosmological Eye, writer Henry Miller has this to say about Luis Buñuel, “They have called Buñuel everything—traitor, anarchist, pervert, defamer, iconoclast. But lunatic they dare not call him. True, it is lunacy he portrays in his film, but it not of his making.” (Mellen 172).

As all great poets before him, Buñuel rises from the ashes, covered in ashes in hopes of a new world. He attempts to force open the eyes, to slice them open if necessary, of the masses of society who are destroying themselves in their deluded institutions. Perhaps Buñuel sums up his aesthetic the best with this quote from My Last Sigh, “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths” (Buñuel 5). Regardless of whether Buñuel’s aesthetic leans toward chaos and confusion, his art becomes a dynamic poetry alive on the screen.

Works Cited

Buache, Freddy. The Cinema of Luis Buñuel. Translated by Peter Graham. London: Tantivy Press; New York: A. S. Barnes, 1973.

Buñuel, Luis. My Last Sigh. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Gascoyne, David. A Short Survey of Surrealism. London, Cass, 1970.

Gould, Micheal. Surrealism and the Cinema. Cranbury, N.J.: A. S. Barnes; London: Tantivy Press, London: 1976

Lenti, Paul (ed). Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel. Marsilio Publications, 1993

Mellen, Joan, ed. The World of Luis Buñuel: Essays in Criticism. NY: Oxford University Press, 1978

Sadoul, Georges. Dictionary of Films, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1972


K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2004 - 2006


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