This program will illustrate the multifaceted and creative figure of Luis Buñuel, his approaching of film first through script writing and then through directing.
The presenter Anna Abrahams, EYE programmer, experimental film director and teacher at KABK, will discuss the poetics and film mechanisms of the Surrealist art movement, which inspired Buñuel to create avant-garde film classics such as “Un chien andalou”, “L ‘ âge d’or” and the controversial documentary, “Las Hurdes”.
What interested the surrealists was the developing of methods to liberate imagination from false rationality, restrictive customs and structures, and to understand the actual functioning of thought, first through the “pure psychic automatism” of writing and later through other media such as painting, film, theatre. This “unrational” approach allowed the artists to express unconventional ideas and to critique the current, unbearable conditions and habits of society.
Live music will be performed by Oscar Jan Hoogland on his gramophones. (http://oscarjanhoogland.com/)
Q/A will follow with Ramón Gieling over his film “The prisoners of Buñuel” (2000).
The film program:
“La chute de la maison Usher” (The Fall of the House of Usher), by Jean Epstein, France, 1928, 68 min (we screen a fragment of it), with live gramophone concert.
It is a French horror film directed by Jean Epstein in 1928 and one of the many interpretations based on the eponym gothic novel by Edgar Allan Poe (1893). Future director Luis Buñuel co-wrote the screenplay with Epstein, having previously worked as assistant director on Epstein’s film “Mauprat” (1926).
“La chute de la maison Usher” is often classified as an expressionist avant-garde feature attempting some innovative cinematic representations in the horror genre. The film is dense of visual experimentations and atmospheric effects of any kind, adopted until then by the 7th art, but also proposed here for the first time. This is the case of the sequence of the storm, characterized by a very modern-looking fast cutting.
The House is the only real character in the film, and it does seem a living thing, of billowing curtains and wind-strewn leaves. Candle flames flicker over tables covered with strange instruments, and a huge hearth contains a fire like a blast furnace. Stacks of books and closets full of possessions are constantly shifting, falling. Howling winds blow between the trees outdoors, yet Usher never thinks of closing a window…
“Un Chien Andalou”, by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, France, 1929, 16 min, with live gramophone concert.
“Un Chien Andalou” was Buñuel’s first film and was initially released in 1929 with a limited showing at Studio des Ursulines in Paris, but was met with success and ran for eight months. The film has no plot in the conventional sense. The chronology of the film is disjointed, jumping from the initial “once upon a time” to “eight years later” without the events or characters changing very much. It uses dream logic in narrative flow that can be described in terms of then-popular Freudian free association, presenting a series of tenuously related scenes.
The idea for the film began when Buñuel was working as an assistant director for Jean Epstein in France. At a restaurant one day Buñuel told Dalí about a dream in which a cloud sliced the moon in half “like a razor blade slicing through an eye”. Dalí responded that he’d dreamed about a hand crawling with ants. Excited, Buñuel declared: “There’s the film, let’s go and make it.'” They were fascinated by what the psyche could create, and decided to write a script based on the concept of suppressed human emotions. Buñuel made clear throughout his writings that, between Dalí and himself, the only rule for the writing of the script was: “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.” He also stated: “Nothing, in the film, symbolizes anything. The only method of investigation of the symbols would be, perhaps, psychoanalysis.”
“De gevangenen van Buñuel” (The prisoners of Buñuel), by Ramón Gieling, the Netherlands, 2000, 73 min (we screen a fragment of it).
Ramon Gieling’s Dutch documentary “The Prisoners of Buñuel” reveals what the village’s people think of “Las Hurdes” 60-odd years later, and while it’s hardly the last word on Buñuel, it does offer a thoughtful and provocative reflection on the intricate cross-purposes of life and art — not to mention accuracy and truth. One can’t necessarily believe everything the villagers say about the film, especially because some of them contradict one another. But conversely, to take Buñuel’s masterpiece entirely at face value would be to misread it: it’s a metaphysical statement more than anything else, and its offscreen narration mocks the touristic documentary in countless ways. It’s impossible to evaluate The Prisoners of Buñuel adequately if you haven’t seen “Las Hurdes-Land Without Bread”, and Gieling, who jokingly draws attention to the way portions of his own documentary are staged, seems well aware of the problem. (Several extracts appear when he screens the film in the village square, but hardly enough to allow for any final verdict.)
“Las Hurdes: Tierra sin pan” (Las hurdes – Land without Bread), by Luis Bunuel, Spain, 1933, 30 min.
Filmed essay in human geography, as Buñuel called it, “Las hurdes – Land without Bread” (1933), it is based on the enthnographic account (“Las Jurdes: étude de géographie humaine”, 1927) of a region in mid-western Spain (close to the Portuguese border) by the sociologist Maurice Legendre. The title anticipates already the subversion of this film to the traditional travelogue film genre (with film titles such as “Argentina: Land of Passion” and “Czechoslovakia: Land of Beauty and Change”), showing usually beauty, landscapes and not hunger This Buñuel’s unique documentary was banned in Spain and not shown in France until 1938.
Las Hurdes shows how difficult life at its worst can be. It shows the poorest mountainous areas of Spain, left behind by history, by modern progress, so distant from the living standards of the rest of Spain. Hungry people, hungry animals, midgets and lunatics are the result of hundred years of bad hygiene, misery, incest and hunger.
Buñuel mercilessly interrogates the inhabitants of the village, without apparent concern for their dignity, and involves the viewers in questioning the reality of what they see and hear. Empathy or pity with the villagers are not allowed, neither is identification: the film refuses to sentimentalize the sufferings of the Hurdanos.
The documentary exemplifies the surrealist critique of realism: it refuses to accept reality as endurable, as something that should be accepted as it is. On the most superficial level, the film describes some aspects of life in a mountainous region of Spain. On a second level, it stages a violent attack against several hegemonic institutions of Western civilization, in particular the Catholic Church, but also the educational system and private property. Most significantly, however, Buñuel’s work subverts dominant systems of representation by gradually undermining its own truth claims.
The soundtrack of “Las Hurdes” – music and voice-over – works in opposition to the images. The music consists of the first two movements, followed by the second half of the fourth movement, of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E Minor (1885). As Vivian Sobchack points out, the lush romantic symphony is “antithetical to what it accompanies”.One particularly improper climax in the score occurs when a blast of horns accompanies the sudden appearance of “another type of idiot.” By working against audience expectations, the music accentuates the film’s ethnographic surrealist project of incongruous juxtapositions, what Clifford calls, in his discussion of the French journal Documents, “fortuitous or ironic collage”.
Jeffrey Ruoff explains in this blog the ethnographic contribution of this film for the visual media representations and touches upon the connection between the modern anthropology and Surrealism. He as well explains how Buñuel treats his human subjects like animals in this documentary, a parody of non-fiction, though not a fake documentary.
Jean Rouch, who came of age in Paris in the 1930s, has followed Buñuel’s ethnographic surrealist example with films such as The Mad Masters (Les Maîtres fous, 1955) and Little by Little (Petit à petit, 1969). Inspired by Buñuel’s spirit of experimentation, anthropological filmmakers should consider other genres such as comedy and romance.
The Mad Masters:
Little by Little:
HAND-OUT:Hand out Luis Buñuel