28 August, 2009

Movie Review: Un chien andalou (1929) and L'âge d'or (1930)

Our minds enjoy repetition and met expectations. Much of how we survive from day to day depends upon assimilating context clues into appropriate schemata and acting accordingly. When we discover strange or exciting new information, we accommodate it into a nearby schemata and make automatic assumptions about how to continue. If we see an unfamiliar cat, we still know to approach it as if it were like all the other cats we've seen before. If the new cat has red eyes, though, we begin to assess it from the context of other red eyed things--diseased creatures, legendary monsters, albinos--and using trial and error we quickly determine whether we should still pet it or run screaming.

When we can easily group something into a context we do one of two things: either we stop caring because it doesn't really concern us, or we keep trying to figure it out until we've come up with a new schemata, albeit a very particularized one. Hence our boyfriend can transform from "stranger" to "cute guy" to "handsome, tall, guy who enjoys such-and-such and doesn't like talking about this-and-that, etc.," but if we read something in the newspaper that doesn't make sense to us and isn't particularly interesting, then we soon move on and forget all memory of it. A friend may mention an unseen coworker several times in passing, but until we actually meet that coworker or have some reason to remember her, we hardly remember ever hearing about her.

When interest and confusion combine, frustration arises.

In 1929 filmmaker Luis Buñuel and painter Salvador Dalí set out to frustrate everyone. When we begin watching a film, typically we invest a certain commitment in it; we will try to watch it all, to understand it, to learn from it, and to enjoy it. The pair from Spain freely took this interest but in exchange offered something that had no context or explanation. They deliberately wanted to shock, to confuse, to offend, and to perplex.

I stand by my conclusion that Un Chien Andalou has no real meaning. You can argue with me and say that the film means such and such, that the image of the donkeys represents the triumph of so forth over whatever and that the ants crawling on the hand signify the degradation of a, b, and c, as evident by its clear allusion to blahblah. Everyone is entitled to these reactions, and I invite everyone to enjoy a film in whatever way it pleases them, but I think such explanations are merely proof of mankind's persistent need for context and not actual valid explanations of the filmmaker's intents. I don't think the filmmakers would have appreciated anyone who claimed to have completely understood the film, and I know they didn't desire mass popular or commercial appeal.

They set out to outrage, and they failed. Un chien andalou, a silent film featuring a horrifying series of images from a man slicing open an eyeball with a razor blade to a girl poking a dismembered hand on a busy sidewalk to a man pulling a piano full of dead livestock and so forth, is less than sixteen minutes long, perfectly palatable to even the most confused attention spans. We can surrender ourselves to sixteen minutes of confusion, especially since the camerawork and images are so playful, unusual, and exciting.

We can savor the the sonic richness of a nonsense poem like "The Jabberwocky" or the melody and unusual vocabulary of a meaningless tune like "I Am the Walrus." It's only when "The Jabberwocky" expands into four hundred pages of complete nonsense that we get restless and fed up.

Much to their disappointment, Un chien andalou was a very popular and huge success. So a year later, with funding from a wealthy descendant of the Marquis de Sade, Buñuel made a "sequel" to his nonsense film--L'Âge d'or. With all of what made Un chien andalou accessible removed, L'Âge d'or is over an hour long, with static camera shots, very little exciting imagery, and the imposition of an indecipherable "plot" involving a fetishistic woman and a violent man, with documentary footage of scorpions and a few jabs at the church thrown in for good measure. L'Âge d'or is a talkie with an absurd script and purposely foolish acting.

Buñuel finally succeeded. L'Âge d'or was banned and detested. Maybe people didn't like their religion being insulted, or maybe they just didn't like being insulted in such a perplexing way.

It's surprising to me that L'Âge d'or is hailed as a masterpiece, ranking #102 on the TSPDT? list. It is an important film, if only because it shows us just how unfilmly the film medium can be used. But any message Buñuel may have been presenting is today as tired as Marilyn Manson's latest CD, and I fear that anyone who tries to flesh out an explanation more varied and complex than simple anti-clericism is suffering from a bit of narcissism. If anything, L'Âge d'or is a canvas on which we can express ourselves; explaining the film reveals more about our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs than it does about the film itself, and to call the film brilliant because of such an explanation is merely to laud ourselves for being brilliant and insightful. I don't think the film is anything much more than nonsense, and I'll leave it at that.

An inkblot can be a powerful tool for entering into our subconscious, for beginning psychoanalysis. But, seriously, it's not art.

Un chien andalou (1929)
d: Luis Buñuel w: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí
(Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil)
TSPDT?: #167

L'âge d'or
d: Luis Buñuel w: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí
(Gaston Modot, Lya Lys)
TSPDT?: #102

1 comment:

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