My Last Sigh
Luis Buñuel
Abigail Israel,

(University of Minnesota Press)
Those of us who have affection for the movies of yore will remember Luis Buñuel. No, I'm wrong: we'll remember his signature scenes. The baby carriage with a pig in it. Those people in tuxes and fancy dresses at a formal dinner --- sitting on toilets. The cruel jokes played on the cripple in Los Olvidados. People in the cathedral laughing uproariously at the priest offering mass.

And, at the top of the list, in Un Chien Andalou, those antics: the young man dragging two idly-conversing friars on his back as he advances towards the lady of his desire, and, of course, what must be the most famous eye shot in all filmdom, the moon being crossed by a cloud, immediately followed by a razor slicing an eye-ball from left to right. Ay, mi corazon! (It was revealed later --- although not here --- that a hog's eyeball the closest to that of the human. Which doesn't make the scene, squishy goop-leak eye and all, any less discomfiting.)

This is Buñuel's autobiography. It is charming, wry, cranky artlessly artful. He admits to great temper tantrums. He habitually does the unexpected --- in life, as well as in his movies. He has hectoring loves and hates. He loathes psychology and psychoanalysis --- especially those that try to analyse his movies. Most religions bore him. Cant drives him crazy. He loves his day-time waking and night-time sleeping dreams.

He adores Martinis, and give us the perfect recipe, "the fruit of long experimentation:"

    The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients --- glasses, gin, and shaker --- in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don't take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.

§     §     §

One of the surprises here is the great number of famous people that turned up in Buñuel's life. However, like all great men, when the famous turn up on the page, its not that he is parading them to extract our wonder or envy, but simply because they are part of his fascinating story: André Breton, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Ortega y Gasset, and "another blind man I don't particularly like," Jorge-Luis Borges.

Saint-Exupéry appears, and "always amazed us with his repertory of magic tricks." There's Charlie Chaplin, to whom the filmmaker showed an edited version of Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will, through which Chaplin laughed, "once so hard that he actually fell off his chair." Federico Garcia-Lorca got angry because he claimed that he was being made fun of --- he thought he was the dog in Un Chien andalou. At the same time he wrote a lovely poem just for Buñuel:

    Cielo azul
    Campo amarillo

    Monte azul
    Campo amarillo

    Por la llanura desierta
    Va caminando un olivo

    Un solo

    Blue sky
    Yellow field

    Blue mountain
    Yellow field

    On the empty plain
    An olive tree goes walking

    Just one lone
    olive tree.

§     §     §

"Don't ask me my opinions about art," Buñuel writes, "because I don't have any." Picasso? "He seemed to me selfish and egocentric."

    I can't stand Guernica (which I nevertheless helped to hang.) Everything about it makes me uncomfortable --- the grandiloquent technique as well as the way it politicizes art. Both Alberti and José Bergamín share my aversion; in fact, all three of us would be delighted to blow up the painting.

"But," he concludes, "I suppose we're too old to start playing with explosives."

Then there was the time when he was offered the chance to make a film with Stravinsky providing the music. Buñuel said that he would never collaborate "with someone who's always falling to his knees and beating his breast." Dali? Buñuel says they worked perfectly together on The Andalusian Dog --- he claims their dreams intermeshed --- but when they met together to do another film, they couldn't stand each other and parted ways.

Under everything else, this filmmaker is a bona fide, true-faith surrealist. "I'd felt increasingly seduced by that passion for the irrational which was so characteristic of surrealism," he tells us. When he was giving a talk on avant-garde cinema in Madrid, he found out that the audience was mostly aristocratic, so "I suggested to Pepín Bello that we announce a menstruation contest and award prizes after the lecture..."

When he was making Los Olvidados, he wanted a shot of the ragged boys passing a building without walls in which a full symphony orchestra was playing on an upper floor, in formal wear --- but with no sound. The producer nixed it.

And when he went to one of Charlie Chaplin's Christmas parties, he found himself bored, so he whispered to his friends, "when I blow my nose, that's the signal to get up. Just follow me and we'll take that ridiculous tree to pieces!"

    Which is exactly what we did, although it's not easy to dismember a Christmas tree. In fact, we got a great many scratches for some rather pathetic results, so we resigned ourselves to throwing the presents on the floor and stomping on them. The room was absolutely silent; everyone stared at us, openmouthed.

    "Luis," Tono's wife finally said, "That was unforgivable."

    "On the contrary," I replied, "It wasn't unforgivable at all. It was subversive."

And remember the strange disappearance of the leading lady in That Obscure Object of Desire --- being replaced by another who looked almost, but not quite, like her. We thought it was another of Buñuelistic surrealist tricks. Fact is, he kept getting into vicious fights with the first star. It got so bad that he and the producer decided to dump the whole project.

    The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar, I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved.

"Once again," he says, "the combination of bar and gin proved unbeatable."

This is one of those literary works in which the voice of the author is so true that when it's over and done with, you want to set out and hunt him up and thank him in person for cutting off a piece of himself and putting it between the covers so you could know him and his wonderful ways, and in this case, his stunning visions that turned up in all thirty-two of his movies.

Going to a movie is going into a hypnotic trance, he tells us. (He also said that "Watching a movie is like being raped.") Such a funny man he is; such an hypnotist: reading such an glorious piece of writing by this eccentric, honest, beguiling, opinionated, firecracker makes us sad that he didn't live long enough to make a movie of his Last Grand Sigh.

--- Leslie J. Carens

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