The observable universe is a million million million million miles large — that’s one followed by 24 zeroes — and 13.8 billion years old. We know this. But when you’re standing in a 400-square-foot coffee shop for 10 minutes, waiting for your venti decaf latte, that staggering cosmic breadth is dwarfed by the rage of the moment. If you gave it any thought, you would recognize how trivial your impatience is compared to, say, the 380,000 years it took the universe to cool enough for hydrogen atoms to form. Cosmological time has a funny way of making our lives seem insignificant. The only consolation is that humankind remains uniquely equipped to ignore the obvious and carry on caring about things anyway. You can’t help it: The latte matters. We call this The Absurd.
The tension between what we know about the universe and how we continue to regard ourselves within it — that is, the tension between knowing that everything is pointless and needing to pretend that it isn’t — is the foundation of Luis Buñuel’s cinema. He is the poet laureate of the absurd: His art perceives in the daily rituals we cling to the desperation that animates us all. It exposes, audaciously and mercilessly, the pretense of life. While canonized and celebrated — albeit more often in the academy than the art house, in recent years —Buñuel’s films have languished under widespread Western neglect. It’s just one of those things: Major figures and vaunted auteurs occasionally fall out fashion. Thankfully, a new 32-film retrospective of the director’s work — the first to appear in New York, incredibly, in nearly 15 years — has arrived to return Buñuel’s legacy to well-deserved glory.
Buñuel was born on February 22, 1900, in the town of Calanda, Spain. It was at the age of 29, while living and working in Paris, that he would co-direct Un Chien Andalou, perhaps the most widely celebrated short film in cinema history and — owing, in no small part, to the contributions of his collaborator Salvador Dali — a landmark work of surrealism. Un Chien Andalou is best remembered for its central provocation: a slice of ocular shock-art spectacle that instantly confirmed the young Buñuel’s notoriety. The image of a razor bisecting a poor woman’s eyeball maintains its visceral wallop — I can attest to seeing a theater of moviegoers, gathered in obsequious silence for a dose of cultural vegetables, shocked into gasps and moans by Buñuel’s crude effects. After 85 years, its sensational vigor persists undiminished. That’s Buñuel for you: A born provocateur, film’s original enfant terrible, he never lost the capacity to scandalize.
Buñuel followed that success (and controversy) with L’Age d’Or, and with it established the thematic, formal, and especially structural templates he would follow for his nearly 50 years of filmmaking to come. A polemical, vignette-style feature with serious sexual and anti-religious overtones, L’Age d’Or is, in many ways, the archetypal Buñuel picture — with transgressions his later work would frequently recapitulate. Despite his burgeoning infamy, Buñuel found himself stranded in the wake of his first two films, working only intermittently, as he flitted from France to Spain to Hollywood as if simply guided by mercurial whims. It was only when he grounded himself more permanently in Mexico, in the late 1940s, that his career began to blossom. After a musical (En el viejo Tampico) and a comedy (The Great Madcap), Buñuel brought his wit and imagination to bear on a work of social realism. The despairing poetry of Los Olvidados (The Young and the Damned), with its indelible dreams and frissons of beauty, earned him the prize for best director at Cannes, and it remains among his most essential films.
Despite the working-class commiserations of Los Olvidados, Buñuel’s sensibilities were more conducive to criticism than to affectionate portraiture, which occasioned an exchange of subjects and milieus: Mexican slums became luxury homes; struggles to survive became exploits in frivolity or corruption. Most significantly, sympathy became contempt. Buñuel’s evolution as a satirist of the upper classes culminated, at the end of his Mexican tenure, in The Exterminating Angel, an existential comedy of sorts that emphatically declared the director’s fascination with the absurdity of life. The film’s high-society revelers convene for a party and, inexplicably, find themselves resolutely unable to leave. The social insulation of their wealth and status is transformed, through an absurd force of will, into unbreakable restraints.
Buñuel’s final films — mostly international co-productions— further expanded the high-concept lunacy, stripping stories of any pretense of realism and diving headlong into philosophical inquiry. These films force audiences to recognize the fundamental ridiculousness of life itself, and they do so both through exaggeration (as in the outlandish cat-and-mouse sexual pursuit at the heart of That Obscure Object of Desire) and, more elegantly still, repetition and reiteration, as in the constant dining attempts that punctuate The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where the familiar act of sitting down to eat becomes ludicrous simply by occurring so often.
The most notorious gag in The Phantom of Liberty involves a dinner party in which the guests publicly defecate on living room toilets but retreat to the bathroom to dine in private. The genius of this scene is not merely the shock of seeing a social custom reversed. Buñuel sought to reveal the arbitrariness of such customs and values, how they furnish our lives with a false sense of meaning. For this, the upper classes were the ideal targets: Nobody is more concerned with keeping up appearances. For Buñuel, appearances were a form not only of deceit but worse, of self-deceit. He wanted to tell us the truth so that we’d see the truth of life’s absurdity. He wanted us to stop lying to ourselves.