Saturday, May 05, 2007

CINCO DE VINYL: Buñuel's Travelling Illusions

by Steven Boone

At the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Luis Buñuel and family fled their newly fascist homeland for the United States. The rising 39-year-old filmmaker suddenly found himself in a marginal position in world cinema — as a dubber for Hollywood films and New York's Museum of Modern Art. Mexico provided the unlikely stage for his return to directing when the Russian-born producer Oscar Dancigers offered him the Mexican "political musical" Gran Casino (1946). Buñuel would spend the next 13 years churning out Mexican comedies and melodramas aimed at a mass audience. Accordingly, his triumphs and failures in this period were judged primarily by box office receipts.

Buñuel's third film for Dancigers, the devastating Los Olvidados (1950), forced world attention back onto the former surrealist upstart, whose Un chien andalou (1929) and L'age d'or (1930) were now distant pinpoints in the rearview mirror. Los Olvidados, a story of ghetto kids in Mexico City, won Best Director and the Grand Prize at Cannes in 1951. This established Buñuel's pattern of alternating between commercial films and riskier artistic projects that were his reward for the former. For example, the international success of his Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1952) provided for Wuthering Heights and Buñuel's most personal film, the obsessive masterpiece El (both from 1953). (Ironically, the poor box office performance of Los Olvidados temporarily halted Buñuel's partnership with Dancigers; the low-budget Buñuel quickies that immediately followed it were produced by others.)

Mexico has often been described as the place where man-without-a-country Buñuel "made do" — making art on slim budgets in between more crass, popular projects. Along with El, Wuthering Heights and Los Olvidados, counted among the "art" are Nazarin, El Bruto (1952), The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), and the Mexican evil twin of his Spanish Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1962). Bill Krohn's assessment in the book Luis Buñuel: The Complete Films (Taschen) typifies this attitude: "Shipwrecked in Mexico, Buñuel had found a way to keep working and had become, like Crusoe, 'Governor of the Isle'."

But what about the dozen Mexican films — potboilers, capers, screwball comedies, soapy tragedies — that get such short shrift from critics and historians? Do the box office receipts really tell the whole story? Were Buñuel's heart and mind truly elsewhere when he was hammering out these, the cinematic equivalent of page-turners?

I propose that, high and low, Buñuel's Mexican films are his most personal and enduring. In Mexico, he learned to tell stories in the "invisible" visual style perfected in Viridiana (and often either overindulged or neglected in his subsequent European classics). Though the plots in his Mexican programmers typically followed proven formulas, Buñuel's class politics, his surreal, fetishistic imagery, his private fears, and, above all, the abiding humanism that his atheistic cynicism tends to obscure, are bursting out of these films — but only if you're watching.
Here are some images from one of his forgotten Mexican cheapies, the lighthearted Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1953). In the film, two drunk, frustrated streetcar mechanics take one of the vehicles on a nighttime joyride but get mistaken for an on-duty car. They have no choice but to continue the charade into the work day, giving free rides to working stiffs all over Mexico City. The caper unfolds like a lucid dream.


  1. Every time I see a film by Buñuel I think it's the best thing I've ever seen but I never think to name him as one of my favorites. Maybe this will spark some serious investment this summer and I can get all learned on his Mexican films, and really fall in love (I hope) in the process. All I've seen from Mexico is...wait, I don't think I've seen any single one from Mexico! MAN! I guess I know what my next obsession will probably be. Thanks again, Steve, for this considerate -- and smart -- piece. You've already convinced one person!

  2. Cool. I especially look forward to your reaction to El, Nazarin and Los Olvidados. That last one is my heart.

  3. for anyone interested, i'd recommend reading "Buñuel and Mexico: The Crisis of National Cinema" by Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz (university of california press, 2003) for a good contextual understanding of his films, place in & impact on mexican cinema.

    enjoyed your mashup