Monday, December 12, 2011

Luis Buñuel's La mort en ce jardin (Death in the Garden)

Dismage of France and Producciones Tepeyac of Mexico join together in 1956 to recreate José-André Lacour’s La mort en ce jardin into an adventure film.  Translated into English as Death in the Garden, the film gets its dramatic and surrealistic touch from director Luis Buñuel.  Luis Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza, Raymond Queneau, and Gabriel Arout write the screenplay and the Spanish and French dialogue for the actors.  Many of the performers hail from France.  Georges Marchal plays Chark, a strong, amoral, and independent adventurer that has little regard for authority.  Simone Signoret acts as Djin, a prostitute who survives by plotting her next move with anyone she can take advantage of.  Michel Piccoli plays Father Lizardi, a Catholic missionary with a well-meaning yet slightly vain personality.  Charles Vanel acts as Castin, an old diamond prospector that dreams of returning to France to start his own restaurant.  Michèle Girardon plays María Castin, Castin’s deaf-mute daughter who is innocent, loving, and devout to the Catholic faith.  Tito Junco, an actor that comes from Mexico, plays the hoggish and opportunistic Chenko.  The producers for this particular movie are Oscar Dancigers and Jacques Mage.  Cinedis distributes the film at the time of the movie’s release.  Les Grands Films Classiques obtains the copyrights in 1996 and Transflux Films releases the movie on DVD in 2009.

The DVD includes: French and Spanish soundtracks with English subtitles, a recollection entitled “An Afternoon in Saint-Germain Des Pres” by Juan-Luis Buñuel, an excerpt of an essay called “Simone Signoret: The Star as Cultural Sign” by Susan Hayward, an interview with Michel Piccoli, another interview with Victor Fuentes, an audio track with commentary about the film by Ernesto R. Acevedo-Muñoz of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a still gallery.  All of these extras help to situate the patron in understanding the cultural and academic significance that Death in the Garden has within the Buñuel canon.  I especially recommend listening to Acevedo-Muñoz’s commentary.  He gives a step-by-step demonstration on how to analyze a film by recognizing patterns, images, viewpoints, and motifs.  He offers insights from other Buñuelian works but does not digress into tangents.  I would love to take a film class from him if the opportunity arises.

Death in the Garden does have its share of Buñuelian touches and surrealistic moments.  Right at the beginning, we see a conflict between the working prospectors and the authoritarian military leadership.  Whether feigned or not, the military personnel notify the diamond prospectors of a constitutional proclamation confiscating all claims and property for the government.  The workers resent the move and aggressively protest against their leaders.  Buñuel consistently shows imagery of haughty military or police forces suppressing or threatening the disadvantaged and hardly armed working class.  The contrast between liberal or communist ideals and heavy-handed fascist enforcement cannot be clearer.  A surrealistic moment—which is especially antiocularcentric in its gesture—happens when Chark stabs a guard in the eye with a fountain pen before he escapes the jail cell and prison.  Eventually, the tension between the two sides boils over into an attempted coup and the main characters flee into the jungle to escape their general and particular dangers.

The second half of the film has all the main characters combined into one group and hijacked by Chark.  It begins at this point when surrealistic elements come to the forefront.  Buñuel rarely incorporates music into any of his films, but the continuous animal sounds of the jungle act as a surrealistic orchestra that reflects the mood of the group or the augury of things to come.  We never see the animals that make these sounds, suggesting a sort of ghostly presence, an ominous gaze, or a conscious forest.  The jungle recreates a type of the Garden of Eden, although in this garden, which Acevedo-Muñoz labels as a “garden of evil,” the dwellers dwindle into death or madness.  The snake that inhabits this garden gets killed and eaten by the inhabitants instead of tempting them into some forbidden act.  A striking surrealistic image in this film shows the serpent’s carcass being moved by fire ants.  The group descends into violence under the oppression of brutal nature.  The only relief seems to come when the group comes upon a crashed airplane with no survivors but full of bourgeois trappings.  Yet this turn of events does not guarantee that all of the members will survive.

Another characteristic of Buñuel that I would like to understand more is his anticlericalism or anti-Catholicism.  I suppose his sentiments come from his experiences with events leading up to and including the Spanish Civil War, but it would be nice to know if he has had personal experiences that relate to seeing or reacting to hypocrisy and corruption in the clergy during his formative years.  (I was quite surprised when quite a few people in Spain told me about their personal experiences with wayward priests.)  Disaffected apostates that leave the membership of their hegemonic religions do not tend to leave the same alone.

In this movie, two instances come to mind that give me occasion to conclude in this manner.  In the first scene, Father Lizardi has an argument with Chark about the Catholic Church’s role in proselytizing to the local tribes of the New World.

Father Lizardi. – Castin, where are you taking me?
Castin. – Wherever you like, Father.
Father Lizardi. – Leave me near the Santa Rosalia Mission, with the Venantes Indians.
Chark. – They’d be better off without you.  At least nobody would force them to work.
Father Lizardi. – I’m here to save their souls.  Thanks to the mission, many tribes hear the word of God.
Chark. – From the mouth of their exploiters.
Father Lizardi. – We’re not responsible for the overseers.
Chark. – No, but they follow you wherever you go.  They must really like you guys!
Father Lizardi. – I refuse to argue with you!  I insist on disembarking at once!
Chark. – I’m in command here.  Get that into your head and we’ll get on nicely.
Father Lizardi. – I have only one master.  I’m not afraid of you.
Chark. – We’ll see.
Father Lizardi. – Castin, you’re wrong to associate with…
Chark. – …a scoundrel.
Castin. – What could I do?  I was innocent and they put a price on my head.

Chark’s opinions and arguments are not unusual for a man of his nature, but Father Lizardi falters in defending his position.  People in religious positions find themselves in a quandary, because their belief systems are not readily verifiable in the short term.  Suppose Father Lizardi really tries to perform his office in an upright and honest fashion.  He acts on faith and belief that do not prove themselves true until long after the act or even after death.  He can vouch for his own actions, but defending his comrades or the larger system becomes difficult when they follow their own policies.  Hence Father Lizardi is unjustly interrogated by Chark who accuses him of those abuses that he doesn’t commit.  On the other hand, if Father Lizardi is not innocent, but condones wholeheartedly the practices of his superiors, then Father Lizardi evasion of obvious discrepancies shows his motives are not exactly altruistic.  (Father Lizardi hypocritically stashes jewelry away near a tree after lecturing María Castin not to “take things that belong to the dead.”)  On top of that, the injunction to “repay evil for evil” already places Father Lizardi in a tight spot (1 Peter 3:9).  Father Lizardi has lost the debate before it has even begun.

The second instance shows Father Lizardi relating a story to the rest of the party one night during a downpour.  Drenched from head to toe, everyone tries to sleep comfortably despite the uncomfortable conditions.  Father Lizardi, in a sort of confession, reminisces about a colleague’s idiosyncrasies of stealing soft-boiled eggs and eating them.

Father Lizardi. – My friends, do you hear me?  It may be that hunger is making me delirious but I’m obsessed with a story about soft-boiled eggs.  It happened when I was at the seminary.  I must tell you about it.  I was in my second year of theology.  I remember the refectory with its rows of tables like it was yesterday.  We were 10 to a table.  The seminarist who served us was a fat kid—a good soul—we had nothing to reproach him for except something that happened each time we had soft-boiled eggs.  Four or five always disappeared.  There was no explaining these disappearances.  Until one day someone saw him swallowing the eggs two by two on the way from the church to the refectory.  I mean, from the kitchen to the refectory.  It didn’t stop him from becoming coadjutor back home.  My mother’s name was Mary.

During his story, the rest of the party ignores him or, if the group is listening to his story, does not acknowledge him.  Father Lizardi’s oneiric confession suspiciously reveals a subtle surrealistic or psychoanalytic revelation regarding ambition and favoritism within the seminary’s ranks.  Father Lizardi’s self-correction from church to kitchen passes off as a parapraxis that could reveal some sort of scandal that Father Lizardi’s doesn’t intend fully to divulge.  If we suppose the party is listening to his story despite obvious signs to the contrary, we can conclude that the party does not react to this revelation because either they condone such behavior as being socially acceptable or think that they are powerless to change things.  Another possibility could be that they think he is just dreaming out loud about his hunger or mother, topics that Acevedo-Muñoz explores in his commentary.

The thing I most enjoyed in this movie is the cinematography and the scenery.  The jungles, rivers, and lakes look lush and beautiful.  The village where the action takes place has gorgeous shots of cathedrals and squares.  One sequence shows an angle from the soldiers’ point of view while confronted by the prospectors.  A few stones are thrown from the crowd and make their way toward the camera.  The agility of the actors to throw those stones at or near the camera is nothing but impressive.  One stone even swerves like a curveball that nearly misses a soldier.  The camera lets the events tell the story and moves economically and efficiently.

I would rate this movie with a PG rating.  Sexual activity is implied and the word “prostitute” is never used.  There is a scene depicting animal cruelty and slaughter.  Violence against women is shown or is implied as in a scene in which Chark hits Djin three times for handing him over to the police for no apparent reason than to pilfer his money.  Violence in other contexts is mild.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un chien andalou (The Andalusian Dog)

Un chien andalou is a short film written by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí and directed by the former in 1929.  Pierre Batcheff plays an unidentified man, Simone Mareuil as an unidentified woman, Buñuel as the eye slicer, Dalí as a priest, Marval as another priest, Robert Hommet as a man on a beach, Jaume Miravitlles as a corpulent priest, and Fano Messan as an androgynous hand poker in this silent film.  The music for this piece comes from a tango and Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, interpreted by Carl Bamberger with the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra.  Buñuel played a mix of these two themes during the original release in Paris, France.  Les Grands Films Classiques, under Buñuel’s directions, added the soundtrack to the film in 1960.  Transflux Films distributes the film in DVD format beginning in 2004.  The DVD also contains the following extra features: (1) “A Slice of Buñuel: Exclusive interview/documentary with Juan-Luis Buñuel,” (2) “Epilogue: Dali & Buñuel: Bonus Interview,” (3) “Audio Commentary: By Surrealism expert Stephen Barber,” and (4) “Design: Dave McKean biography and statement.”  The DVD jacket states that there should be one more feature entitled “Mystery of Cinema: Abridged transcript of speech given by Luis Buñuel in 1953,” but I cannot find it anywhere on the disc.  Either the distributors have forgotten to include this segment in the DVD or the disc I have is another edition.

Given the nature of the film, the surrealism prevents me from summarizing the events of the story.  Therefore, I have drafted an incipient poem.

The greatest classic films present…
Tristan, Isolde, Wagner, and Bamberger in tango.
Luis Buñuel in 1960.
Un Chien Andalou
Buñuel places the stage.
Dalí and Buñuel create a scene
for Simone Mareuil
and Pierre Batcheff.
Duverger shoots.

“Once upon a time…”
Buñuel sharpens his razor diagonally.
He smokes.
999, 1000!
I wonder if it’s sharp enough.
I’ll test it on my cuticle.
He exits out the door onto the patio.
Hmm, no one’s out here.
He looks up.
What are you looking at?
A full moon and thin cloud stare.
He exhales more smoke.
(There’s a striped tie.)
Are you ready for your radial keratotomy?
Yes dear.
I have to time this exactly with the cloud.
He positions the razor horizontally.
The thin cloud slices the moon.
He cuts the eye too deeply.
Damn it!

“Eight years later.”
A nun bikes down a street.
A nun bikes up a street.
It’s a guy!
The street comes forward
and he has a box hanging from his neck.
The street likes looking at his backside.
The nun bikes down another street.
Another bicyclist zooms the other way.
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…
The box is fashionably striped.

A woman leisurely reads
in a cozy apartment.
She hears a sound.
Don’t tell me it’s him.
            …I can’t afford a carriage…
What is he doing here?
She throws down the book about
Vermeer’s The Lacemaker.
She walks to the window and looks out.
What the…!
            ...But you’d look sweet upon a seat…
Oh, that pervert!
…of a bicycle … built for…
He falls to the curb.
I told him to stop panty raiding the cloister!
He can’t do anything right without me.
She marches out the door.
He rests his head on the curb.
She flies down the stairs.
I think I’ll just take a nap.
Oh, my baby.  Are you hurt?
She smothers him with
kisses and caresses.

She unlocks the box.
She takes out a striped package.
She unwraps the packaging.
It’s a striped necktie.
She folds it into a collar
and arranges the nun’s habit
on the bed.
There.  Now I’ll sit down
and watch the show.
The tie moves.
I’m not impressed.
The tie ties itself.
Wow, this is boring.
She looks to her left.
I wonder what he’s watching.
The man stares intently at the
palm of his hand.
Ants crawl out from a hole in the
palm of his hand.
He continues staring.
I wanna see.
She approaches him.
She stares.
More ants crawl out from the
palm of his hand.
You should get that checked.
You think so?
Ants change into a hairy armpit.
The hairy armpit changes into
a sea urchin.
The sea urchin changes into
a person with a stick.

She pokes a severed hand
with a stick.
A crowd of men gathers
and circles her.
Two policemen keep the men
It’s an androgynous woman.
C’mon, Thing, wake up!
You’re causing a scene.
            Can I get your autograph?
The woman continues to poke.
People wonder.
More people wonder.
You’re embarrassing me.
Is she Thing’s girlfriend?
The man and woman
in the apartment
look down from the window.
I’ll keep poking until you move.
She’s so provocative!
A policeman reports for duty.
Let me give you a hand.
He picks up the hand
and places it within the striped box.
Here you go, ma’am.
Oh, he touched my hand.
The couple is dumbfounded.
Thank you, officer.
The man looks touched.
Okay, break it up, break it up.
There’s nothing else to see.
She stands alone in the street.
A car rushes by.
The man feels the suspense.
She stands alone in the street.
I betcha 5 bucks she gets run over.
C’mon, c’mon.
Mrs. Thing T. Thing.  I like that.
Meep, meep!
The head ornament has her in its sights.
Oh no!  I’ll never let go, Thing!
She gets run down.
Yes!  I won 5 bucks!
The dead lady sprawls over the road.
Did you see that?  She’s dead!
It’s a hit and run.
The man turns from the window.
The woman shrinks from the loss.
Well what?
Never mind the 5 bucks.
I have a better idea.

He gropes her breasts.
He leers at her.
She backs away.
He leers again.
She backs up against a piece
of furniture.
She goes the other way.
Aha again!
He pounces.
Get your grubby mitts off me!
He pounces again.
She reluctantly submits.
He undresses her with his mind.
His eyes roll back.
His mouth drools blood.
Breasts turn into buttocks
and back again.
Oh, that’s kinky!
Oh no he didn’t!
She flees.
He pursues her
around the apartment,
over the bed,
and into a corner.
She grabs a tennis racquet.
She brandishes it
and guards herself
behind a chair.
Oh shucks!
I’m no match for a tennis racquet.
I’ll bluff my way in.
She pants.
No.  She’s too strong.
Just try and take me.
She’s caught my bluff.
Aha!  You can’t touch this.
There’s gotta be something…
He finds something on the floor.
Yeah, that’ll work.
He picks up two ropes.
She gets worried.
He lunges forward
but the ropes
pull him back.
He wrings the ropes
over his shoulders
and pulls.
Tablets hang from the ropes.
Oh no!
He pulls some more.
He drags
two cork tablets,
two melons,
two priests,
two grand pianos,
and two dead donkeys.
Blood streams
enucleated sockets.
He gains ground.
She trembles
and hides
her face.
He pulls again.
The priests drag like dead weight.
They hold on.
She looks again.
Dead donkey!
Befuddled priests!
Hang in there, buddy.
Just a few more feet.
He strains.
She sees the door.
She makes off for it.
He lets go
of the ropes
to reach
the escaping woman.
The door closes on the man’s
right arm.
She keeps closing the door.
He writhes in pain.
She forces the door.
She sees the ants in the
palm of his hand.
Ants crawl
on the writhing hand.
C’mon, c’mon!
The hand grips up.
Close you stupid door!
The man, in the nun’s habit,
lies in bed.
He stares at the ceiling.
The woman finally
closes the door.
She notices him.
The man glances
She calms down.
Whoa, a woman is in my bedroom.

“About three in the morning…”
A man approaches the door.
He rings the doorbell.
Two hands
from two holes
in the wall
a cocktail
Who could that be?
Shake, shake, shake.
No thanks.  I don’t drink.
I’ll get it.
The door opens by itself.
The man enters.
The man gets terribly upset.
What are you doing in bed?
I’m gonna punch you!
You good-for-nothin’…
But godfather…
Get out of bed!
I don’t wanna.
Oh, you don’t wanna, eh?
Get out of the bed this instant!
You tranny!
Take those off!
He turns to the patio door.
It’s curtains for you!
He throws the coif
out the window.
He throws the striped box
out the window.
The man hides the strap
in his pocket.
Hey, what do you got there?
What thing?
Okay, here.
You’re such a pansy!
Well, if you put it that way…
The man throws the strap
out the window.
Now, stand in the corner.
Stand in the corner!
Oh, all right.
Sheesh, I can’t believe this.
Put your hands up.
All right, all right!
The man takes off his fedora
and throws it to the side.
He starts to walk away.

“Sixteen years before.”
The man turns
in slow motion.
What have I done?
A dusty desk with
grimy books
and a pen.
Oh no!  What have I done?
He picks up the books.
He holds them close.
He speeds up.
He returns to the man.
What now?
I apologize.
Here, take these books.
He takes one into each hand.
He shakes his head.
Where have I gone wrong?
I’m such a failure.
He steps away
in slow motion.
Now’s my chance.
He walks to the door.
He holds two pistols.
He turns around.
Stick ‘em up!
He holds up his hands.
I promise to pay off the loan.
He flips him off.
Just gimme two days.
Take these, you dirty rat!
He pumps him full of lead.
He reacts
in slow motion.
Pew, pew!
Oh, that feels strangely…

He falls forward
in a sylvan pasture.
He falls upon a woman
with a bare back
sitting on a stump.
He strokes her spine
with the back of
his left hand.
He dies.
Thanks for the massage.
She disappears.
Men in suits and fedoras
Two undercover agents stroll
beside a bush.
Detectives examine
the dead body.
The agents stroll
No heartbeat.
One detective
accosts the two agents.
He returns.
The two agents
supervise the transportation
of the body.
The two agents stroll leisurely—
one before, one behind
—overseeing the four detectives
and the body.
They go away.

The woman opens the door
and enters.
She closes the door
and sees a moth on the wall.
The moth wiggles gently.
She stares.
The moth appears bigger.
It’s a death’s-head hawkmoth.
She focuses on the image
of the skull.
She stares concernedly.
The man stares back.
She gets worried.
He covers his mouth
as though about to vomit.
He removes his hand.
There is no mouth.
That’s gross!  Let me put it back on.
She takes out lipstick
from her purse and
applies the lipstick to her own lips
while keeping her eye
on the man.
The man’s face
where the mouth used to be
grows armpit hair.
She gets shocked.
She looks under her own
It’s bare.
She rubs it, but no stubble.
You sicko!  You stole my
pubic hair!
She wraps a striped scarf
around her neck.
He stands there.
Bleh!  Hmph!
She steps out the door.
She opens it again and
sticks out her tongue.
Neh!  Neh!
She slams the door.

The wind blows.
She sees a guy
in a horizontally
patterned sweater on a
rocky beach.
He turns around.
She waves at him
and runs to him.
She flirts, but he
looks away.
He holds up his wrist and
shows her the time.
She pulls down his wrist.
She cajoles him.
She kisses his lips.
He throws down his hat
and reciprocates.
They walk down the rocky beach
side by side.
He supports her
while they stumble
on the rocks.
They come upon
a soiled nun’s habit
and a broken striped box
in a muddy spot.
He kicks the box away.
She picks up the clothes
and hands it to him.
He examines the items
and tosses each away.
They continue their frolic.
They kiss.

“In spring…”
Both she and he,
buried up to their stomachs in the sand,
are dead.


Un chien andalou has the ability to shock the audience with graphic images and provocative action.  Parents should think twice before showing young audiences this film.  I would feel comfortable showing this work only to adults and in college classrooms.  Even I have squirmed the first time upon seeing an eye getting sliced open by a razor.

However, the extras on the DVD provide valuable information related to this film, to Buñuel, and to Dalí.  In “A Slice of Buñuel,” the director’s son, Juan-Luis Buñuel, recounts his father’s experiences with the drums of Calanda, his stay at la Residencia, pranks he and Federico García Lorca would do with a girl on a trolley, and moments with Charlie Chaplin.  He also tells how ridiculous critics try to analyze Un chien andalou, stating that Buñuel and Dalí intended the film to have no symbolic interpretations at all.

In “Epilogue: Dali & Buñuel,” Buñuel’s son tells of a tragic fallout between the two collaborators.  Dali and Buñuel try to collaborate again in L’Âge d’or, but artistic differences prevent them from continuing their professional relationship.  According to Juan-Luis Buñuel, Dalí changes when he meets Gala.  After that, Dalí denounces Buñuel “as a Communist and an Atheist.”  Doing so causes Buñuel to seek employment elsewhere.  (I wonder if Buñuel could have sued Dalí for libel had they lived in a later time period.)  Dalí even refuses to lend fifty dollars to Buñuel when the latter has to pay the rent.  In the end, Buñuel’s son states that “Dalí was surrounded by vultures” on his deathbed.

Stephen Barber’s audio commentary takes some effort to listen to.  Barber’s speech is very choppy and he repeats the title annoyingly.  He rambles more on Antonin Artaud’s The Seashell and the Clergyman than on Un chien andalou, even though he awards the latter as being the “culmination” of surrealist French film experiments of the 1920s.  He then stutters about the movements obsessions with sex and death.  I would have preferred Barber reading from a script than trying to improvise his commentary of the film.

Last, but not least, Dave McKean provides a gallery of two beautiful prints depicting forearms in surrealist environments.  I like the one showing a hand turning on a light bulb while the forearm transforms into moths that flitter around the light bulb.  It has a magical simplicity to it.

Un chien andalou is a quintessential example of surrealist film.  It is not for the general public, but those who study or like film will eventually come across it.  If I were to focus on an element of the film, it would have to be the discontinuity between the doors when the man gets his hand caught.  On his side, the door closes from behind him.  On the woman’s side, the door closes on the hand from the opposite direction.  The discontinuity actually accentuates the surrealist element in this case.  Once the woman stops trying to shut the door, I imagine that she has closed it, severing the hand off-screen in the process.  In the surrealist timeline, the severed hand that the androgynous woman pokes in the street may be the same hand that the man loses after his sexual assault on the woman.  But in any case, the amputation serves to cure the man’s ant infestation in his hand.