Spanish Surrealist Luis Bunuel was widely regarded as an innovator of avant-garde filmmaking. In his pioneering efforts date from the late 1920s, he cited Marxism as the political motivation behind his respective works.
He is considered to be the father of cinematic Surrealism and one of the most original directors in the history of the film medium.In 1928 after returning from shadowing and working for the renowned French director Jean Epstein in Paris, Buñuel used his newly acquired filmmaking techniques to collaborate with Salvador Dali on Un Chien Andalou A “surrealist weapon,” the movie was made to shock the Spanish bourgeois and criticize the avant-garde.
Surrealism rose out of Dada, an artistic movement which believed, in part, that an excess of cold rationality brought about the carnage of The Great War, later known as World War I. This conflagration destroyed a generation of Europe and threw the old world into the new in a blood-drenched tide. The stated aim of Surrealism was to undermine the scientific, rational precision which was taking over every facet of life, using the Freudian conceptions of the mind and specifically the unconscious to, "resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality."
Up until this point, in the early 20th century, the common view was that civilization was on an unstoppable onward and upward curve towards perfection, perfection aided by science. The Surrealists, led by André Breton, rejected traditional meaning in favor of an art dominated by the unconscious, the new and little understood part of consciousness which operated underneath daily consciousness, working via symbols and apparent randomness.
Andre Breton defined surrealism as: "Pure psychic automatism through which it is intended to express, either orally or in writing, or in any other way, the actual way thought works." And Un Chien Andalou, which means An Andalusian Dog, the name of a breed of dog from the Andalusian region of Spain, certainly follows a dream logic. Decades later, the film would also inspire "Debaser," a very sad song by American alternative rock band The Pixies.
Connecting himself to the Surrealist movement, Buñuel later said of "It was an aggressive morality based on rejection of all existing values. We had other criteria: we exalted passion, mystification, black humour, the insult and the call of the abyss."
Of their famous first film, Buñuel later recalled: "Our [Dali and Buñuel] one and only rule was very simple: no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why." As filmmaking is a labor intensive, industrial process, this was, to say the least, a risky proposition. Interestingly, the film was a huge hit with the French bourgeoisie, playing for eight months in Paris and making stars out of the two. Naturally, this led to Buñuel's disgust:
What can I do about the people who adore all that is new, even when it goes against their deepest convictions, or about the insincere, corrupt press, and the inane herd that saw beauty or poetry in something which was basically no more than a desperate impassioned call for murder?The images are startling and manage to haunt long after the few 'scenes' of the film are done, and this is a low-budget, silent, short film more than 3/4 of a century old (so there's no excuse for you not to get out there and put your vision on the screen!). In fact, one could argue that Un Chien is the first low-budget indie film, since by 1928/9 there was most definitely a production and distribution system in place, and Buñuel and Dalí were working completely outside of said system, self-financed, and so low-budget that Buñuel had to edit the film in his kitchen without the benefit of any equipment save his (unsliced) eyeball and, ironically enough, razor blades and tape. It has also been argued that the film was an inspiration for the symbolic, associative editing and imagery in music videos -- many commercial directors saw the film in school, which for years was one of the few places that had a print to screen.
The turbulent years of the 1930s were of profound importance in his life. He joined the Surrealist movement in 1929 but by 1932 had renounced it and embraced Communism.He continued to develop his surreal movie-making style, travelling between Hollywood and Spain until Civil war broke out in 1936. During the war he worked for the Republican government and created a war documentary titled, España Leal en Armas (1937).
In 1946 Buñuel moved to Mexico, where many other intellectuals had fled with the outbreak of war in Spain. He would stay there for the rest of his life, becoming a citizen and directing over 20 films by 1964. All of his films were very critical of the systems and powers that be, and one of his favourite targets was the Catholic Church. But he always mitigated his fierce critique with great talent, a very peculiar sense of humor, and with the the heavy influence of one of the mot releant artistic movements of the Twentieth century;surrealism. His films 1961's Viridiana and 1962’s The Exterminating Angel Buñuel developed a new style that was surrealist in both form and content. Employing the language of classical Hollywood cinema, both films skewer the status quo with taboo imagery and disturbing scenarios involving sexual mania, religious hypocrisy, and social savagery.
Buñuel continued to attack church and state through film, and by the 1980s he created his autobiography, My Last Sigh. Buñuel died in Mexico City on July 29, 1983, a decorated and celebrated filmmaker.
Luis Bunuel - A Statement
1.In none of the traditional arts is there such a wide gap between possibilities and facts as in the cinema.Motion pictures act directly upon the spectator; they offer him concrete persons and things;they isolate him, through silence and darkness, from the usual psychological atmosphere. Because of all this , the cinema is capable of stirring the spectator as perhaps no other art. But as no other art, it is also capable of stupefying him. Unfortunately, the great majority of todays films seem to have exactly that purpose; they glory in an intellectual and moral vacuum, movies seem to prosper.
2. Mystery is a basic element of all works of art. It is generally lacking on the screen. Writers, directors, and producers take good care in avoiding anything that may upset us. They keep the marvellous window on the liberating world of poetry shut.They prefer stories which seem to continue our ordinary lives, which repeat for the umpteenth time the same drama, which help us forget the hard hours of our daily work. And all this, of course, carefully watched over by traditional morals , government and international censorship, religion, good taste, white humour and other flat dicteria of reality.
3. The screen is a dangerous and wonderful instrument, if a free spirit uses it. It is the superior way of expressing the world of dreams, emotions and instinct. The cinema seems to have been invented for the expression of the subconscious, so profoundly is it rooted in poetry. Nevertheless, it almost never pursues these ends.
4. We rarely see good cinema in the mammoth productions, or in the works that have recieved the praise of critics and audience. The particular story, the private drama of an individual cannot interest -I believe - anyone worthy of living in our time. If a man in the audience shares the joys and sorrows of a character on the screen, it should be because the character reflects the joys and sorrows of al l society and so the personal feelings of that man in the audience. Unemployment, insecurity, the fear of war, social injustice, etc., affect all men of our time , and thus, they also affect the individual spectator. But when the screen tells me that Mr X is not happy at home and finds amusement with a girlfriend whom he finally abandons to reunite himself with his faithful wife, I Find it all very moral and edifying, but it leaves me completetly indifferent.
5. Octavia Paz has said :" But that a man in chains should shut his eyes, the world would explode." And I coould say : But that the white eyelid of the screen reflect its proper light, the Universe would go up in flames. But for the moment we can sleep in peace : the light of the cinema is conveniently dosified and shackled.
The above originally puplished in "FILM CULTURE ", no 21, Summer 1960, pp. 41-2. Still relevant methinks