Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Luis Buñuel: The Red Years," by Gubern and Hammond

Ah science! Could you not have revealed that Luis Buñuel was no 1930s Stalinist, but rather as he remembered, a whimsical surrealist who casually meandered into filmmaking history?

No, of course not.

Instead, "Luis Buñuel, "The Red Years," straightens out the timeline put forth in the Oscar-winning director's (Best Foreign Film) endearing autobiography, "My Last Sigh," dismissing anecdotes as impossible given the evidence, blowing holes in his very memory.

Which is kind of fun when one considers how "My Last Sigh," opens with a meditation on memory:

"You have to begin to lose your memory," says the director, "if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it we are nothing."

Even with it, "The Red Years," implies, we may not be who we remember ourselves to be.

Authors Roman Gubern and Paul Hammond get excited when their investigation has marked a discrepancy between the story of his life, as Buñuel told it, and what some document they pulled out of the French Embassy or the checka files confirms to the contrary.

But they're not malicious about it, just doing their jobs, demythologizing the heck out of another romantic epoch.

The text begins as a typical filmography and this is because Buñuel's earliest years comprised his efforts as a surrealist and maker of films guided by the dictates of that artistic credo.

There is a detailing of the group's internal strife as it first rushed to embrace the French Communist Party, and then split when a goodly portion found the reds petty and obsessed with rules. It is an old story of factionalism over the finer points, personalism, resentment and political cannibalism that consumed the hopes of leftists the world over.

The High Pope of Surrealism, Andre Breton, broke in the name of intellectual independence. Buñuel, by contrast, joined the Spanish Communist Party and, well, enslaved himself, for a time at least, to the hard and cruel rules of Stalinism.

In "My Last Sigh," Buñuel portrays his time in '20s Hollywood as a kind of lark during which he disdained the big studio process and acted scandalously before being asked to leave.

But "The Red Years," proposes a more ambitious and careerist Buñuel picking up something of the industrial studio's techniques, because he returned to Madrid and became an all-purpose producer, set handyman, and anonymous director for Spain's first legitimate commercial enterprise, Filmófono.

In making that production house's few and popular folkloric melodramas (long tarried over here), Buñuel often pushed the director aside in order to meet his own strict deadlines and slim budgets.

The films made good money, and Buñuel kept his name out of the credits. He wanted to maintain his cachet as the "avant" creator of "Un Chien Andalou," and "L'Age D'or."

Upon the outset of the Spanish Civil War, the title "The Red Years," begins to impose itself and, while the book's latter third may clear up certain questions haunting Buñuel scholars, the turn towards a more turgid and technical read is undeniable.

Aligned with the ascendant communists in the war time Spanish Republic, the director enlisted in the espionage game while coordinating film propaganda from Paris.

The authors spend an inordinate amount of time disentangling oral and written accounts, receipts, records, letters etc., to determine the director's role in two propaganda films telling Republican Spain's story to the world, "España '36," and "España '37."

Why? Presumably because it's "The Red Years," and, once again, one can comprehend why Breton made his break, rather than get involved in this gray world of apparatchiks and quirky little dictators.

It is not without interest to see what Buñuel and his fellow travelers were thinking during tumultuous times that put the average European in harm's way.

Buñuel could have been killed at any time. The business of propaganda and serving as a conduit for money and documents in favor of the Republic was not so much a choice as an imposed duty.

Clearly, radical films purchased with the money of cosmopolitan French aristocrats were not the order of the day and so the actual Red years present thin pickings for filmophiles.

This is small-bore stuff that assumes prior reading on Eurocommunism and a deep interest in the director's political activities.

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