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Poet of Light

<i> Judy Stone, a former film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of "Eye on the World: Conversations With International Filmmakers."</i>

In 1953, in a magnificent speech on poetry and the cinema, Luis Bun~uel declared: “The white eye of the screen need only reflect the light that is properly its own to blow up the universe. In the hands of a free spirit, the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon.”

It was a weapon the great Spanish director wielded with mischievous and mysterious humor. He deserves a biography worthy of his stature. His 1983 autobiographical memoir, “My Last Sigh,” is delightful, filled with typically sly, iconoclastic observations. Still, much more remained to be explored on the path that took Bun~uel from the eyeball-slashing surrealist of “Un Chien Andalou” in 1929 to “Los Olvidados” in 1950, in which he revealed the brutal existence of Mexican slum children; and from “Los Olvidados” to his masterpieces, “Viridiana” in 1961, which outfoxed Franco’s censors, and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” in 1972, the deadpan portrait of an urbane heroin-smuggling ambassador (Fernando Rey) and his on-again, off-again dining companions.

John Baxter, the Paris-based Australian biographer of Fellini, Kubrick, Ford, Russell and Spielberg, has produced the first definitive and engrossing--albeit flawed--biography of that reclusive director. However, the wary reader may well be forewarned by the errors and distortions on the first two pages. Hastily summarizing Bun~uel’s life and career, Baxter notes that he had “enjoyed orgies with Charlie Chaplin.” (His own text doesn’t support that titillating tidbit of what was one droll abortive encounter.)

After referring to the commercial musicals and comedies Bun~uel churned out for a few years in Mexico, Baxter writes: “The occasional personal [Mexican] film--'El,’ ‘The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz,’ ‘Nazarin'--aired the obsessions that drove him: communism, sexual fetishism, hatred of the Franco regime that had forced him into exile in 1936 and his equal loathing of the Catholic Church--which was nonetheless a fundamental theme of his work.” Worse than the lamentable sentence structure are the inaccurate generalizations. Neither communism nor Franco’s fascism played a part in these three films.

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The Franco regime didn’t “force” Bun~uel into exile. A Republican minister had asked him to assist on pro-Loyalist films that might be made in the United States. Bun~uel was working for MGM in Los Angeles when Franco marched into Madrid on March 28, 1939. He wisely decided to stay put until finally putting his roots down in Mexico.

As for “loathing” the Catholic Church, that’s too strong a word to describe Bun~uel’s ambiguous obsession with religion. That manifests itself in many ways, from the memorable “Last Supper” scene in “Viridiana” to 1969’s “The Milky Way,” the offbeat tale of martyred heretics that Bun~uel called a “journey through fanaticism.” Jean-Claude Carriere, who wrote six scripts for Bun~uel and collaborated on “My Last Sigh,” was, like Bun~uel, the product of a Catholic education. Neither of them had rebelled against the church as such, as Carriere told me in 1986. “What we didn’t like,” he said, “was the intrusion of the missionary spirit into politics, somebody who is going to teach where the truth is. We refused this not only from a Catholic point of view but from the Communist.”

It is to the discredit of his carefully researched but poorly edited book that Baxter shows as much discretion as the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy about labeling people Communist without attribution. And he has the prurience of a Kenneth Starr prosecutor in searching out the sexual attachments in the cast of characters, no matter how tangential to Bun~uel’s life. There is no appendix of footnotes. He never reveals the source for his intimate “revelations.” He’ll mention Bun~uel’s friendship with a Chinese cabaret hostess in Paris, adding “she never slept with him.” Who says? Who cares? Is there any reason to know that Luis Quintanilla’s mistress was sleeping with the financial controller at the American Embassy?

Baxter displays a tin ear for the nuances of language--as when he writes about “Las Hurdes,” the devastating documentary Bun~uel filmed in 1932 in that isolated, impoverished mountain region in western Spain. “The peasants,” Baxter notes, “many descended from bandits, smugglers and renegade Jews who had fled compulsory conversion lived in medieval conditions.” Why “renegade?”

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Baxter is insistent on what he calls Bun~uel’s lifetime commitment to communism. It’s mystifying how a writer can study Bun~uel’s life and films and still write: “Even when he discovered Communism, social conscience was never his strong suit.” What does Baxter think “social conscience” is? In “My Last Sigh,” Bun~uel asserts that he never joined the Communist Party but that he remained sympathetic “until the end of the ‘50s, when I finally had to confront my revulsion. Fanaticism of any kind has always repelled me, and Marxism was no exception.” For Bun~uel, who was greatly influenced by the Marquis de Sade and Freud, “Marxist doctrine permitted no mention of the unconscious mind or of the numerous and profound psychological forces in the individual . . . a doctrine like that leaves out at least half of the human being.”

Although educated in Jesuit schools, Bun~uel has said, “My moral sense was fortified by surrealism. Surrealism taught me that life has a moral meaning that man cannot ignore.” Baxter devotes considerable space to Bun~uel’s encounter with the surrealists, as well as his youthful friendships with Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca. He’s obviously fascinated by Lorca’s unsuccessful attempt to seduce Dali and by Dali’s affair with Paul Eluard’s wife, Gala, who later married Dali. The painter was an eccentric, egotistical opportunist who converted to Catholicism and became a supporter of Franco. His autobiography, “The Secret Life of Salvador Dali,” provided the ammunition that caused Bun~uel to lose his job at the Museum of Modern Art in New York by referring to his old friend as an atheist and communist.

Of the surrealists, Baxter writes, “Their violence and anti-clericalism, as well as their penchant for subversion, betrayal and delusion were exactly to Bun~uel’s taste.” However, the surrealists did not embrace Bun~uel until after the success of “Un Chien Andalou,” which he made with Dali. “Our only rule was very simple,” Bun~uel said. “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.” Nevertheless, no matter how many obscure images of scorpions and donkeys rotting on pianos, the film is an indictment of the hypocrisy of the church and society to stifle those possessed by passionate love--which the surrealists called l’amour fou.

Later, Bun~uel was contemptuous of the ardor with which the film was embraced by the Parisian avant-garde. “What can I do,” he wrote, “about people who are crazy for anything new, even if the novelty outrages their inmost convictions or about a venal or insincere press, or about that pack of imbeciles who found beauty or poetry in what is, in essence, nothing less than a desperate, passionate appeal to murder?”

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The excitement engendered by “Chien” was nothing compared to the furor that greeted “L’age d’Or,” which seems to have had only minimum input from Dali. Baxter vividly describes the attacks on the film by the League of Patriots and members of the anti-Semitic League, who threw ink on the screen, shouting, “We shall see if there are any Christians left in France!” Meanwhile, Bun~uel had to keep up with the controversy and the film’s banning from Hollywood, where he had received an offer to learn American filmmaking.

Although Baxter continually stresses Bun~uel’s visits to Spanish and French brothels, as well as the fetishism he portrays in his films, Bun~uel offers a discreet explanation in “My Last Sigh.” “Men of my generation,” he wrote, “particularly if they’re Spanish, suffer from a hereditary timidity where sex and women are concerned. Our sexual desire had to be seen as the product of centuries of repressive and emasculating Catholicism, whose many taboos--no sexual relations outside of marriage (not to mention within), no pictures or words that might suggest the sexual act, no matter how obliquely--have turned normal desire into something exceptionally violent. . . . With rare exceptions we Spaniards knew of only two ways to make love--in a brothel or in marriage!”

Baxter writes, “Bun~uel’s fetishism, like his fantasies of drugged and hypnotized women, was a means of displacing his taste for sexual violence. . . . Like Sade’s heroines, his female characters, often blonde, innocent, originally virginal, are dominated, seduced or raped by older protectors.” Bun~uel himself later insisted on the gap between being stimulated by Sade and acting out those fantasies. “In practice,” he wrote, “I am neither a sadist nor a masochist. I am only these things in theory.”

Although Bun~uel rarely mentions his French wife Jeanne in the memoir, Carriere attests that they had a long and happy marriage, but not without a certain cost to Jeanne. She wrote about her husband’s sometimes brutal machismo, jealousy and possessiveness in a book, “Memories of a Woman Without a Piano,” published in Spanish in 1990, seven years after Bun~uel’s death.

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But Baxter gives some tantalizing glimpses into their relationship, including an account of their first meeting at a friend’s studio in Paris. Because she was unaccompanied by a chaperon, Bun~uel thought she would be an easy conquest. When he learned she was a respectable girl, a gymnastics teacher and a pianist, he courted her respectfully until their marriage eight years later.

Whatever domestic life was like, in his later years, the atheist Spanish Catholic director found a rare friendship with another displaced person, although it’s scarcely remarked in Baxter’s book. It was with Serge Silberman, a Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who had shown a surrealistic appreciation of his own when he financed “Le Trou” in 1960, Jacques Becker’s surreal prison escape film that Bun~uel admired. Sharing Bun~uel’s taste for black comedy, Silberman became the producer of the 1960s and ‘70s films “Diary of a Chambermaid,” “The Milky Way,” “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” “The Phantom of Liberty” and “That Obscure Object of Desire.”

Silberman was very proud of the fact that he was responsible for bringing the first Bun~uel film, “The Diary of a Chambermaid,” to a commercial theater, rather than an art house. He was still sad about the loss of his best friend when I met him in Tokyo in 1985, where he had rescued Kurosawa’s “Ran” after the financing fell through. He recalled his advice to Bun~uel, “I told him, ‘You never have to put a picture in a ghetto. I know ghettos. I hate them.” People said that Bun~uel’s pictures are intellectual. Nobody understands them. But I say his movies are told simply. Everybody can understand them. Like poetry is simple.”

For an epitaph it would be hard to surpass Baxter’s choice of Stephane Audran’s tribute. The star of “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” said, “His vision of human beings was . . . amused. Like God, watching us doing crazy things but with love.”

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