More on Bunuel

So, I'm sitting at home last week, watching the Cardinals finish off a sweep of the Brewers with a getaway day game victory (the Cardinals don't seem to want to go away, but I suspect the manhandling they took from the Cubs this weekend may damper their ardor a little bit), and between innings I start running the dial. You can usually tell just how bored I am by whether I click on the favorite channels all the way through or if I start with New York 1 and go station by station -- we have well over a hundred, so it takes about fifteen minutes to establish that there is nothing on -- but this time, since all I was doing was avoiding some idiot trying to get me to come to St. Louis to buy a car, I didn't expect to be seriously distracted for long.

Except that I clicked onto Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie in a handsome, letterboxed print on one of the Showtime channels (if I remember correctly) and within seconds I was hooked. Hey, what would you rather do, watch a brilliant assault on our "civilized" values or wonder at the collapse of the Brew Crew? In fact, it was only about 30 minutes into the film and, if you have never seen it -- shame, shame -- it's not exactly a linear narrative anyway. Don Luis would probably find it amusing to see me jump into the middle of his movie and immediately start swimming, so to speak.

And while I was watching it, I was struck by something that doesn't get mentioned nearly often enough when critics write on Bunuel: the film is damned funny. Jean-Claude Carriere and Bunuel put together a relentlessly hilarious script that bounces its benighted protagonists from one nightmarish dilemma to another, all of them punctuated by interrupted meals Ior as we say in Hebraio-Latin, nosherei interruptus). Some of the humor is elevated and sophisticated, but the funniest moments are pitched at a level of the Three Stooges; I'm thinking of the look on Fernando Rey's face when the terrorists who have broken into yet another dinner party find him under the table, reaching for a slice of ham.

That set me to thinking about what I had written last week about Bunuel's seeming neglect by critics' poll voters. Now I am not about to say that it's some kind of perverse enactment of middlebrow snob appeal; Bunuel's pedigree as a serious artist is too distinguished for that. Indeed, I'm not sure there is any relationship at all between his comedy and the state of his reputation. Hell, I'm not even convinced that his absence from ten-best lists has anything to do with his reputation, which I suspect is still pretty bright. I just think it's interesting to try and see Don Luis in the context of low slapstick comedy as much as we think of him as the last and probably greatest of the Surrealists. And I don't think Carriere is the source of the film's humor, or at least not the sole source. There are hilarious moments in just about every Bunuel film while Carriere, who is certainly a gifted screenwriter, has a rather more uneven output.

As the credit crawl was rolling -- and you must watch the crawl in Discreet Charm or, rather, listen to its canny orchestration of sound effects -- I was reminded of something the late Richard Roud told me during an interview around the time the film was released. In his later years, Bunuel was increasingly deaf. Very, very deaf, apparently. But he told Roud on several occasions that his only real ambition as a filmmaker was to win an Oscar for the sound effects on his films. Sure enough, there was the credit: Sound Effects -- Luis Bunuel. One more dark joke by a master, made all the funnier by the care with which the soundtrack of the film was put together.

I wonder just how deaf he really was.

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