Dear friends…it has been awhile. And I have been stuck inside a nightmare.
A party, but a nightmare all the same.
On this New Year’s Eve when so many rush to their engagements…I have thanks to give…yet it all seems so surreal.
For many of us we battle mental demons. Usually, we don’t mean demons literally. And I certainly don’t.
Yet, the world is so strange that we can’t help wondering whether there is something beyond science which is driving certain events.
These sentiments…these questions, are the stuff of El ángel exterminador. This is not a relaxing film, but it is absolutely essential.
It is a work of art which is irreplaceable in the global canon of creative thought and philosophy.
Luis Buñuel had immense courage to make this film. And yet, he was an old hand by this point.
His first film (made in collaboration with fellow-Spaniard Salvador Dalí) was 16 minutes which shook the world: Un Chien Andalou. That was 1929. The slicing of the donkey’s eyeball. Before the stock market crash. And verily, the cinematic parallel of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.
Outrageous surrealism. Think of his collaborator’s La persistència de la memòria. The same fount of Freudian cess. From the pool of the taxed mind comes melting clocks…(and in the case of Un Chien Andalou those familiar ants). We will always see Dalí as ants…as ants on James Joyce’s egg-yolk universe…Humpty Dumpty having represented the fall of man (“…sat on the wall/…had a great fall”). [Or as Joyce so singularly put it: bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!]
Luis Buñuel had the mad genius of Joyce. In 1930, he followed upon his famous 16 minutes with 60 minutes in L’Âge d’Or.
I had the privilege of knowing Buñuel by way of his first two films and (in bookend fashion) two of his last three films: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972) and Cet obscur objet du désir (1977) [his final creation].
But none of this could have prepared me for the devastating, scathing critique of Western civilization that is El ángel exterminador.
The genre known as “comedy of manners” becomes a grotesque apocalypse the hands of Buñuel. In that sense, El ángel exterminador is closest in spirit (or subject matter) to Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie.
But it is very important to note that El ángel exterminador is operating on multiple levels.
Is it a damnation of the rich? Sure.
Is it a mockery of polite culture? Of course.
But the lethargy and incapacitation we see in El ángel exterminador are the result of very mannerly people being reduced to complete inaction because routine convention has been circumvented. We see the short-circuiting of well-meaning people who do not know how to cope with change.
And on that level, this film is universal. It just so happens that the overly-precious manners of the bourgeoisie serve best the filmmaker’s purpose.
Not to disappoint the more visually-stimulated among you, but there is no swooping angel of death in this film. There is, however, a tense, suffocating masterpiece which makes Hitchcock gems like Lifeboat and even Rope look like the products of lazy philosophy in comparison.
One last thought… For those who think that the wonderfully-bizarre Alejandro Jodorowsky appeared out of nowhere, El ángel exterminador sets the record straight. Buñuel was taking aim at the impotence of religion before Jodorowsky was in short pants. In this film we see the kernel of imagery (lambs, a smashed cello, bits of debris…) which would make La montaña sagrada the beautifully freakish creation it is. Both were, incidentally, shot in Mexico.
Though Buñuel (a Spaniard) and Jodorowsky (a Chilean) came from different corners of the Spanish-speaking world, their lives would both include important time spent in Mexico and France. Jodorowsky is, in some ways, still the future. But to know the future, we must first know the past.