A non-narrative, quaintly shocking exploration of unconscious desires, from the odd to the perverse, triggered a riot, was banned by the police and did not premiere in US theaters until 1979. The aristocratic producer risked excommunication for his endorsement of depravity. “An exhilarating, irrational masterpiece of censor-baiting chutzpah.” (BBC)
Surrealism has its roots in a cultural and artistic movement called Dada, in which diverse artists shared a desire to subvert dominant culture through various artistic means, poems, performance, music, collage, visual art and film. Andre Breton published his surrealist manifesto in 1924, he wanted to use the unconscious in the creation of art. The surrealists wrote accounts of their dreams, took part in séances and played “the exquisite corpse” (in which each person contributed a word or image to a composition without seeing what the others have provided) as a way of loosening the unconscious and liberating repressed desires and fantasies. They were quick to perceive that the cinema, in itself inducing a kind of dream-like state, was the ultimate surrealist toolbox.
“All surrealists are convinced the cinema should disturb, not reassure. It should bring attention to a disquieting aspect of life, rather than to its familiar face. More, it must accept responsibility for challenging the validity of the real, in the interest of uncovering the surreal. Hence terror strikes the surrealist as one of the emotions most apt to release responses it is the province of the cinema to elicit” (Matthews 28).
“Surrealism is everything for everyone to discover. Jean Cocteau once remarked that all films are surreal…that the passing of illuminated images across the screen was for him a surreal experience, an experience that took him beyond his conscious mind. Any film can do this” (Gould 12). “Surrealism is a mind game, one that has influenced the entire history of Twentieth century art and thought” (Gould 12)
Luis Buñuel was born February 22, 1900, the oldest of seven children, in Calanda, a small village of 3,000 in northeastern Spain near Goya’s birthplace, where “The Middle Ages lasted until World War I” (Lane). He lost his faith as a teenager, after attending Jesuit College, but was obsessed with the rituals of the Church. Until he left for the University of Madrid, he had not been acquainted with modern society, and the metropolis came as a shock. His father refused to let him study music, so he pursued engineering. Discouraged by the necessary math, he became a student of a famous entomologist, and his passion for insect life is visible in many of his films. Most importantly, he made remarkable friendships in the student residence, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the painter Salvador Dali. “And, in the way of such things, with the anticlerical scorn that a Jesuit education can inspire the prime, healthy Luis was thinking about sex and was torn between what he saw as the bourgeois choices of marriage, whoring or masturbation when he discovered the orgy possible in dreaming” (Thomson). The trio loved the movies, especially the deadpan comic juxtapositions of Buster Keaton. Buñuel once introduced a program of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Ben Turpin at a Madrid theater. “ Surrealism in the cinema is to be found only in these films. Much more genuine surrealism than in the films of Man Ray” (Baxter 83)
In 1929, Buñuel asked Dali to collaborate with him on a surrealist film. Buñuel was depressed over his likely future of overseeing the family property back home. He convinced his mother to give him the equivalent of the dowry his sisters were promised, and he took the sum to invest in a film. He and Dali free associated a scenario into existence with relative ease, they were in perfect creative harmony. The film was shot in fifteen days, and ran seventeen minutes. Although it never made any money, its great value was enhancing the reputation of its makers. Neither of the filmmakers were part of the “official” surrealist movement, until André Breton and saw—and adored—Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog). The Surrealists began as a literary movement, but infighting over politics had depleted the ranks. Breton saw a change for fresh ideas, as well as an investment in a new direction that was more visual than verbal. It was championed by the aristocratic supporters of much of the surrealist cadre, Vicount Charles and Marie Laure de Noailles. They were France’s most prominent patrons of the art and had paid for a film by Man Ray. But, they thought that Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou was quite a bit better, and they wished to be associated with their next project. The directors were rather annoyed at how well their film had fared. It was supposed to be subversive, so how could it be popular?
Their next film was intended to be as shocking as possible and Dali and Buñuel were so in accordance that the original name was Un Bête Andalou (An Andalusian Beast) a direct sequel to their first provocation. Dali wrote in 1942, “they ‘would plunge right into the heart of witty, elegant, and intellectualized Paris with all the weight of an Iberian dagger.’ Put more sensibly, Dali claimed that this express purpose had been achieved; the film premiere, as the critic Eugene Montez wrote, was ‘A date in the history of cinema, a date marked with blood’ and Dali commented, ‘Our film ruined in a single evening ten years of pseudo-intellectual post war advance guardism’” (Tyler 62).
Dali then fell madly in love with Gala, he wife of artist Paul Eulard. She was his first love, and he became obsessed with her. They would eventually marry, and remained so until her death. His energy for collaboration with Buñuel flagged a bit in light of his new passion. Charles de Noailles offered Buñuel a million francs to make a new film. This second film would be considerably more Buñuel than Dali. The subject was one that would obsess Buñuel throughout his career, “the obstacles which religion, as well as society, oppose to the attainment of love” (Baxter 96).
Dali (who immediately after being admitted to the official Surrealist ranks, began proclaiming “I am Surrealism”) always claimed credit for both of their film collaborations. “Since that date” he wrote, “Buñuel has worked alone and produced other movies, thereby rendering me the inestimable service of revealing to the public who was responsible for the genius, and who for the elementary aspects” (Baxter 96). Using Dali’s notes, it seems they did collaborate on the scenario. They created many vignettes on paper, many of which were unfilmable, violent and sexual. But, by the time filming began, it was Buñuel who was the guiding spirit. The title The Golden Age was suggested by Marie Laure de Noailles, who thought that she and Buñuel were part of one.
Many of the crew for L’Age D’Or had worked on the earlier film and friends had small parts, including the painter Max Ernst, who is the leader of the bandits. The leading man was a café friend, Gaston Modot, who would continue his acting career in such major films as La Régle du Jeu and Les Enfants du Paradis. The leading lady was also an amateur, who took the name, Lya Lys. The interiors were shot in a Paris studio, and then the unit went to the Spanish coast to shoot exteriors, where they had to explain to the border guards why they had cartons of religious vestments and human skeletons.
Buñel cut the film to his chosen score and had some of the dialogue dubbed. This was one of the earliest sound films to emerge from France. There were private screenings, which created a buzz. The Noailles hired a theater and showed the film to an audience of 300, that included Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Yves Tanguy, Brancusi, Darius Milhaud, Giacometti, Lipschitz, Tzara, Auric, Gide, Duchamp, Georges Simeon, Vladimir Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, Fernand Leger, André Malraux, André Breton, Paul Eulard, and Dali and Gala. Imagine! It's like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. But, the reaction was mixed, and there were rumblings that the film’s anti-clericalism would be a problem and that there would soon be a big to-do.
The film opened accompanied by a lavish 24 page program with a gold cover. Inside, were essays signed by leading surrealists, if written only by Bréton and Eulard. Through the end of 1930, it ran in theaters to somewhat mystified audiences, but by December, it had become the object of right wing attacks. Anti-Semites attacked it, because it was made by foreign, if not Jewish artists, and it was clearly anti-Catholic. Demonstrators caused a riot, heaving stink bombs, attacking the audience and vandalizing the theater, and canvases by Dali, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miro and Tanguy which were displayed in the lobby. The newspaper Figaro said, “our country, the family, and religion are here trailed in the mud” (Baxter 118). The film was banned, the prints were seized, and the Vicount de Noailles was disgraced, forced to resign from his elite club, the Jockey, and there were rumors that only his mother, calling in some favors, managed to keep him from being excommunicated from the church. There would be no more indulging his surrealist inclinations. André Breton was thrilled. He had wanted Buñuel and Dali to bring more notoriety to the Surrealists, and they succeeded, brilliantly.
“Over the next days and weeks there was not a newspaper or periodical in Paris that failed to review, comment on, attack or praise L’Age D’Or which, if Un Chien Andalou had first brought the names of Buñuel and Dali to the attention of the French capital, now catapulted them to fame” (Gibson 327).
Parker Tyler wrote in 1962, “Displaced sexual impulses reign supreme: the parody of the Catholic custom of kissing the toe of St. Peter’s statue in faraway Rome is as distinct as photography can make it, and the bepainted female kisser’s state is as uncriminal as St. Peter’s façade; a man’s parallel act of drawing a woman’s fingers into his mouth drives the ambiguous point home with Dali’s sacred Iberian dagger. These films survive with an astonishing austerity, registered by actions swept clean of nice domesticity, proper street behavior and plausibility” (Tyler 63)
Buñuel missed the furor, as he was in Hollywood! MGM, the most glamorous of studios, wanted to hire Lya Lys, as a possible 2nd string Garbo or Dietrich, and, of course her director/mentor would have to be invited, too, as they were surely having an affair. MGM thought he might be useful directing or translating the Spanish language versions of their hit films, which they made in early talkie days, before dubbing or subtitling became standard. He was sent to observe filming, and no one was more surprised than when he became interested in the way MGM made films, which was quite a bit different than the technique he had employed in his surrealist works. He also enjoyed Hollywood’s sexual freedom, where, the wisecrack went, “You can only do two things: lie on the sand and look at the stars, or lie on the stars and look at the sand” (Baxter 116). By the end of 1930, MGM was discontinuing its foreign language division, and Buñuel was anxious to return to France where L’Age D’Or had become such a scandal.
The surrealists enjoyed going from movie theater to movie theater, weaving the sections of the films they randomly viewed into one narrative, much like channel surfing. The first section, interpolated from a 1915 nature film about scorpions may hint that Scorpio is the sign of the zodiac concerned with the sexual organs, and the last section may hint that Jesus has some involvement in the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Marie-Laure de Noailles was a descendant of the Marquis and an expert on that particular book, one of the most banned and reviled in Europe. In between, is a couple who wish to make love, but whose attempts are constantly disrupted by church and state. L’Age D’Or is a film about frustration, perhaps only the frustration of the audience to make a coherent narrative out of it, something that was never intended.
Bunuel used cinema as “a mode of inquiry into the nature of the surreal”(Matthews 90). Leaving his early films completely open to interpretation leaves it open to misinterpretation as well, a risk the surrealists accepted.
By the time of L’Age D’Or, the surrealists had begun a serious artistic struggle against oppressive social forces. One writer described two factions in the film “the lovers and the others. By the very structure of rotting society, they cannot but find themselves face to face, and society, outraged and terrified by love, will set in motion all its poison-spilling machines; government officials, priests, families, fine words, police, members of high society” (Kyrou, quoted in Matthews 94).
Some of the visual jokes are almost incomprehensible without a lot of arcane knowledge, as when the heroine finds a cow (vache) in her bed…the slang word for policeman in French at the time was also vache.
“In a nutshell, the surrealists saw that film was not just theater or literature carried on by industrial means. No, what was precious about it was the overwhelming yet, impossible, if not ridiculous reality it boasted: you thought you were seeing real life, but what you were seeing had no body or breath; it was a dream” (Thomson).
Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or are “about the underground life we love, secret things, and, of course, sex. Not sexual intercourse. Rather, the way in which everything is about sex, or a metaphor for sex. They are still liberating experiences in that they will leave you asking how, if they could do this in 1928 and 1930, are there so many miles of bland realistic drama on film?” (Thomson).
The resulting riots were deeply gratifying. The film was banned after less than a week of public exhibition. Henry Miller wrote, "L’Age D’Or is the only film I know of which reveals the possibilities of the cinema! It makes its appeal neither to the intellect nor to the heart: it strikes at the solar plexus. It is like kicking a mad dog in the guts. And though it was a valiant kick in the guts, and well aimed, it was not enough!" (Gale 94). At one screening of the movie Buñuel announced, “What I want is for you NOT to like the film, to protest. I would be sorry if it pleased you” (Lane).
A Macedonian translation of this webpage by Web Geek Science may be found at: http://webhostinggeeks.com/science/reviewpages-moviediva-mk. This is a moviediva first! Many thanks.
Sources include: Surrealism and Film by J.H. Matthews, Surrealism and the Cinema by Michael Gould, Buñuel by John Baxter, Classics of the Foreign Film: A Pictorial Treasury by Parker Tyler. “Luis Buñuel: In Dreams Begin Liberation” by David Thomson, 2/20/2000 NY Times, “In Your Dreams: The World Through the Eyes of Luis Buñuel” by Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, December 18,2000, The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali by Ian Gibson, Dali & Film edited by Matthew Gale.