Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Monday, January 7, 2013

Bunuel's Golden Years: Why the Exception Proves Tarantino's Adage on Aging

On a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion, Quentin Tarantino stated that he planned to retire from filmmaking before he lost his mojo. Most directors—or artists, in general, for that matter—start to decline around the age of sixty, he reasoned, so why not go out on top. Too often are the earlier great works of formerly brilliant filmmakers retroactively devalued once the Depends-clad old-timers start churning out inferior work. Now, as Tarantino himself admitted, as with any adage, you can always find exceptions; but a few brilliant AARP-member directors do not negate the rule: when you’re young you’ve got it, but then the world changes what it is, and now what’s it seems weird and scary to you and you’ve got no time for it; you’ll stick with the it you know and...and where’s the pudding? They promised pudding. Please face my chair toward the sun.

So why is it that artists decline? There are a multitude of reasons, and I think an exception to Tarantino’s rule of declining talent is illustrative of the dilemma facing the doomed-to-irrelevancy aging artist. Luis Bunuel has long been one of my favorite directors; and perhaps the greatest reason for my admiration is that not only did he never decline, he in fact got better with age, helming his best work after the age of sixty. Indeed, the string of eleven films he directed from The Young One (at the age of 60) to his final picture That Obscure Object of Desire (at the age of 77) ranks as one of the greatest winning streaks by any filmmaker. To understand why Bunuel was able to maintain an artistic erection well into his golden years, an understanding of his previous work is in order.

In 1929, at the age of 29, Bunuel—along with collaborator Salvador Dali—made a bold statement of artistic purpose with his debut Un Chien Andalou. Indeed, few other debuts have been as audacious, as groundbreaking as this silent short. A surrealist socialist atheist, Bunuel wanted to upend all Bourgeois notions of plot, sentimentality, and meaning. As his rule while filming stated: “No idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.” And though his wasn’t the first surrealist experiment in filmmaking, it was certainly the loudest; Bunuel made a mark. Unfortunately, after only two more shorts (L’Age d’Or and Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan), Bunuel got sidetracked by the Spanish Civil War. He remained in Spain for most of the war, but when the Fascists came to power Bunuel fled to America in search of work. What he got was bupkis. So, he went to Mexico to cool his heels for a while.

(I should note, in advance, that I have only seen a fraction of Bunuel’s Mexican output; but the few I’ve seen (Susana, A Woman Without Love) are rather unremarkable—at least compared to his later output.)

In 1947, Bunuel directed Gran Casino his first film in a decade and a half, and a commercial flop. The rusty director then went back to polishing his skills as a gun-for-hire on numerous Mexican Melodramas. Sure, he was able to add some surrealist touches to these pictures, but there was no denying that his was not the definitive voice on these movies. That is not to say that Bunuel churned out nothing but crap while exiled in Mexico. Indeed, I would rank Los Olvidados among his best pictures. Of course, as opposed to the majority of his Mexican work-for-hire films, Bunuel was a granted a degree of freedom with this picture. But despite occasional freedom, Bunuel was clearly operating at a disadvantage in Mexico.

It wasn’t until he branched out, getting international funding, that Bunuel was able to work on pet projects. And then the floodgates burst. Bunuel had been artistically edging for decades, and when he was finally able to direct his passion projects, he spent the next seventeen years cuming on art-house audiences. And given that he spent the previous ten or so years churning out Mexican studio pictures, he was able to burnish his filmmaking skills to a brilliant sheen. It was the best of both worlds: he advanced as a filmmaker without wasting the practice years on his personal stuff. By the time he was able to tell his stories, he had the chops to do so in the most accomplished manner possible.

Which brings me to one of the biggest reason artists decline: they run out of shit to say. No matter how insightful, how fresh, how novel an artist when he bursts onto the scene, eventually he starts to repeat himself. We, the audience, begin to anticipate his next moves. Bunuel, restrained for so long, was only really able to let loose his fuck-the-system artistic/political sensibilities in the sixties, an era that happily coincided with the ascendancy of these values in new-wave filmmaking. So, not only did his work not bear the mark of past-his-prime sensibilities/old age repeatism, it was remarkably au courant. The world caught up to Bunuel. (Of course, none of Bunuel’s later output ever matched the artistic punch in the nuts that was his debut, but once you’ve made a movie that opens with eyeball-slicing, you’re only setting yourself up for decline.)

But, all that being said, I still can’t understand why Tarantino, or any artist, would want to quit at 60. I can’t understand how anyone artistically inclined could just say, “Alright, that’s enough art for me. I’ll just sit on the porch and whittle some.” Granted, I’m not a filmmaker (though I’d sure as hell like to be), but I love to write. And yeah, I don’t doubt that as I get older I’ll continue on my path toward obsolescence; I’ll continue to lose touch with the sensibilities of the generations that follow me; I’ll continue to act as a voice for no one other than myself; but I’ll never lose the urge to write. It’s the fucking reason I’m giddy every night before going to bed: I know I’ll be able to write the next morning. I don’t care if I’m reduced to crayon scribbling during my pamper years; there’s no way in fuck I’m giving this up.

3 comments: said...

I don't really see the quitting while I am on top as an artist thing. As you mentioned if perhaps you have nothing left to say it would be a good time to stop.
Otherwise it's not as if your an athlete and you can't run or jump anymore. As long as the mind is sharp there is no reason to go out like Hemingway.

John said...

I love this article. Great job, Dave. It's one of my favorite movie-related articles I've read in quite some time.

It's funny how Bunuel almost went in reverse. He started out doing things, visually, that nobody else was doing, and used that as his bully pulpit for surrealism.

And then at the end of his life, when the technology was there to really do something crazy visually (thanks to his own work, actually)... he went straight conceptual for his surrealism.

You really nailed it about his Mexican period. It's not awful- stuff like Los Olvidados is still really great and edgy- but it's absolutely a forced departure from what he clearly wanted to do.

Dave Enkosky said...

Glad you liked the post. This was one of my favorite to write. Perhaps it's because I'm such a Bunuel obsessive, but this one just flowed out of me.