A Book Review Essay by Jeremy Carr.
“Even today, I’ve no idea what the truth is, or what I did with it.”
– Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh
Compiling biographical information about Luis Buñuel is no easy task, and the contrived predisposition of the iconoclastic filmmaker doesn’t usually help. Fond of filling his anecdotes with half-truths, exaggerations, and blatant fabrications, Buñuel frequently left behind an arbitrary trail of labyrinthine memory. In theory, the recollections of others should help solidify some of the more fluid details, and indeed, this does seem to be the founding concept behind Max Aub’s Conversations with Buñuel: Interviews with the Filmmaker, Family Members, Friends and Collaborators (McFarland, 2017). Containing nearly forty interviews with assorted individuals pertinent to various stages of Buñuel’s life – those involved in his creative endeavors and/or personal experiences – as well as a 101-page conversation with the director himself, this text is a multifaceted portrait of a singular artist, but it is a portrait that still raises many questions, even as it supplies fascinating answers.
Conducted and compiled by novelist/playwright/critic Aub in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the work was originally published in 1985. This updated collection, translated and edited by Julie Jones, professor emerita at the University of New Orleans, has also been expanded with additional interviews, a detailed index, and notes that, according to publisher McFarland, “contextualize the conversations and acknowledge the discoveries of recent studies on Buñuel.” Sure enough, it takes some context to even get Conversations with Buñuel underway. Following Jones’ translator’s introduction is Aub’s personal prologue, and a foreword to the 1985 edition by Federico Álvarez, Aub’s son-in-law. These introductory comments mostly concern the copious material assembled by Aub – equipped with a cassette recorder, he amassed 5,000 transcribed pages of interviews – and the daunting process of what to do next – Aub passed away 22 July 1972, leaving “copious hand-written folios and a healthy assortment of ephemera related to his subject” (2).
Enter Professor Jones, who writes in her introduction, “The many different visions of Buñuel provided not only by his friends and relations but also by the filmmaker himself made him a particularly elusive subject, and Aub finally decided that instead of trying to reconcile these different impressions, he would include them all – or almost all – ‘not so the reader could choose between them, but to present them all as true, which indeed they are in some sense’’ (1). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of reliability, but it does establish the factual malleability of most every conversation in the anthology. In his own prefatory statement, Aub readily acknowledges the Buñuel inclination to stretch the truth, at one point referring to his focus as a “fictional character” (7). But Aub is supposedly at an advantage. According to Jones, Aub had known Buñuel since first meeting him in Paris in 1925, and from there, the two friends and collaborators worked together at the embassy of the Spanish Republic and both settled in Mexico. Buñuel was therefore “hard put to deceive Aub, who knew him and his circumstances in ways that few interviewers could claim” (1).
Be that as it may, Jones also notes Buñuel’s almost gleeful tendency to embellish and deny, stating he, “was notorious for feeding the press – and indeed everyone else – versions of his life that were often fanciful, especially regarding any subject he considered touchy” (1). With this devious notoriety in mind, it’s hard to imagine Buñuel was always forthright, even with so discerning an investigator as Aub. In fact, Álvarez’s forward teases the dubious nature of some of the content in Conversations with Buñuel, at least as far as the conversations with friends, family, and collaborators. Álvarez writes that he heard Aub say he would let Buñuel read everything before the completed book went to press, so as to circumvent “careless or unfounded comments that might inflict harm” (14). But when Álvarez went to Buñuel about some of the potential issues, the latter assured him, “Put everything in. Don’t worry. If somebody says I was in love with my mother, let it stay. If somebody says I’m homosexual, let it stay. Put in everything, everything” (14).
And that’s basically where things stand. Conversations with Buñuel: Interviews with the Filmmaker, Family Members, Friends and Collaborators is a sweeping collection of stories and details, some of which may be accurate, some of which may not; but all are alive with diverse voices evoking unique points in Buñuel’s life and career, and describing their respective involvement. In doing so, most everyone speaks with great compassion, fondness, and admiration (save for, notably, Salvador Dalí). Although Aub tells Buñuel the proposed book is not to be strictly about him, but about their generation – including wars and revolutions, as well as cultural and artistic developments – in his direct engagement with Buñuel, and in the numerous conversations that follow, Aub spends considerable time attempting to pin down biographical, background certainties. He covers everything from Buñuel’s family history (with substantial focus on Buñuel’s father and his shadowy time spent in Cuba), to young Luis’ education, his recurring love of firearms and alcohol (hopefully not together), and his preoccupation with death. Some of what Buñuel leaves undeveloped or imprecise (the family’s wealth, where he was and when, who he associated with, etc.), is partially fulfilled later by his siblings, children, and even an ex-girlfriend, all of whom open up to Aub. Though she has some difficulty remembering specific details (willfully or not – perhaps a trick she learned from her husband), Buñuel’s wife, Jeanne Rucar Buñuel, offers one of the more personal, touching revelations of the book. Discussing Buñuel’s reluctance to talk to her about his working methods and ideas, she muses, “I was his pet, the little girl he kept apart from the rest of his life, hidden away. He never talked to me – not even now – about politics. He never talks to me about anything. We talk about the house, about the children, and that’s it” (158).
Further pieces of Buñuelian miscellanea are repeatedly mentioned, by Buñuel himself or those with first-hand knowledge. This includes his self-confessed capacity for violence as a young man, his initial exposure to jazz, and his fondly-recalled penchant for dressing up, as a ghost, for example, or – one of his favorite costumes – a priest. On that last note, and not surprisingly to anyone familiar with Buñuel’s best work or some of his most famous declarations (“Thank God I’m an atheist!”), the topic of religion arises with regularity. These discussions extend from Buñuel’s sacred doubt as a teen, his Jesuit influence, and his early religious obsessions. He is also more than willing to acknowledge the contradictory nature of his atheism, drawing a parallel between his own temperament and that of Fernando Rey’s similarly skeptical Don Lope in Tristana (1970): “Yes, I am don Lope … It’s become my story. Very liberal, very anti-clerical at the beginning and then, in old age, sitting at a cozy table, drinking hot chocolate – and what chocolate! – with three priests. And outside, the snow keeps coming down” (104). Family members also question his ambivalent commitment to such militant disbelief, which some see as both disheartening and confounding. Several point to the recurrent Christian iconography in his work as evidence itself of a wavering incredulity, while others, like brother Leonardo, argue Buñuel’s atheism is largely a façade: “He does it all to fool everybody, especially to fool his sisters” (119).
Inevitably, these conversations also turn to the surrealism so central to Buñuel’s art and life. As Aub tells Buñuel, a movement like surrealism, “which was based on irreality, could, not just appear and disappear, but have a continuous persistent effect” (17), and that it did for Buñuel, who adamantly defends his surrealist credentials and declares that when it comes poetry, literature, and painting (and presumably film), it’s still the only genre he likes. (As far as other artistic inspirations, Buñuel profusely praises the Marquis de Sade, even as he downplays the role of artistic inspiration in his life, stating at one point, “I’m not interested in art, but in people” .) The talk of surrealism turns to the touchy topic of Dalí, who collaborated with Bunuel on Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930) and later had a fierce falling out with the director over certain political and religious matters. Buñuel is quick to diminish Dali’s role in his early film work, stating, “The only thing he did [on Un Chien Andalou] was put the donkeys on the pianos and the tar around their eyes. In L’Age d’Or, he didn’t do anything” (35).
Conversations with Buñuel is a dense, extensive assembly, with multiple participants. Yet despite this range, there is a condensed amount of talk directly related to Buñuel’s cinematic achievements. He briefly mentions, but quickly glosses over, his acting debut in Jacques Feyder’s Carmen (1926) and though he credits Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921) as the film that made him want to be a director – “It convinced me that film could be a form of art” (36) – he also describes the movie as, “bad … But it was a film with no inter-titles” (35). There is some discussion about his ill-fated time in Hollywood, the foundation and dissolution of his MGM contract (on Irving Thalberg: “One of the most sinister people that ever came out of Hollywood – he’s the one who hounded von Stroheim, who mutilated Greed and didn’t let him finish Merry-Go-Round…” (51), and he amusingly remembers the Mexican controversy of Los olvidados (1950) and how, “its success in Europe shut everyone up” (83). But for such a prolific filmmaker, the topic of his life’s work is somewhat deficient.
Buñuel sometimes opens up about art in revealing ways, confessing, “I want to avoid being clever, or being moralistic, or, if possible, doing what’s expected, and to recognize the importance of chance” (26), but then he almost instantly contradicts himself, agreeing that violence is the fundamental theme of his art, but, in the same conversation, declaring he only sees the violence when others show it to him; otherwise, he’s not aware of it (108). Others sporadically chime in regarding Buñuel the great director, like Manuel Ángeles Ortíz, who argues that all of Buñuel’s later work, while “masterly” (161), ultimately come back to L’Age d’Or. Several interviewees happily proffer their assorted interpretations of Buñuel’s filmography (and many take an obvious pride in their authority of his oeuvre), but Gustavo Alatriste might have the best observation, pointing out Mexico’s good luck, in that, “it has the worst directors in the world and, at the same time, the best one” (213).
From the thorough one-on-one with Buñuel to the subsequent talks of varying length, the tone of Conversations with Buñuel is casual and candid, and at times, conversational to a fault. Perhaps in the name of accuracy, some discussions are transcribed verbatim, with repetitions and halts for clarification (Buñuel was famously – strategically? – hard of hearing). Aub will admit, in interviews with more than one person, that he can’t always tell who is speaking. Bracketed portions are skipped over (often for unstated reasons), and the conversations abound in unnoted in-jokes and name drops. Aside from the segments featuring Juan Larrea and Ricardo Muñoz Suay (Larrea’s inclusion is a letter to Aub, Suay’s consists of diary entries), the dialogues are presented as an engaging, occasionally jumbled back-and forth (there is no “he said/she said” attribution, so a passage will go on without cues or reminders of who is saying what). The structure proves exceptionally comical, though, especially when it comes to Aub’s chat with Buñuel, who gets tripped up in his own misremembrances. For example, discussing Buñuel’s Communist affiliations and his attending of the Spanish Party in Paris:
[Aub] “And the group didn’t do anything?
“I don’t remember”
“How about the French Party?”
“I didn’t belong to that one either.”
“So, what [Louis Aragon] says…”
“Well, if Aragon says it…” (55)
Later, when Buñuel talks about learning to play the violin instead of the piano, partly on the basis of being able to carry it around, he says:
“I carried it around.”
“Even in Paris?”
“Not in Paris.”
He thinks for a minute
“You’re right! I’d forgotten. It’s funny. I had my violin in Paris!” (77)
As author, Aub also steps in from time to time to interject on Buñuel’s erroneous comments (and there are several), alerting the reader with phrases like “As we’ve seen, this was not actually the case,” correcting years, dates, and the people involved. Other times, Buñuel finds creative ways to escape a line of thought:
“Have you ever seen politics in my films? Never. There’s nothing political in them.”
“No, what’s important for you is that the sexual act is basically diabolical…..”
“I have no idea what the sexual act is, sir.” And he dives into the pool. (85)
If there’s one essential takeaway from Conversations with Buñuel, it’s that Luis Buñuel thoroughly enjoys his freedom and his fun. As mentioned throughout the book, his infectious sense of humor includes practical jokes and bawdy gestures, while so many of his comments suggest a sly sense of knowing far more than he lets on (like his deafness, this allows him to evade particular questions). He also revels in inflammatory comments, however truthful they may be: “I’m in favor of dictatorships,” he asserts at one point. “Whatever they say. Since man is evil … a dictatorship is the only effective way to govern. That’s why I was a Stalinist, and I still am even though all my communist friends get upset about it” (59). Or, referring to his father’s rumored interracial affairs: “I don’t believe he was the kind of person who would go to bed with black women or mulattos. You know I’m a racist (he winks), but I don’t see myself with mulatto brothers and sisters” (19). This incessant playfulness can resonate well with the Buñuel admirer, but for his family, that facetiousness could certainly make things difficult; in discussing whether Buñuel disliked the wife of his son, Juan Luis Buñuel, because of her Jewishness or American heritage, the younger Buñuel admits, “to tell the truth, I don’t know. Because he’s always joking. I don’t know what his real position is” (231).
Max Aub’s Conversations with Buñuel: Interviews with the Filmmaker, Family Members, Friends and Collaborators divulges a wealth of information, from numerous sources. Yet the subjective nature of each conversation, coupled with the caveat of a consistently inconsistent Buñuel, leaves one to nevertheless question how much is wholly accurate. Though there are irrefutable facts and figures, by the end of the book, much of it still reads as a classically Buñuelian narrative, to be taken with a grain of salt. Maybe that’s the great director’s enduring final punchline.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.