Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The forgotten ones: the gradual emergence of Buñuel's Mexican films on DVD

It’s long frustrated me that Luis Buñuel, one of history’s greatest filmmakers, is often considered so solely on the basis of his spectacularly scandalous early shorts Un chien andalou (1929) and L’Âge d’or (30) and late-career European co-productions like Belle de jour (67) and the Oscar-wining The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (72). The vast bulk of Buñuel’s filmography is actually comprised of films made in Mexico between these periods, but, due to a number of issues –distribution, rights, the absence of international stars, the stylistic range and of the material, and, one suspects, a dismissive attitude toward the Mexican film industry– most of these films have failed to reach their rightful audience.

The uniformed consensus on Buñuel’s Mexican films usually insists that, often produced quickly, often melodramas, and sometimes employing Buñuel more as a gun for hire than canonized auteur, they’re compromised works ill-representative of the director’s mischievous disposition and Surrealist roots. Such assumptions ring false for several reasons, not the least being that melodrama is in fact a genre highly conducive to exercising Surrealist philosophy. The period has its lesser titles to be sure, but it’s nonetheless a body of work characterized by invention, provocation, sensuality and economy.

The good news is that in recent months these films have started cropping up on DVD shelves, including two very different titles paired together by Lionsgate in a set imaginatively titled Luis Buñuel 2-Disc Collector’s Edition.

Gran Casino (47), his first Mexican film, admittedly comes closest to being “Luis light”: frivolous, generic, with few traces of anything especially “Buñuelian.” Yet it’s entertaining and far from without interest, concerning a couple of likeable charros who venture to Tampico to find lucrative work in the oil fields. They find more than they bargained for after befriending an Argentine oilman who represents the last holdout in a region otherwise monopolized by a German-owned company using any means necessary to eliminate competition.

The film lucidly evokes its rowdy, anarchic setting, dominated by elitist corruption and riggers eager to relinquish their earnings in the local casino with its luscious female entertainers. The plot features murder, masquerade and plenty of music, and while Buñuel’s contributions are largely workmanlike, he does enhance the proceedings with his distinctive attention to objects –a face reflected in an ice bucket, a stick dragged suggestively through crude oil in the midst of an otherwise tepid love scene– as well as to Mercedes Barba’s impressive thighs jiggling beneath a curtain of sheer fabric in her initial dance number.

More deeply satisfying, The Young One (60), an English-language, US/Mexico co-production, is an unfaithful, utterly inspired adaptation of Peter Matthiessen’s story ‘Travelin Man,’ a chamber piece set on an island off the Carolina coast, a fecund locale that serves as a confluence of contentious attitudes toward race, sexuality and identification. It begins with black clarinetist Traver (Bernie Hamilton) arriving alone and desperate in a small boat. Cries of rape jarringly explode over the soundtrack just before we’re treated to an exhilarating series of jump cuts that flashback to the events that brought Traver to his current state. This is followed by the introduction of Miller (Zachary Scott) the island’s white gamekeeper, seen killing a rabbit, who, like Traver’s boat, will enjoy the distinction of actually being shot up twice before the film’s through.

Death and transformation abound in The Young One: animals are hunted and consumed, an old man expires, and the pubescent Evalyn (the remarkably unguarded Key Meersman), at least in the eyes of Miller, her guardian, goes from being a girl to a woman. Amidst these transitional states, the story’s central irony is writ large: while the charismatic Traver must run from lynch-hungry whites happy to assume he’s guilty of a rape he probably didn’t commit, a forced sexual relationship erupts between the middle-aged Miller and the disarmingly innocent Evalyn.

All the signifiers of socially conscientious middlebrow pap are in place –one can imagine the material resting cozily in the hands of say, Stanley Kramer. But Buñuel, who developed the script with Hugo Butler, creates something far more complicated and full of juice. The Young One implicates the viewer fully into the process of Evalyn’s loss of sexual innocence, playfully juxtaposing the trappings of her ostensible newfound adulthood with her girlish manners, as in her final scene that finds her hopping childishly along a boardwalk in oversized heels.
Likewise, the film constantly draws overt parallels between the two men, even while exposing the grotesque aspects of Miller. And in the memorable last scenes, it is in fact Miller who undergoes the greatest, strangest changes. The whole process is conveyed through elegant, fluid camerawork by Gabriel Figueroa and Buñuel’s compelling habit of lingering on images of people at work, of food and, of course, of Evalyn’s legs, which he neither grossly fetishizes nor denies their immaculate beauty.

Lionsgate’s release is in some ways rather clumsy –the two discs are mislabeled, the songs have no subtitles– but the transfers look great, the audio commentaries accompanying both films have their distinct merits, and above all they got the material back on the market in a very affordable package.

No comments: