Salvador Dalí. Portrait of Luis Buñuel. 1924. Oil on canvas. 70 x 60 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain
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The founder of surrealist cinema, Luis Buñuel enjoyed a career as diverse and contradictory as his films: he was a master of both silent and sound cinema, of documentaries as well as features; his greatest work was produced in the two decades after his 60th year, a time when most directors have either retired or gone into decline; and although frequently characterized as a surrealist, many of his films were dramas and farces in the realist or neo-realist mode. Yet despite all the innovations and permutations of his work, Buñuel remained suprisingly consistent and limited in the targets of his social satire: the Catholic Church, bourgeois culture, and Fascism. As he once commented, "Religious education and surrealism have marked me for life." Buñuel described his childhood in Calanda, a village in the Spanish province of Aragon, as having "slipped by in an almost medieval atmosphere." Between the ages of six and fifteen he attended Jesuit school, where a strict educational program, unchanged since the 18th century, instilled in him a lifelong rebellion against religion. In 1917 Buñuel enrolled in the University of Madrid and soon became involved in the political and literary peñas, or clubs, that met in the city's cafes. His friends included several of Spain's future great artists and writers, including Salvador Dali, Federico García Lorca and Rafael Albertini. Within a few years the avant-garde movement had reached the peñas and spawned its Spanish variants, creacionismo and ultraísmo. Although influenced by these, Buñuel was often critical of the Spanish avant-garde for its allegiance to traditional forms.
In 1925 Buñuel left Madrid for Paris, with no clear idea of what he would do. When he saw Fritz Lang's Destiny (1921), however, he realized where his vocation lay. He approached the renowned French director, Jean Epstein, who hired him as an assistant. Buñuel began to learn the techniques of filmmaking but was fired when he refused to work with Epstein's own mentor, Abel Gance, whose films he did not like. In a prophetic statement, Epstein warned Buñuel about his "surrealistic tendencies." In 1928, with financial support from his mother, Buñuel collaborated with Dali on Un Chien Andalou , a "surrealist weapon" designed to shock the bourgeois as well as criticize the avant-garde. As in his earlier book of poems, Un Perro Andaluz, Buñuel rejected the avant-garde's emphasis on form, or camera "tricks," over content. Instead, his influences were commercial neo-realism, horror films and American comedies. Buñuel's three early films established him as a master of surrealist cinema, whose goal was to treat all human experience-dreams, madness or "normal" waking states-on the same level. The critical success of L'Age D'Or (1930), secured Buñuel a contract with MGM, which he turned down after a visit to Hollywood in 1930.
His next film, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1932) was a documentary financed with money won in a lottery and shot with a camera borrowed from Yves Allégret. Ostensibly an objective study of a remote, impoverished region in western Spain, the film constituted such a militant critique of both church and state that it was banned in Spain. The stage had been set, however, for Buñuel's later work, in which realism - with its pre-established mass appeal - provided an accessible context for his surreal aesthetic and moral code. After Las Hurdes , Buñuel would not direct another film until 1947. Although still critical of commercial cinema, he spent the next 14 years within the industry, learning all aspects of film production. From 1933 to 1935 he dubbed dialogue for Paramount in Paris and then Warner Bros. in Spain; between 1935 and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 he produced popular musical comedies in Spain; during the Civil War he served the Republican government, compiling newsreel material into a documentary about the war, Espana Leal en Armas (1937). In 1938, while he was in Hollywood supervising two other documentaries, the Fascists assumed power at home. Unable to return to Spain, Buñuel went to work for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, reediting and dubbing documentaries for distribution in Latin America. He was forced to resign in 1942, however, because of his suspected communist background - a suspicion which he later claimed had been aroused by Dali. In order to survive, Buñuel narrated documentaries for the Army Corps of Engineers until 1944, when Warner Bros. hired him to produce Spanish versions of their films.
In 1946 Buñuel moved to Mexico, where many of Spain's intellectuals and artists had emigrated after the Civil War. He would live there for the rest of his life, becoming a citizen in 1949 and directing 20 films by 1964. This period is often described as an "apprenticeship" in which Buñuel was forced to shoot low-budget commercial films in between a handful of surreal "classics." Indeed, Buñuel's supposed indifference to style - his minimal use of non-diegetic music, close-ups or camera movement-is often judged to be largely the result of the limited resources available to him. Yet his Mexican films can more accurately be seen as a refinement of the unobstrusive aesthetic style that had been evident since Un Chien Andalou . As Buñuel himself insisted, "I never made a single scene that compromised my convictions or my personal morality." Buñuel's third Mexican film, Los Olvidados (1950), brought him to international attention once again. Although hailed as a surrealist film, it owes much to postwar neorealism in its unsentimental depiction of Mexico's slum children. As in his other Mexican films before Nazarin (1958), dream sequences and surreal images are introduced at strategic moments into an otherwise realist narrative. (Contributing to the relative neglect of these films has been their unavailability outside Mexico, and perhaps their proletarian and "ethnic" focus.) In 1955 Buñuel began to direct international (and more openly political) co-productions in Europe. In 1961 he was invited to Spain to film Viridiana . The completed film was a direct assault on Spanish Catholicism and Fascism and was banned by its unwitting patron; a succès de scandale, it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and secured long overdue international acclaim for its director. After Viridiana , Buñuel worked mostly in France. The growth of his new international (and consequently educated and middle-class) audience coincided with his return to a surrealist aesthetic. The Exterminating Angel (1962), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974) depict a bourgeoisie trapped within their own conventions, if not-in the latter film's metaphorical conceit-their own homes. Belle De Jour (1967), Tristana (1970) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) explore sexual obsessions and preoccupations. And The Milky Way (1970) launches a frontal assault on the Church, in a summation of Buñuel's lifelong contempt for that institution. In 1980 Buñuel collaborated with Jean-Claude Carrière, his screenwriter since Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), on his autobiography, My Last Sigh .