Thursday, June 11, 2009

Themes of Subversion in Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados and Subida al Cielo

When discussing his film El (1953) in an interview with Cahiers du cinéma film critic André Bazin, filmmaker Luis Buñuel describes his way of approaching film in his Mexican period: "I was offered a film, and instead of accepting something completely ordinary I tried to make a counter offer - something which, though it's still commercial, looks more propitious for expressing some of the things that interest me."[1] But while this kind of offer/counter-offer scenario might sound like something of a negotiation, it was anything but that in the traditional sense. In fact, working within the Mexican film industry of the 1950's was more of a limitation which, "thanks to his creative genius and transgressive disposition, Buñuel, managed to evade to a large degree" and in doing so, giving Mexican cinema some of its greater masterpieces while leaving the mark of his creative vision in all of his assigned films[2]. But what are these limitations and how did Buñuel manage to "evade" them? If one is to make a parallel with film industries of more oppressive regimes, one can envision several ways of "evading" their limitations. Buñuel was in no way the kind of militaristic film maker that would attempt a kind "guerilla" approach to film making as might be suggested by Solanas and Getino, especially since it would not be another decade at least until the concept of Third Cinema emerges as a way of making cinema outside the system. Instead of cinema outside the system, Buñuel chooses to work within the system, producing the kind of content that is required of him from the commercial film industry while finding ways to subvert the message from within[3].

By observing two of his early Mexican-era films, Los Olvidados (1950) and Subida al cielo (1952), I intend to show that Buñuel manages to deliver rhetoric which questions and subverts both established notions of culture and identity in classical Mexican cinema as well as emerging socioeconomic changes during the Valdés regime and its aftermath. While Los Olvidados is far from a film that would be considered approaching classical 50's Mexican cinema, its success at the 1951 Cannes Festival and its addition to the UNESCO World Heritage List[4] render it not only an important film in Buñuel's Mexican filmography but also one that would introduce many of the concepts present throughout his more (seemingly) conformist films that were to follow. Subida al cielo, while taking the form of a light-hearted comedy on the surface, continues and expands many of the subjects introduced in Los Olvidados while elaborating on many of the notions touched by thereof and presenting them in a format that was familiar and inviting to the average film-goer.

To begin, let us explore some of the themes of classical 50's Mexican cinema and their subversion in Buñuel's films. The fact that Los Olvidados was initially to be "the worst kind of melodrama" in Buñuel's words, but was given a more serious tone by producer Óscar Dancigers in an attempt to reduce risk and make it more acceptable by audiences[5] can only be seen as ironic, as the film was considered an "insult to Mexican sensibilities"[6] upon its release in Mexico and initially only managed to stay in cinemas for six days[7]. Moreover, Olvidados does not resort to the "official folklore or national symbols propagated by the classical Mexican cinema", which, According to Buñuel, were a product of political manipulation and a bourgeois aberration[8]. Instead, it "challenges the viability of using the romantic aestheticism or sentimental naturalism of classical Mexican cinema"[9].

Specifically, the scene of Jaibo's death is a good example of Buñuel's refusal to romanticize or sentimentalize the scene[10]. We are neither "allowed" to feel compassion for Jaibo as he remembers his mother's voice with the image of the dog superimposed on his face, nor does Buñuel resort to dramatic excess, instead promptly cutting to a shot of Meche and the blind man carrying Pedro's concealed body on a donkey.

But while in Los Olvidados Buñuel directly counters the classical Mexican cinema aesthetic, in Subida al cielo he instead uses this very aesthetic to subvert it. By showing us that the social function of popular comedy in Mexican cinema has the presumption that comedy represents, speaks for or mirrors the experience of the working class, Buñuel's film essentially subverts this very function[11]. Further, by addressing "Mexican issues" without the "sentimental pathos of classic Mexican comedy" and exposing classical Mexican comedy's simplification of those issues[12], Buñuel makes a comment about a mode representation by using this very mode of representation to make it.

The other themes that Subida al cielo references and eventually subverts are the themes of family and morals. While the dying matriarch and young wife await Oliverio's prompt return home, Buñuel is more than anything else interested in the brief love affair in the bus, and is so little interested in the wife that she remains "a sketchy, pallid figure"[13]. The fact that earlier in the film Raquel offers Oliverio an apple[14] which creates the parallel with the Biblical Eve, the snake and the original sin only serves to make this sin so much worse. The fact that his sin goes unpunished (he is eventually reunited with his wife and goes on with married life), calls into question not only the sanctity of marriage and Oliverio's (and by extension the film's) morals, but more broadly the validity of religious doctrine in general - a subject that wouldn't normally come up in classical Mexican cinema, much less in a comedy.

In both Subida al cielo and more directly in Olvidados, Buñuel addresses his "express dislike for official folklore, for the image of Mexico dictated by the visual style of classical cinema and revolutionary art and the social and political transition to modernization"[15]. Subida al cielo presents some of the economic, cultural and political problems of the decade with the "lens of tradition versus modernity … folkloric rituals and the demagoguery of politicians"[16]. In particular the scene in Subida al cielo where the bus is stuck in the lake and the tractor (modernity) fails to rescue it, instead being saved by a more traditional pair of oxen[17] sends a clear message as to the (in)efficiency of modernity and continued validity of tradition. According to Acevedo-Muñoz, this was a comment on the impracticality of some of [Miguel Alemán Valdés'] policies, on the stubborn strength of popular tradition and on the superficiality of the Mexican cinema's own cultural conventions[18].

Later in Subida al cielo, the encounter of the two politicians and their shaking hands in public[19] mocks the apparent lack of difference between them (in the film physically, but figuratively in terms of politics), as well as the aforementioned demagogy, as both (immoderately) offer the honesty and integrity of Mexican democracy but no real choices to the public[20].

In turn, Los Olvidados, referencing capitalist modernization's attempt to obliterate abject poverty in Mexico during the 1940's and 1950's, exposes the uneven development of this modernization, its uneven devolution into ruins and makes us think how modernity coexists with abject poverty[21]. In effect Buñuel himself deems the film as "a film of social struggle"[22] a fact that is in line with his association with Juan de la Cabada, writer on both Subida al cielo and La ilusión viaja en tranvía (1954) and part of the group LEAR (League of Revolutionary Writers and Artists), whom participated at the Second International Congress of Anti-fascist Writers in 1937 in Madrid and Valencia[23]. Gutiérrez-Albilla even goes as far as to make the connection between Los Olvidados and New Latin American Cinema / Third Cinema, citing "the portrayal of the lives of street children as a political strategy to denounce social injustice" which serves as a revisionist approach to the revolutionary mythology propagated by the melodramatic films of the Golden Age of classical Mexican cinema[24]. While it is an interesting idea, Buñuel's Los Olvidados is hardly the type of militaristic cine-activism that was advocated by Solanas and Getino in their Towards a Third Cinema manifesto.

Despite this, some insist on ascribing political or philosophical meanings to Los Olvidados. Octavio Paz's "El Poeta Buñuel", distributed during the 1951 Cannes festival, uses Los Olvidados to prescribe a cure for what he perceived as the two ills of progressive Mexican intellectuals of the time: nationalism and socialist realism[25]. Gutiérrez-Albilla on the other hand, applying psychoanalysis and quoting Lacan, seeks to find a meaning beyond "a mere concern with a documentation of socio-political realities of late 1940's and early 1950's Mexico" in Olvidados and proposes that the film is a self-reflexive discourse about cinematic representation and perception[26].

Buñuel however, claims that he had "absolutely no wish to make a film that stated a particular case"[27]. Regardless of the validity of the various readings, Buñuel has never been at his happiest with intellectual argument or ideas which have to be explained[28] but even though his work was initially seen as something foreign and anti-Mexican, it eventually proved to be in close communication with Mexican cultural activity[29]. Ultimately however, Buñuel himself explains his motivations and his work (in Olvidados but more broadly in the rest of his Mexican films) in the most direct and the most "Buñuelian" way he can: "I have observed things that moved me, which I wanted to transfer to the screen - but, always, with the kind of love I bear for the instinctive and irrational. I've always been attracted by the unknown or strange side of things, which fascinates me without me knowing why"[30].

. . . . . .

[1] Bazin, 1955, 181

[2] Fuentes, 2004, 92

[3] Ibid., 94

[4] Fuentes, 2004, 91

[5] Ibáñez & Palacio, 2003, 59-60

[6] Acevedo-Muñoz, 2003, 57

[7] Fuentes, 2004, 92

[8] Acevedo-Muñoz, 2003, 66

[9] Gutiérrez-Albilla, 2007, 351

[10] Buñuel, 1950. [1'18'30"]

[11] Acevedo-Muñoz, 2003, 123

[12] Ibid., 123

[13] Milne, 1965, 38

[14] Buñuel, 1952. [0'33'22"]

[15] Acevedo-Muñoz, 2003, 58

[16] Ibid., 123

[17] Buñuel, 1952. [0'27'13"]

[18] Acevedo-Muñoz, 2003, 119

[19] Buñuel, 1952. [1'03'13"]

[20] Connelly & Lynd, 2001, 247

[21] Gutiérrez-Albilla, 2007, 356

[22] Bazin, 1955, 183

[23] Fuentes, 2004, 93

[24] Gutiérrez-Albilla, 2007, 350

[25] Fuentes, 2004, 97

[26] Gutiérrez-Albilla, 2007, 349

[27] Bazin, 1955, 183

[28] Milne, 1965, 39

[29] Acevedo-Muñoz, 2003, 79

[30] Bazin, 1955, 183


Acevedo-Muñoz, Ernesto R. Buñuel and Mexico: the crisis of national cinema. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2003.

Bazin, Andre, and Jaques Doniol-Valcroze. "Conversation with Buñuel." Sight and Sound 24, no. 4 (Spring 1955): 181-185.

Los olvidados. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Produced by Ultramar Films. 1950.

Subida al cielo. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Produced by Producciones Isla S.A. 1952.

Connelly, Caryn, and Juliet Lynd. "Virgins, Brides and Devils in Disguise: Buñuel does Mexican Melodrama." Quarterly Review of Film and Video 18, no. 3 (2001): 235-256.

Fuentes, Víctor. "Confluences: Buñuel's Cinematic Narrative and the Latin American New Novel." Discourse (Wayne State University Press) 26, no. 1 & 2 (Winter and Spring 2004): 91-110.

Gutiérrez-Albilla, Julian Daniel. "Fictions of Reality/Documents of the Real Encounter: Mise-en-abîme and the Irruption of the Real in Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950)." Hispanic Research Journal 8, no. 4 (September 2007): 347–357.

Ibáñez, Juan Carlos, and Manuel Palacio. "Los Olvidados / The Young and the Damned." In The cinema of Latin America, by Alberto Elena and Alberto Díaz López, 53-63. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

Milne, Tom. "The Mexican Buñuel." Sight and Sound 35, no. 1 (Winter 1965/1966): 36-39.

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