Frankly delighted with human folly, and as fluent as a Symbolist poet with the effortlessly iconic image, Luis Buñuel may have been the greatest filmmaker of cinema’s first century. Certainly, among the ten or 12 unassailable masters of the medium, he’s the wittiest, the least sentimental, the most philosophically imaginative and formally the least self-conscious. At the same time, I’d imagine that many cinephiles on, say, the south side of 30 will wonder what the fuss is about — where are the pyrotechnics, the daring rigor, the innovations, the elevation away from avant-gardish pulp and toward high art? Let’s say this: that Buñuel is among the very few cinema giants you couldn’t in your wildest dreams accuse of pretension (Renoir, Ozu and Bresson are the other three), that Buñuel’s sense of irreverence remains a Swiftian glory of a kind too rarely acknowledged as “art,” and that Bunuel’s surgeon-like evaluation of his audience’s desires and impulses is rivaled only by Hitchcock.
But when it comes down to it, you cannot, I think, authentically appreciate Buñuel without becoming a Buñuelian, without naturalizing to the Doppler shift of his embracing, sardonic perspective. There’s little point in comparing Buñuel’s films to other filmmakers’; you could make the case that, for instance, his “Diary of a Chambermaid” is superior, and funnier, in conventional ways than Renoir’s earlier version, but you’d still be standing outside Buñuelonia, looking in from a practical distance. This is the true meaning of auteurism: confronting the filmmaker’s work as it exists on its own plane, as the undissectable expression of a single artist’s personal force, as we would a Stevens poem or a Pollock painting. Artists, even if they’re film directors, aren’t race horses. If we’re lucky, they manage what Buñuel did: the imposition of their personal spirit onto a medium, creating a singular “vision” or context to which you must adapt, because it will not adapt to you.
We do this because there’s pleasure to be had across that border, the uncut, essential pleasure of art, and of cinema when it’s not made by committee. The Buñuels at hand from Criterion, “The Exterminating Angel” (1962) and “Simon of the Desert” (1965), are beautiful, hilarious, prime Buñuel, on the last legs of his underrated and underexamined Mexico period, before he finally moved to France and became world famous all over again. “Angel” is the less problematic of the two; its outrageous dream scenario (guests to an elaborate dinner party inexplicably cannot leave the dining room, for days and then weeks) is easily accessible and loaded with semi-Surrealist satire. But “Simon” is a different case — if it’s no less a masterpiece, that’s because we know the man behind the camera a little, and we’ve learned from him a distinctive sense of the absurd. The parable-like set-up — for a Spanish filmmaker in Mexico, waist-deep his whole life in medieval Catholicism — is choice: in a mythical Mexican outland, a self-styled ascetic “saint” (Buñuel staple and Mexican institution Claudio Brook) lives atop an enormous pillar in order to demonstrate his selflessness and devotion to God. (The pillar, an “advance” on a more modest one, is provided by an unseen “benefactor” — sanctification is a business, too.)
Unfortunately for Simon, the local peasants and clergy won’t leave him be; recognizing his holiness, they demand sacraments, and with each confrontation, Simon’s piety becomes a little more testy. The crowning moment of duplicity from Señor “I’m an atheist, thank God” Buñuel is the moment when Simon actually performs a miracle, restoring a thief’s severed hands — the newly blessed man and his family instantly, greedily turn on their heels and go home without a glimpse of gratitude or awe, having gotten what they wanted. (Still, the most rancid slams are reserved for the priests, who see their own power base jeopardized by the hapless schmuck on the pillar.) Eventually, of course, the Devil shows up, in the form of luscious Silvia Pinal, to tempt Simon, landing him eventually in a contemporary nightclub, where his brand of monastic dedication has no meaning whatsoever. (Contrary to various readings of this scene — Pauline Kael griped that the pop-boogie decadence is not actually terribly sinful — it’s clear that Buñuel saw rock ‘n’ roll youth culture as a joyous escape from old-world conservatism. The cocktail-&-sex-loving Luis was, after all, no reactionary.) “Simon” is, famously, an unfinished film, clocking in at 45 minutes, the victim of an empty-pocketed producer. But however mitigated by circumstance, as a launch out of Buñuel’s humane-but-acid-soaked brainpan it is life-invigorating, surpassingly lovely (the last Buñuel piece photographed by Gabriel Figueroa) and invaluable. For those of us who have been initiated, undiluted Buñuel morsels are worth their weight in caviar.