© William Ahearn 2006
On a warm June morning in 1968, I set out for the Museum of Modern Art to see Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s “L’Age D’Or” (1928). As a student in a New York City high school with an artsy fartsy art program I had a free pass to the museum and only had to pay a nominal fee to see the films. There had been so much talk, talk, talk about this flick that I was psyched to finally see it.
But it was not to be. Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated the day before and since he was the senator from New York State, certain institutions were closed. Perhaps it was an omen. Maybe even a curse. For decades I chased “L’Age D’Or” from one blank screen to another canceled showing to video stores who had promised it only to get a sad shake of the head from some underpaid cineaste wannbe who worked the counter and made unheeded recommendations to the great films. Some things find you and the other day at the local branch of the New York Public Library while thumbing through the stacks of DVDs and VHS tapes, “L’Age D’Or” popped into my surprised hands. It was a revelation. It was the last film that I had expected to find there although I have found some real gems. Finally, I would see the flick that had caused so much outraged ink to be spilled.
Pauline Kael, the film critic for The New Yorker, described the film as “the most scandalous of all Bunuel’s films. Surreal, dreamlike and deliberately, pornographically blasphemous.” George Orwell in an author’s note to an essay in As I Please 1943-1945 states, “according to Taxi Gatwick London Henry Miller’s account of it, it showed among other things some fairly detailed shots of a woman defecating.” An account by Henry Miller in The Cosmological Eye mentions numerous things but not anything close to what George Orwell said he said. Maybe Orwell relied on a very bad translation of the French contained in the Miller essay or read between the lines of Miller’s puritanical streak. And don’t think for a moment that he didn’t have one. There is a scene with a toilet. And something happens. But there is nobody in the room at the time.
After having read numerous reviews, criticisms and diatribes about “L’Age D’Or,” it was liberating to finally see the film at this remove and wonder what had prompted the virulent response. I now know what Pauline Kael lost at the movies. It was her mind. There is nothing even remotely pornographic about “L’Age D’Or” unless a women sucking on the stone toe of a statue (a still is reproduced above) is your idea of pornography. Even girlie postcards sold by vendors on the bridges crossing the Seine in Paris are more pornographic than anything in this film. There are religious figures in the film and considering that Bunuel and Dali are both from Spain it isn’t surprising. There is no blasphemy in the film although the church is certainly a target. It was always a target of the surrealists. As for shots of women defecating, it’s absolute nonsense.
Watching “L’Age D’Or” made me realize two things. The first is that “L’Age D’Or” is without question Bunuel’s best work. While I liked “Exterminating Angel,” I found “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” somewhat forced and “That Obscure Object of Desire” to be juvenile at best. Recently I re-saw “Belle de Jour” and didn’t find the ending ambiguous at all and it was fun but it lacked that driving sense of humor and exploration of cinema that drove “L’Age D’Or” and to a lesser extent “Un Chien Andalou” (which should be remembered as the film that made “L’Age D’Or” possible).
It would be pointless to attempt to describe this film and that is one of its strengths. If you have only read about this film then everything you know is wrong. Yes, it has scorpions, giraffes, religious figures, violins, a kicked blind man and numerous other surreal elements including the line, “yes, but you have accordions.” Because of its age it is slow in parts and some of the references are now obscure. Even so, it is hysterically funny in a sardonic way and that is a type of humor that the market researchers never had a clue about. It’s one of those few films that really need to be seen to grasp what cinema is all about.
The second thing that the film made me realize was how much I miss the Dadaists and Surrealists. Max Ernst has a small part in “L’Age D’Or” and so I spent some time on the search engines running down Max, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Rene Magritte, Jean Cocteau (I’m keeping an eye out for “Blood of the Poet”) and others and even Salvador Dali. It always struck me as funny that the Surrealists were so organized as to have a criteria for who could be in the club. They actually threw Antonin Artaud out of the Surrealist movement. How do you throw out Artaud and keep Dali? Dali has always been a problematic figure. Part genius, part huckster whore he’s the father to the bastard son who became Andy Warhol. Orwell described him as a technical master with a diseased mind or words to that effect and it’s a hard description to argue with. Orwell hated “Rainy Taxi” but I loved it when I saw it at the Dada and Surrealism show at MOMA but even so while Dali’s technical mastery is to be appreciated he has somehow managed to devalue everything he touches. Dali co-wrote “Un Chien Andalou” and “L’Age D’Or” but there is no question that these are Bunuel’s films.
Spending time with that bunch and being reminded of why I had such a desire to see “L’Age D’Or” and other films and work of that time forced me to the inevitable conclusion that with the exception of some of the so-called action painters and a few scattered individuals, artists fail to hold my attention or admiration anymore. Remember when artists mattered and did work that illuminated instead of the over-wrought or conceptualized nonsense that passes these days for art in the corporate sponsored galleries? And while watching the Bunuel film it became all too clear that the people that Bunuel ridiculed were exactly the people that young American artists now want to become. Take “L’Age D’Or” and reshoot it in the Hamptons and it’ll never be seen by anyone anywhere. It probably couldn’t even be made.
And that is why this film is important. Not as some interesting historical footnote, not as a benchmark of the cinema but as a document that remains of the time when artists weren’t dime a dozen plasticene wet-dream cast-offs squeezed out of a university degree-granting tube into a pre-fab reality such as Williamsburg to suckle at the corporate teat if only they can get their lips close enough.
Some films measure how far we’ve come and some measure how much we’ve lost.