Movies: Buñuel, a Surrealist Masterpiece

We miss our late, great artists even more during trying times. With so many people quoting "Baby, It's Cold Outside," who wouldn't like to have Ella Fitzgerald around to sing it live once again? Those looking for a smart laugh at the expense of the geniuses who steered us into the economic ditch might like to have cinematic wit Luis Buñuel back from the dead. And in a way, we do. The Criterion Collection has just given two of his long-unavailable films new life on DVD, and they couldn't have come at a better time. The more essential work, "The Exterminating Angel" (1962), is downright prescient. After a night at the opera, well-heeled guests arrive at a lavish estate in good humor, but, by way of a surrealist curse, find themselves unable to leave the living room, despite the open door and their increasing hunger and desperation. Outside the estate, servants cannot bring themselves to rescue their social betters—for a week. In one uproarious scene, a doctor who steps in to stop a fight over water is told, "We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!" It's hard not to watch and think about the months of often petulant-sounding debate over the economic crisis, with the rich and powerful on one side (congressmen, Wall Street CEOs) and the working folks (everyone in Detroit) on the other—while no one gets anything done. (Article continued below...)

In some ways, it's not surprising that a movie from the '60s manages to deftly satirize our current problems. Mary Ann Caws, a professor of French literature at the City University of New York, notes that surrealism's popularity took off after the Great Depression. "There's a world feeling about crisis that seems to impregnate surrealist excitement," she says—when reality turns ugly, an esthetic escape can be a beautiful thing. The style hasn't gone out of fashion, Caws believes, in part because surrealism "works well in politics, but also beyond it." Proof of the movement's intellectual staying power is demonstrated by the diversity of artists who embraced surrealism over time. Several coupled their disdain for the bourgeoisie with communist politics, but a later wave of writers in Stalin's Russia also used the style to provoke the Politburo. Russian translator Richard Pevear points to Daniel Kharms and Nikolai Zablotsky, whose surrealist writing contradicted the "socialist realism" preferred by Stalin. "Zablotsky went to the labor camps, and Kharms was eventually shot," Pevear tells NEWSWEEK. "Their surrealism cost them more dearly than the French version cost its adherents."

Despite offending many a censor, Buñuel enjoyed one of the movement's longer careers. He was cinema's founding surrealist—collaborating with Dalí in the 1920s—and also won a best foreign-film Oscar in 1972. His influence on directors such as Hitchcock and Cronenberg is hard to miss. While surrealism is now often blended with genre conventions such as horror and noir, Buñuel offers both a purer and lighter touch. If David Lynch's dream-driven menace hits like heavy metal in films like "Lost Highway," then Buñuel's style is more like a Thelonious Monk piano solo: untroubled and elegant while swinging from oddity to oddity. Toward the end of "Angel," for example, the guests are finally released by providence from their imaginary prison, only to be trapped again, this time in the church where they convene to offer prayers and heavenly thanks for their freedom.

Despite such droll wit, "Angel" remained out of proper circulation for 40 years. The Eurocentrism of haute cinema culture likely played some role, as almost all of Buñuel's Mexican films have struggled to find their way to DVD. Buñuel is also to blame. In his autobiography, the director derided much of his Spanish-language output when comparing it with the films he made in France, where he enjoyed bigger budgets and total freedom. Those films—such as "Belle de Jour," featuring the iconically sexy Catherine Deneuve—got the deluxe DVD treatment a decade ago. But the late works can carry an air of too much comfort about them—great artists aren't always at their best when they're contented. Though Buñuel complained he had trouble finding Mexican linen elegant enough to dress the mansion in "Angel," the prospect of poverty at the film's margins makes the characters' madness more convincing. Now the Criterion remaster gives Buñuel's film the crisp punch it deserves. Surrealist jokes, like all humor, depend on their timing, and so perhaps this one was worth the wait. If things get any weirder out there, it could well wind up being 2009's most indispensable film.