The Exterminating Angel: My Life As An Entomologist, Or Bugs Are My Business

Nov 28, 2008

Talking to a casting director in Los Angeles about a film we were going to make together, I suggested having two actors—sisters, though that didn’t matter—play one role. My casting friend didn’t get it, reminding me that we could offer a part to only one actor at a time.

“No, I mean they should both play it,” I tried to explain, “like the two women playing one part in That Obscure Object of Desire.

“What obscure object of desire?”

“You know, the Buñuel film.”

“Buñuel?”

This isn’t an illustration of the especial ignorance of Hollywood people. The scene could have occurred in New York or London or Hong Kong (though not in Madrid or Mexico City—maybe?). Films made in black and white, films made in languages other than English, struggle to survive the rigors of time, memory, and new formats. It’s very important that certain filmmakers aren’t allowed to slip through the cattle grid of history and disappear. Buñuel is one of these.

The Exterminating Angel was the film that introduced me to Buñuel’s work. I saw it on the BBC one Friday evening, in a series called World Cinema. It was the late sixties or very early seventies, some years after the film had been released, so I was around fourteen or fifteen.

The film was considered a bit strange and risqué, even though it was by a well-known filmmaker, in black and white. There was some kind of warning in the Radio Times, explaining that the same scene—of guests appearing at the Nobile house—happened twice, that there was a bear, and not to be alarmed.

Now this sounded pretty interesting. So I watched it, barely noticed the double arrival, or the bear, and was entirely hooked. Like Nobile’s dinner guests and butler, I’d entered a house I couldn’t leave. The name of that house is surrealism. I remain trapped in it still. Even though I’d seen surrealist stuff before—Dalí and de Chirico prints were ubiquitous even then—I’d looked at it as “art”: a picture in a book or hanging on a wall. The Exterminating Angel was something else. It existed; it surrounded you. It begins as a standard narrative film—a good, solid comedy of manners about the upper middle class, or minor aristocracy, like something Jean Renoir might have made. But as the film progresses, it begins to deviate. Prolonged scenes of denial—no one can leave, no one can say why—are followed by scenes of terror, societal breakdown, defecation, death. Animals get involved. The wider social and political context is addressed: the terror and immobility that afflict the Nobiles and their guests also infect their neighbors, the media, the military, and the entire city.

No one can cross the invisible barrier! Well, someone can, in fact. Anyone can. But nobody does. There is much meaning here, on multiple levels, about who we civilized creatures are, what kinds of traps we’re in, and how fiercely we fight to defend them.

An enormous welter of insoluble problems is on display in The Exterminating Angel. The ending solves nothing; the story just begins again. The monster from the id remains, crashing around, destroying things, calling for death and barbecues. Amazing stuff for a ninety-minute film.

I sought out other films by this director. Buñuel was still alive and making ’em—Tristana was the latest. I saw The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Phantom of Liberty and That Obscure Object of Desire in the cinema. Film societies (remember those?) could always count on a good turnout for a double bill of Un chien andalou and L’âge d’or. His recent French films made me laugh—but these two, made in collaboration with Dalí, left me agog and agape.

How many student films were recut after the young director watched L’âge d’or or another Buñuel picture? Not enough! But mine were. When I became a professional filmmaker, I still tried to make surrealist films. But it was harder when a corporate nonperson was paying the bills. I had to explain things: Why was there a deranged person dragging a garbage can through Repo Man? Why were there helicopters and cigarette lighters in Walker? “Is this a dream sequence or not?”

To deflect the questions, I would make up stories, mundane, bullshit explanations for inexplicable things. Buñuel held his ground. He said, “People always want an explanation of everything. It is the consequence of centuries of bourgeois education. And for everything for which they cannot find an explanation, they resort in the last instance to God. But what is the use of that? Eventually they have to explain God!”

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Buñuel devoted his career to provoking people, and refusing to explain whatever he did that provoked them so. His first two films are still unsurpassed for their nerve, their willingness to give offence, their unstructured and instinctive genius. After making them, needless to say, Buñuel the filmmaker had to be suppressed. Kicked out of Spain for being a communist (he wasn’t), he was blacklisted in Hollywood for being a communist (he wasn’t), and lost his job at the Museum of Modern Art when his old friend Dalí, now a fascist, said he was a communist (he wasn’t).

Yet Buñuel persisted (as all true filmmakers must—what else is there for them to do?), and after fourteen years without directing, he moved to Mexico City and began again. His Mexican career is overshadowed by Los olvidados. But there is much more to it.

When I lived in Mexico City, I encountered Buñuel’s other Mexican films, and was astounded. I felt like I had fallen into a nest of near Exterminating Angels—Mexican melodramas through which Buñuel’s surrealist imagination weaved like a drunken laser beam. There are twenty of these films, including an angst-ridden Wuthering Heights and a version of Robinson Crusoe. The best are those in which surrealism and madness float nearest to the surface: The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, El, and, above all, The Exterminating Angel.

The Exterminating Angel is, I think, the high point of Buñuel’s career. For innovative brilliance and the sheer count-’em! number of surrealist elements, it is his most dense and original work since L’âge d’or. Later films like Diary of a Chambermaid and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie are both surreal and funny, but they are not frightening, as this one is. He made it after his foray back to Spain with Viridiana, for Mexican producer Gustavo Alatriste (who had also helped produce Viridiana and was married to Silvia Pinal, that film’s star and featured in The Exterminating Angel). Alatriste gave Buñuel total artistic freedom with The Exterminating Angel. When he saw the finished film, Alatriste said, “I don’t understand a thing in it. It’s marvelous.” And he was right.

exterminating angel frame grab

Part of the awe-inspiring, terror-inducing aspect of the film comes from its extraordinary black-and-white photography. The cameraman was Gabriel Figueroa, who had shot most of Buñuel’s great Mexican pictures. Figueroa was the most revered, and probably the best, of all Mexican cinematographers. He worked in Mexico and Hollywood, for John Ford and John Huston and “El Indio” Fernández. The guy was so chill, Marilyn Monroe came to visit him on the set of The Exterminating Angel! Monroe asked Figueroa why it was so cramped. While Buñuel waited, Figueroa told her the story of the film.

So. Under such auspicious circumstances, with actors he admired, a benevolent producer, some of the finest technicians in the world, and an on-set visit from a goddess, it’s only appropriate that Buñuel should be unhappy. Any director would have been the same, for it is important that we suffer throughout the creative process. Since everything significant was in place, Buñuel fixated on the small things. The Exterminating Angel was on a tight budget, like all Mexican movies; Mexican cinema often has an expensive look, without being expensive. But Buñuel took great exception to the failure of the art department to come up with more than one dainty linen napkin for the dinner party sequence. Every time there’s a close-up of a dinner guest with a fancy serviette, it’s that same one. The prop guy kept moving it around between setups. “Time for your close-up? Here’s the napkin.”

Buñuel, the consummate surrealist and anarchist in many other respects, never forgot the napkin incident, nor ceased to complain about it. When he explained his move from Mexico to France (at least to make films; he continued to live in Mexico City), Buñuel often brought up the subject of the overused napkin. When people congratulated him on his masterwork The Exterminating Angel, a vision of that napkin, all alone, hung in the air. That bastard, Alatriste! Why couldn’t he buy a few more?

Such is the romance of filmmaking.

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