Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Exterminating Angel..revisited

This strange and fascinating movie has been fermenting in my mind for a month since I first saw it. My second view was certainly enjoyable (specially to have a better look at the cinematography at the expense of the subtitles), for all the extra illumination it may or may not have provided. The first essay is here. But this is a movie of substance and charisma which has to be savored many a time.

This is a film by an exiled spaniard, a film about Spain filmed in Mexico, Bunuel's adopted country. Spain (I'm not referring to the land of football which it is now) is the land of Dali (a friend of Bunuel, as was Lorca), Picasso, El Greco (whose "View from Toledo" is third from bottom among the pictures down the side-bar). It's the land of Cervantes, of the Inquisition, of the clash and confluence of Christianity and Islam. The opening and closing sequences depict ancient domed churches which resemble mosques, used by the director as symbolic of our manifold prisons.

More important than the meaning or interpretation (interpretation beggars), since Bunuel is an artist first, with traces of a saint, and a philosopher hardly, is to have an ear for the resonances. It is certainly not a comedy, as some critics have called it, with sheep willingly butchered, a crowd being sprayed with gunfire like insecticide, and people dying without dignity in the course of a prolonged party turning into nightmare. Of course, Bunuel is too good to lapse into pompous solemnity, and the compassionate, unsentimental and objective observation of human behaviour, or a slice of it, is with an effortless lightness of brush, an abandonment which only an artist completely confident of his powers can afford. How much can be done with so little!

To describe the bird-like antics of the camera, as it explores and scans the intimacies of the claustrophobic space in which the main drama is enacted, now from afar, now from close, now overhead, or gazing upward at the ceiling and chandeliers, would require more cinematographic vocabulary than I can summon. At different times, the gathering takes on aspects of a witches conclave, a hump of refugees, a steamy bordello, a primeval jungle. The stink starts to rise as civilization sinks and entropy surfaces. There is death, desolation, grief, carnality, hunger, fear, hate.

But that which redeems is also there. The men folk wait their turn for the water. There are voices of sanity to be heard even as the mob is about to take over. The host contemptuously offers his life when demanded. As the bard says, our lives are "of a mingled yarn, good and ill together".

As the sheep troop towards the slaughter, the organ soars, the cathedral is again closed. The sheep are different, as is the party and guests, but the"sorry scheme of things entire" changes not, not so easily, not for bloody revolution.


Seongyong Cho said...

Still haven't watched Criterion DVD yet. My situation is pretty much like "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie". Whenever the time comes near, then something I think I have to watch appears and I go into it and miss the chance to watch the movie.

David said...

"Exterminating Angel" left me cold and rather joyless. I had a hard time getting through it. This is a complete contrast to "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" which I loved. Perhaps it is because one is absurd and fun, while the other has a morbid tone underlying it.

S. M. Rana said...

@Seongyong Cho
LOL. Very appropriate example.
How was your visit to Chicago and your encounter with Mr. Ebert?

S. M. Rana said...

I seem to have had the opposite feeling--quite fascinated by Exterminating Angel and lukewarm towards Discrete Charms.