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Poet of Light

BUN~UEL.\o7 By John Baxter (Carroll & Graf: 324 pp., $24)\f7

April 26, 1998|JUDY STONE | Judy Stone, a former film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of "Eye on the World: Conversations With International Filmmakers."

In 1953, in a magnificent speech on poetry and the cinema, Luis Bun~uel declared: "The white eye of the screen need only reflect the light that is properly its own to blow up the universe. In the hands of a free spirit, the cinema is a magnificent and dangerous weapon."

It was a weapon the great Spanish director wielded with mischievous and mysterious humor. He deserves a biography worthy of his stature. His 1983 autobiographical memoir, "My Last Sigh," is delightful, filled with typically sly, iconoclastic observations. Still, much more remained to be explored on the path that took Bun~uel from the eyeball-slashing surrealist of "Un Chien Andalou" in 1929 to "Los Olvidados" in 1950, in which he revealed the brutal existence of Mexican slum children; and from "Los Olvidados" to his masterpieces, "Viridiana" in 1961, which outfoxed Franco's censors, and "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" in 1972, the deadpan portrait of an urbane heroin-smuggling ambassador (Fernando Rey) and his on-again, off-again dining companions.

John Baxter, the Paris-based Australian biographer of Fellini, Kubrick, Ford, Russell and Spielberg, has produced the first definitive and engrossing--albeit flawed--biography of that reclusive director. However, the wary reader may well be forewarned by the errors and distortions on the first two pages. Hastily summarizing Bun~uel's life and career, Baxter notes that he had "enjoyed orgies with Charlie Chaplin." (His own text doesn't support that titillating tidbit of what was one droll abortive encounter.)

After referring to the commercial musicals and comedies Bun~uel churned out for a few years in Mexico, Baxter writes: "The occasional personal [Mexican] film--'El,' 'The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz,' 'Nazarin'--aired the obsessions that drove him: communism, sexual fetishism, hatred of the Franco regime that had forced him into exile in 1936 and his equal loathing of the Catholic Church--which was nonetheless a fundamental theme of his work." Worse than the lamentable sentence structure are the inaccurate generalizations. Neither communism nor Franco's fascism played a part in these three films.

The Franco regime didn't "force" Bun~uel into exile. A Republican minister had asked him to assist on pro-Loyalist films that might be made in the United States. Bun~uel was working for MGM in Los Angeles when Franco marched into Madrid on March 28, 1939. He wisely decided to stay put until finally putting his roots down in Mexico.

As for "loathing" the Catholic Church, that's too strong a word to describe Bun~uel's ambiguous obsession with religion. That manifests itself in many ways, from the memorable "Last Supper" scene in "Viridiana" to 1969's "The Milky Way," the offbeat tale of martyred heretics that Bun~uel called a "journey through fanaticism." Jean-Claude Carriere, who wrote six scripts for Bun~uel and collaborated on "My Last Sigh," was, like Bun~uel, the product of a Catholic education. Neither of them had rebelled against the church as such, as Carriere told me in 1986. "What we didn't like," he said, "was the intrusion of the missionary spirit into politics, somebody who is going to teach where the truth is. We refused this not only from a Catholic point of view but from the Communist."

It is to the discredit of his carefully researched but poorly edited book that Baxter shows as much discretion as the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy about labeling people Communist without attribution. And he has the prurience of a Kenneth Starr prosecutor in searching out the sexual attachments in the cast of characters, no matter how tangential to Bun~uel's life. There is no appendix of footnotes. He never reveals the source for his intimate "revelations." He'll mention Bun~uel's friendship with a Chinese cabaret hostess in Paris, adding "she never slept with him." Who says? Who cares? Is there any reason to know that Luis Quintanilla's mistress was sleeping with the financial controller at the American Embassy?

Baxter displays a tin ear for the nuances of language--as when he writes about "Las Hurdes," the devastating documentary Bun~uel filmed in 1932 in that isolated, impoverished mountain region in western Spain. "The peasants," Baxter notes, "many descended from bandits, smugglers and renegade Jews who had fled compulsory conversion lived in medieval conditions." Why "renegade?"

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