Legend has it that Luis Buñuel chased partner in crime Salvador Dali off set once the painter – on sabbatical to help discover the possibility of the relatively new medium of film – had done his dirty work helping the madman director renegade against The Powers That Be with the screenplay for L’Age d’Or. Verification of the tall tale or not, the exuberance of the overstatement is appreciated in a film with a ramshackle, manic, antic enough demeanor and a will to treat subtlety as a devout enemy at the gates of its own hyperbolic, spasmodic mind. The story may be a fabrication, but the spirit of it rings true in the gloriously impulsive film the two men produced, a work that files a restraining order against the idea of restraint itself.
Certainly, if a filmmaker like Buñuel was going to kick someone off set, he wouldn’t be caught dead simply letting them go, suggesting an alternate use of their time, nicely conversing with them about creative differences, or otherwise dropping a pink slip in their food. His films have no time for restful incisions or correspondence with anyone; they are put on this earth to destroy, to obliterate, to serrate. And Dali – his skills aside – may have been a little too acclimatized to the stillness of painting and the symbol-heavy doctrine of non-cinematic surrealism. These are valuable in their own way, but Buñuel, ever the adolescent, had something a little more carnal in mind.
As with any symbol-clad work, the results can whiff of premeditated pretention and too-careful planning, like a film pilfering from other objects in the world rather than constructing or imagining itself in its own terms. Buñuel’s gift, though, is to splinter the screen with almost parasitic symbols that not only exist in front of us but invade us with their placement in the screen or their volatile, frequently sudden, often free-associative existence in the film. Take the opening shots of embattled scorpions, ejaculated into the film from a more staid nature documentary and weaponized by Buñuel not only as a commentary on venomous humanity but as a statement and preface to this film’s own venomous desecration of cinematic norms and the audience’s psyche.
Astringently and with volatility, the shots of the scorpions are not treated as a cohesive block of film but individual images of crawling creatures inserted into the opening text blocks. Text being a legitimized, expected regulation of cinema at the time if ever there was one, the scorpion shots pinprick the legitimacy of the text, violating their agency and instigating chaos in not only a statement about the world and cinema – the scorpions suggesting people perpetually at war – but an embodiment of the cinematic will to destabilize. The images of the scorpions – silent cinema irises dancing around them, freeze-frames accentuating their prowling, stop-start rhythmic irregularity, both old-school techniques here turned murderously foul – are an attack on the assumption that this is your parents’ silent cinema. Within, accommodation of any kind is a word to be vilified.
Each symbol approaches like this, in disreputable shambles, almost smacking the previous ones in the face; each one functions to perforate the screen in toxic entropy that feels almost free-associative, with the flow of symbols more important – and more mischievous – than the individual symbols themselves. Rather than placing symbols into a stable narrative, relying on faux-subtlety and maturity to hide metaphors in the screen that so-called intelligent viewers can pat themselves on the back for discovering, the director ejaculates metaphors all over the screen, allowing them to hold cinema hostage as they debase any narrative or sense we might append to them.
Rather than beacons of meaning, they are weapons of pandemonium then. We expect milquetoast treats out of symbols, accentuating a film but not challenging it – we expect order – but in this film they are a full-on, full-frontal onslaught of misconduct. The symbols – the aforementioned scorpions as necrosis of bourgeois values, Jesus as an instigator of religious inquisition – rattle rather than hum, disabling our mental structures and even our ability to register them as symbols at all. At the least, L’Age d’Or bears the unmistakable insouciance of a filmmaker experimenting in a style that was not yet sedimented into edicts and norms; all that exists is the implacable drive to mess up the joint, at which Buñuel is more or less the cinematic godfather.
A cinematic anarchist’s cookbook, this is an exuberant and euphoric contraption that turns the potentially rigid dialect of surrealism into an always-fluid patois rather than a probationary period with strict dictates and decrees to be subservient to lest the film lose its club card. Symbols whirlwind around us at a cheeky, disreputable near-fever pitch, the film derailing itself in the sheer spirit of jubilance rather than falling into the chasm of recanting its mania and turning surrealism into a “rule-set” it must abide by. With the youthful indiscretion all surrealism ought to exhibit, Buñuel turns the style into an accusation against everything, even itself. Ossified symbols – which too often form the girders of surrealism and simply trade out one reality of manifest content with another reality of latent content that must be divulged or worked out – are liquefied from solid brick to viscous mortar to be played around with.
Speaking of mortar, among the most striking images in the film is that of some unholy unknown sludge of magma and fecal matter and human waste swirling around in a toxic distillery of what will become congealed construction material, with rough-hewn earth displaced and transmuted into the cornerstone of modern architecture and human civilization masquerading the murk and mire underneath. Portentous, maybe, but there’s a nasty, low-to-the-ground, ribald quality to this film – and all of the director’s works – that infringes on bourgeois values via its very refusal to debate them on their own terms. Instead, this film accepts an “out” in the gloriously low-brow world that directly refutes the puritanical airs of middlebrow society. It’s a carnal, beast-like film, rather than a monastery of hidden-away metaphors. After all, the loosely-sketched, unhinged narrative is about a couple – played by Gaston Modot and Lya Lys – who wish to negotiate their sexual impulses and find that the world, and even the film, is out to stop them.
The knife edge of tragedy and comedy lies within as Karl more or less dalliances with Graucho, Chico, and Harpo in a Marx quartet and the two protagonists’ sexual hearts at the core of the film are systemically ruptured and abused by a film that mimics, and then perverts by mimicking to the point of insanity, the infatuation with closed lips and even more closeted desires in respectable society. Screw-loose with that satisfyingly pungent comic stiletto puncturing the assumption that it’s all just psychological art for the elite, the mockery of moral panic in this film descends all the way to the core fabric of a world that sometimes seems to stop us from engaging our inner needs in ways even it cannot understand. By the conclusion, no lone person or institution is the victim, but the inebriated world itself, visualized in a film frame that tilts back and forth as if standing drunkenly on unstable ground. Rather than displacing an unfurling bedlam onto a character, a place, an object in the frame, it is the tantrum of a film itself that is ready to come crashing down.