For all the critical attention (and furious critical controversy) his work occasioned over half a century, Luis Bu?uel resisted our best taxonomical efforts. To begin with, while no artist of this century strikes one as more quintessentially Spanish than Bu?uel, how can one apply the term ?Spanish filmmaker? to a man whose oeuvre is far more nearly identified with France and Mexico than with the land of his birth? By the same token, can one speak of any film as ?typical? of the man who made both L'Age d'or and Nazarin, both Los olvidados and Belle de jour, both Land Without Bread and Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie? Nonetheless, from Un Chien andalou to Cet obscur objet du d?sir, a Bu?uel film is always (albeit, as in many of the Mexican pieces of the 1940s and 1950s, only sporadically), a Bu?uel film.
Perhaps the easiest way to deal with career is to suggest that certain avatars of Luis Bu?uel may be identified at different (if sometimes slightly overlapping) historical periods. The first Luis Bu?uel is the surrealist: the man who slit eyeballs (Un Chien andalou), the man to whom blasphemy was less a matter of specific utterances and gestures than a controlling style out of which might emerge new modes of feeling and of expression (L'Age d'or), the man who documentarized the unimaginable (Land Without Bread) and finally, the man who demonstrated more clearly than any other that surrealist perspectives demanded cinematographic realism. The second Luis Bu?uel (and the saddest, and much the least identifiable, now as then) is the all-but-anonymous journeyman film professional: the collaborator, often unbilled and almost always unremarked, on Spanish films which to this day remain unknown to any but the most dogged researchers; the archivist and adapter and functionary in New York and Hollywood; the long-term absentee from the world's attention. The third is the Mexican director, the man who achieved a few works that at the time attracted varying degrees of notice outside the sphere of Latin American commercial distribution (Los olvidados, ?l, Archibaldo de la Cruz, Robinson Crusoe) but also of others that at the time attracted no notice at all. The fourth is the Luis Bu?uel who gradually made his way back to Europe by way of a few French films made in alternation with films in Mexico; and who then, with Viridiana, returned to appall, and so to reclaim, his native land; and who thenceforth, and no matter where or under what conditions he operated, persuasively reasserted himself as a figure of unmistakable moment in world cinema. The last Luis Bu?uel, following his emergence in the mid-1960s, was the past master, at once awesome and beloved, as serene in his command of his medium as he was cheerfully intrepid in his pursuit of whatever of value might be mined from the depths of the previously unexplored.
Each of the Bu?uels of the preceding catalogue, except for the obscure and essentially uncreative second one, is manifest, or at least implicit, in the others. Even in his Mexican work, which included some otherwise less than exalted assignments (and Bu?uel himself, unlike certain of his more indiscriminate adulators, was perfectly willing to acknowledge that much of his Mexican work was shoddy or aborted or simply dull), the scion of surrealism showed his hand. There are several astonishing dream sequences, of course: the vision of slabs of raw meat hanging from the racks of a Mexico City streetcar (La ilusi?n viaja en tranv?a ), the incongruous verticality of the skeletal skyscrapers rising from the Mexico City slums (Los olvidados ), and the necrophiliac ragings at the end of the Bu?uel version of Wuthering Heights (Abismos de pasi?n). At the same time, it was in his Mexican studio movies, with their often absurdly brief shooting schedules, that Bu?uel developed the unobtrusive but sovereign sway over narrative continuity and visual construction that so exhilarates admirers of such later works as Le Journal d'une femme de chambre or Cet obscur objet du d?sir. (According to Francisco Aranda, Alfred Hitchcock in 1972 called Bunuel "the best director in the world.")
Similarly, one may recognize in Tristana that same merciless anatomy of a specific social milieu, and in The Exterminating Angel that same theme of inexplicable entrapment, that one first encountered in Land Without Bread. In El rio y la muerte a man, all of him save his head imprisoned in an iron lung, submits to a round of face-slapping. We recognize in the image (and in the gasp of laughter it provokes) something of the merciless attack on our pieties of Bu?uel's early surrealist works and something of the more offhand wicked humor of, say, Le Charme discret. When such a recognition is reached, we know that the variety of styles and accents in which Bu?uel addressed us over the years is almost irrelevant. The political and social (or antisocial) canons of early surrealism could not contain him, nor could the foolish melodramatic conventions of some of his Mexican films stifle his humor, nor could the elegant actors and luxurious color cinematography of some of the later French films finally seduce him. Against all odds, his vision sufficed to transcend any and all stylistic diversions.
"Vision," perhaps the most exhausted word in the critical vocabulary, struggles back to life when applied to Bu?uel and his camera. In the consistent clarity of its perception, in its refusal to distinguish between something called ?reality? and something called ?hallucination,? Bu?uel's camera always acts in the service of a fundamental surrealist principle, one of the few principles of any kind that Bu?uel was never tempted to call into question. Whether focused on the tragic earthly destiny of an inept would-be saint (Nazar?n) or on the bizarre obsessions of an inept would-be sinner (the uncle in Viridiana, among a good many others), Bu?uel's camera is the instrument of the most rigorous denotation, invoking nothing beyond that which it so plainly and patiently registers. The uncertainties and ambivalences we may feel as we watch a Bu?uel film arise not from the camera's capacity to mediate but from the camera's capacity to record: our responses are inherent in the subjects Bu?uel selects, in those extremes of human experiences that we recognize as his special domain.?E. RUBINSTEIN