Saturday, June 25, 2011

Pouring wax into the ears of stuffed donkeys with Salvador Dali

When I was carrying on about a scene from our movie Blind Cat Black opening for Luis Bunuel at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, a card-carrying St. Louis Surrealist quietly objected.

My friend Andrew Torch pointed out that on one of the two films The Pulitzer was screening with the local silent shorts, Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel shares filmmaking credit with Salvador Dali.

I told Andy I had planned to come back, actually, and go into all of that. So I have come back to go into all of that.

In My Last Sigh, probably the best filmmaker's memoir I've read, Bunuel tells us about his collaboration with Dali on what has become the definitive Surrealist film.

When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali's house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I'd had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he'd seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he'd had the previous night.

"And what if we started right there and made a film?" he wondered aloud.

Bunuel and Dali each dreamt one of the two central images of the film, and it was Dali who suggested they turn the images into a film. Bunuel has a clear and rational account of their method in writing this wonderfully irrational film.
Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.
They ended up with a film scenario  Bunuel knew no one in the industry would finance, so he put the touch on his dear mother. God knows good mothers are owed an immense debt for keeping their weird sons in business until the industry catches up with them.

Bunuel's account of shooting the film (over two weeks in 1928) speaks to the way I like to make movies: "The filming took two weeks; there were only five or six of us involved, most of the time no one quite knew what he was doing."

The number of people involved on set ranged from five to six because Dali was only intermittently involved in the shoot: "Dali arrived on the set a few days before the end," Bunuel writes, "and spent most of his time pouring wax into the ears of stuffed donkeys."

Typing up these quotes from an unglued paperback of My Last Sigh I read half to death on a trip to Africa, I am struck by something. Bunuel's never-to-be-forgotten image of the razor blade slicing the eye was his association from a different image that he actually had seen in his dream: "a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half."

Last night, The Pulitzer screened the Bunuel films (and one of three reels of local shorts) in its open-air courtyard, projected against a building. I liked that atmosphere very, very much. Especially last night, when the St. Louis sky overhead was rippled with clouds.

In the scene where the razor blade slices the eye, as usual, I looked away from the film. This time, I looked up into the clouds.


The film event, a coolaboration with Cinema St. Louis, was organized in connection to The Pulitzer's current show, Dreamscapes, which is a heart-breaker and brain-tickler and a half.

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