SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965): SAINTLINESS – Review by Pauline Kael

2017-12-10T13:41:46-08:00 November 30th, 2017|Categories: CINEMA, PAULINE KAEL|Tags: , , |
  • Simon of the Desert (1965)

by Pauline Kael

We are so often bathed in emotion at the movies by all those directors whose highest ambition is to make us feel feelings that aren’t worth feeling that the cool detachment of Luis Buñuel has a surprising edge. Buñuel doesn’t make full contact with us, and the distance can be fun; it can result in the pleasure of irony, though it can also result in the dissatisfaction of feeling excluded. His indifference to whether we understand him or not can seem insolent, and yet this is part of what makes him fascinating. Indifference can be tantalizing in art, as in romance, and by keeping us at a distance in a medium with which most directors try to involve us he deliberately undermines certain concepts that are almost axiomatic in drama and movies—especially drama and movies in their mass-culture form. Buñuel, who regards all that lender involvement as “bourgeois morality,” deliberately assaults us for being so emotional. His most distinctive quality as a movie-maker is the lack of certainty he inflicts on us about how we should feel toward his characters. Buñuel shoots a story simply and directly, to make just the points he wants to make, though if he fails to make them or doesn’t make them clearly he doesn’t seem to give a damn. He leaves in miscalculations, and fragments that don’t work—like the wheelchair on the sidewalk in “Belle de Jour.” He’s a remarkably fast, economical, and careless movie maker and the carelessness no doubt accounts for some of the ambiguity in the films, such as the unresolved trick endings that leave us dangling. From the casting and the listless acting in many of his movies, one can conclude only that he’s unconcerned about such matters; often he doesn’t seem to bother even to cast for type, and one can’t easily tell if the characters are meant to be what they appear to be. He uses actors in such an indifferent way that they scarcely even stand for the characters. Rather than allow the bad Mexican actors that he generally works with to act, he seems to dispense with acting by just rushing them through their roles without giving them time to understand what they’re doing, dearly, he prefers no acting to bad acting. The mixture of calculation and carelessness in his ambiguity can be maddening, as in some of Viridiana (1961) and in most of the slackly directed The Exterminating Angel (1962). But sometimes what makes an artist great and original is that in his lack of interest in (or lack of talent for) what other artists have been concerned with he helps us see things differently and develops the medium in new wrays. Like Borges, who won’t even bother to write a book, Buñuel probably doesn’t think casting or acting is important enough to bother about. And casting without worrying about whether the actors suit the role—casting almost against type and not allowing the actors to work up characterizations can give movies a new kind of tone. Without the conventional emotional resonances that actors acting provide, his movies have a thinner texture that begins to become a new kind of integrity, and they affect us as fables. Most movies are full of actors trying to appeal to us, and the movies themselves try so hard to win us over that the screen is practically kissing us. When Buñuel is at his most indifferent, he is sometimes at his best and most original, as in parts of Nazarin (1958), which opened here last summer, and in almost all of his newly released—and peculiarly exhilarating—Simon of the Desert.
Other movie directors tell us how we should feel; they want our approval for being such good guys, and most of them are proudest when they can demonstrate their commitment to humanitarian principles. Buñuel makes the charitable the butt of humor and shows the lechery and mendacity of the poor and misbegotten. As a movie-making comedian, he is a critic of mankind. One can generally define even a critic’s position, but there is no way to get a hold on what Buñuel believes in. There is no characteristic Buñuel hero or heroine, and there is no kind of behavior that escapes his ridicule. His movies are full of little sadistic jokes that we can’t quite tell how to take. The movie director most influenced by de Sade, and the only one still at work who had close ties to the Surrealist movement, Buñuel has gone on using the techniques of the Surrealists in the medium that once seemed their natural habitat. We may not really like his jokes, yet they make us laugh. A perturbing example that comes all too readily to mind: When Jorge, in Viridiana, frees a mistreated dog that has been tied to a cart and then we see another cart coming from the opposite direction with another dog tied to it. is Buñuel saying that Jorge is a realist who does what he can, or does Buñuel really mean what the audience, by its laughter, clearly takes the scene to mean—that Jorge’s action was useless, since there are so many mistreated dogs? This “joke” could be extended to the “comedy” of saving one Jew from the ovens or one Biafran baby from starvation, and I think we are aware of the obscenity in the humor even as we laugh—we laugh at the recognition that we are capable of participating in the obscenity. His jokes are perverse and irrational and blasphemous, and it may feel liberating to laugh at them just because they are a return to a kind of primitive folk comedy—the earliest form of black comedy, enjoyed by those who laugh at deformity and guffaw when a man kicks a goat or squeezes an udder too hard. Buñuel reminds us of the cruelty that he feels sentimental art tries to hide, and we respond by laughing at horrors. This is partly. I think, because we are conscious of the anti-sentimentality of his technique—of his toughness and his willingness to look things in the eye.
Some of his recurrent jokes are really rather private jokes—the udders and little torture kits and objects turned into fetishes—and Buñuel throwing his whammies can seem no more than a gigantic, Spanish Terry Southern. Bad Buñuel is like good Terry Southern—a putdown and a crackle. Sometimes when we laugh at a Buñuel film we probably want to sound more knowledgeable than we are; we just know it’s “dirty.” Yet this is the vindication of the Surrealist idea of the power of subjective images: we do feel certain things to be “dirty” and some kinds of violence to be funny, and we laugh at them without being able to explain why. Buñuel gets at material we’ve buried, and it’s a release to laugh this impolite laughter, which is like laughter from out of nowhere, at jokes we didn’t know we knew.
Once, in Berkeley, after a lecture by LeRoi Jones, as the audience got up to leave, I asked an elderly white couple next to me how they could applaud when Jones said that all whites should be killed. And the little gray-haired woman replied, “But that was just a metaphor. He’s a wonderful speaker.” I think we’re inclined to react similarly to Buñuel—who once referred to some of those who praised Un Chien Andalou as “that crowd of imbeciles who find the film beautiful or poetic when it is fundamentally a desperate and passionate call to murder.” To be blind to Buñuel’s meanings as a way of being open to “art” is a variant of the very sentimentality that he satirizes. The moviegoers apply the same piousness to “art” that his mock saints do to humanity: both groups would rather swallow insults than be tough-minded. Buñuel is the opposite of a flower child.
Simon of the Desert, a short (forty-five minute) feature made in Mexico in 1965, just before he made Belle de Jour, is a playful little travesty on the temptations of St. Simeon Stylites, the fifth-century desert anchorite who spent thirty-seven years preaching to pilgrims from his perch on lop of a column. It is, in both a literal and a figurative sense, a shaggy-saint story, and (unlike much of Buñuel’s work) it is charming. The narrative style of Simon is so straightforward and ascetically simple that it may be easier to see what he is saying in this film than in his more elaborate divertissements about saintliness turning into foolishness—Nazarin and the complicated, allusive Viridiana, which was cluttered with Freudian symbols. Buñuel seems to have a grudging respect for Nazarin and Simon that he didn’t show for Viridiana, whom he made sickly, chaste, and priggish. Viridiana seemed dramatically out of focus because Buñuel didn’t even dignify her desire to do good, and so the film had to depend on the pleasures and shocks of blasphemy—probably not inconsiderable for insiders, but insufficient for others. The tone of Simon is almost jovial, though the style is direct—just one incident after another—and as bare and objective as if he were documenting a scientific demonstration; even the Surreal details (like a coffin skittering over the ground) are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Buñuel has himself in the past given in to temptation: with more money than he was accustomed to, he fell for the fanciness of all that French mise-en-scène that made his Diary of a Chambermaid so revoltingly “beautiful.” But there’s very little money in Simon, and there was, apparently, none to finish it; the bummer of an ending was just a way to wind it up.
Simon (Claudio Brook) performs his miracles, and the crowds evaluate them like a bunch of New York cabdrivers discussing a parade: whatever it was, it wasn’t much. He restores hands to a thief whose hands have been chopped off; the crowds rate the miracle “not bad,” and the thief’s first act with his new hands is to slap his own child. The Devil, in the female form of Silvia Pinal (much more amusing as the Devil than she was in her guises in other Buñuel films), tempts him, and, at one point, frames him in front of the local priests, who are more than willing to believe the worst of him. Simon is a saint, and yet not only are his miracles worthless—they can’t change men’s natures— but even he is dragged down by his instincts. Buñuel is saying that saintliness is sentimentality, that, as the platitude has it. human nature doesn’t change. This is not, God knows, a very interesting point, nor do I think it has the slightest validity; the theme is an odd mixture—a Spanish schoolboy’s view of life joined to an adult atheist’s disbelief in redemption. This outlook creates some problems when it comes to responding to Buñuel’s work.
There are probably many lapsed Catholics who still believe in sin though they no longer believe in redemption, who have the disease though they have lost faith in the cure. In this they are not much different from the Socialists who still accept the general Socialist analysis of capitalism without having much confidence in the Socialist solutions. But psychologically there is an enormous difference between those who regard man as the victim of violent instinctual drives and those who live by a belief in justice and decency, even without any real conviction that society will ever be better. The pessimistic view can be so offensive to our ameliorative, reforming disposition that it’s almost inconceivable to us that an artist whose work we respond to on many levels can disagree with us at such a fundamental level. And so with Luis Buñuel in films, as, in literature, with D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot and Pound, we often contrive to overlook what the artist is saying that is alien to us. Because Buñuel is anti-Church and is a Spaniard at odds with Franco, because he satirizes bourgeois hypocrisy, there is, I think, a tendency to applaud his work as if this were all it encompassed. At the movies, when we see horrors we expect the reformer’s zeal; that is the convention in democratic art, and perhaps we project some of our outraged virtue onto Buñuel’s films. We feel free to enjoy his anarchic humor—which is often funniest when it is crudest— because we can feel we’re laughing at Fascism and at the human stupidity that reinforces Fascism. But though his work is a series of arguments against the Grand Inquisitor’s policies, his basic view of man is the Grand Inquisitor’s. Buñuel attacks the Church as the perverter and frustrater of man—the power trying to hold down sexuality, animality, irrationality, man’s “instinctual nature.’’ He sees bourgeois hypocrisy as the deceptions that men practice to deny the truth of their urges. His movies satirize the blindness of the spiritual; his would-be saints are fools—denying the instinctive demands not only in others but in themselves. Surrealism is both a belief in the irrationality of man and a technique for demonstrating it. In his Land Without Bread, Spam itself—that country that seems to be left over from something we don’t understand— was a Surreal joke, a country where the only smiling faces were those of cretins. Like other passionate artists who lling horrors at us, Buñuel is an outraged lover of man. a disenchanted idealist; being a Spaniard, he makes comedy of his own disgust. He can’t let go of the Church; he’s an anti-Catholic the way Bogart was an anti-hero. He wants man to be purged of inhibitions, yet the people in his movies become grotesque when they’re uninhibited. And when his saintly characters wise up and lose their faith, he can’t show us that they’re useful or better off. or even happier. He is overtly anti-romantic and anti-religious, yet he is obsessed with romantic, religious fools. He has never made a movie of Don Quixote, but he keeps pecking away at the theme of Don Quixote, and gets himself so enraged by the unfulfillment of ideals that he despises dreamers who can’t make their dreams come true. In Viridiana, he twisted the theme into knots—turning in on himself so far that he came out the other end.
How can Buñuel in Simon of the Desert make a comedy out of a demonstration of what liberals have always denied and yet make liberals (rather than conservatives) laugh at it? It’s as if someone made a comedy demonstrating that if you divided the world’s wealth equally, it would all lx* back in the hands of the same people in a year, and this comedy became a big hit in Communist countries—which, however, h might very well do if the style of the comedy and the characters and details were the kind that the Communists responded to. And it might become an underground hit if it had jokes that brought something hidden out into the open: Buñuel’s Freudian symbols and blasphemous gags alienate the conservatives and, of course, please the liberals. And then there is the matter of style. Buñuel doesn’t pour on the prettiness, he doesn’t turn a movie into a catered affair. There is such a thing as mass bourgeois movie sentimentality; we are surrounded by it, inundated by it, sinking in it, and Buñuel pulls us out of this muck. “Simon” is so palpably clean that it’s an aesthetic assault on conservative taste. It’s hard to love man; Hollywood movies pretend it’s easy, but every detail gives the show away. Buñuel’s style tells the truth of his feelings; the Spanish stance is too strong for soft emotions like pity. Though, as in Diary of a Chambermaid. he can be so coldly unpleasant that we are repelled (and happy to be excluded), he never makes people pitiable lumps. And though he may turn Quixote into a cold green girl or a dithering man, in his films the quixotic gestures of the simple peasants are the only truly human gestures. A dwarf gives his inamorata an apple and his total love; a woman offers Nazarin a pineapple and her blessing. Nazarin is so stubbornly proud that it’s a struggle for him to accept, and Buñuel himself is so proud that he will hardly give in to the gesture. Humility is so difficult for him that he just losses in the pinapple ambiguously—he’s so determined not to give in to the folly of tenderness that he cops out.
At the end of Simon of the Desert Simon is transported to the modern world, and we see him, a lost soul, in a Greenwich Village discotheque full of dancing teen-agers. This is a disastrous finish for the movie—a finish of the careless kind that Buñuel is prone to. The primitive Mexican desert setting situates the story plausibly, but New York is outside the movie frame of reference, nor does this discotheque conceivably represent what Simon’s temptation might be. What Buñuel intended as another little joke is instead a joke on his gloomy view. “It’s the last dance,” the Devil says, though what is presented to us as a vision of a mad, decaying world in its final orgy looks like a nice little platter party.

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