Luis Buñuel's
Cinema of Entrapment
in the Age of Cowardice:
The Search for a Greater Truth
I. No Exit

"To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely suspensions, properly so called.They are only temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism. A certain period elapses, and some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But where, meantime, was the soul? "

(from "The Premature Burial" by Edgar Allen Poe, 1850)

 To be sure, the theme of entrapment is not a new one in art, music, literature, philosophy or cinema. In the film Exterminating Angel by the remarkable Spanish director Luis Buñuel (1900-83), we are confronted with an all-too-familiar setting: a common social gathering among friends and acquaintances. Everything seems "normal" enough until one by one the guests realize that they cannot leave. Certainly nobody is forcing them to stay. So then, what is it that's holding them back? There seems to be an invisible barrier that, for some mysterious reason, cannot be broken through. The consequences of this are horrible. The guests begin to starve, commit suicide, generally whither away. All seems hopeless, until somebody finds the COURAGE to simply cross this invisible barrier and exit the house. Quickly, all the surviving guests follow. What was just moments before an impossible situation born out of indolence and cowardice, now has become a victory for the human spirit. This victory, however, is only temporary, because, soon after, the same phenomenon begins to happen to a congregation gathered at a church service. The mass is over, but they cannot leave. The film comes to an apocalyptic close as a herd of sheep rush into a church and the bells of doom ring loudly. For what hope is there for humanity (who live in the age of the greatest cowardice!), if we cannot rediscover the spiritual virtue of true courage?
    And Luis Buñuel, despite a highly twisted value system, was incredibly intuitive on this one point: without true courage and its resultant uplifting effects, the vast majority of humanity would simply stay in the "room" of their own creation, never again to find a way out. Perhaps Buñuel's stand has more than a little in common with the following excerpt from The Courage to Be by the German-born philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965):
"Twentieth-century man has lost a meaningful world and a self which lives in meanings out of a spiritual center. The man-created world of objects has drawn into itself him who created it and who now loses his subjectivity in it. He has sacrificed himself to his own productions. But man still is aware of what he has lost or is continuously losing. He is still man enough to experience his dehumanization as despair. He does not know a way out but he tries to save his humanity by expressing the situation as without an 'exit.' He reacts with the courage of despair, the courage to take his despair upon himself and to resist the radical threat of nonbeing by the courage to be as oneself. Every analyst of present-day Existentialist philosophy, art, and literature can show their ambiguous structure: the meaninglessness which drives to despair, a passionate denunciation of this situation, and the successful or unsuccessful attempt to take the anxiety of meaninglessness into the courage to be as oneself."

    Indeed, this capability to "experience his dehumanization as despair" is something that ALL the featured filmmakers in our Truth-in-CinemaQuest web site have in common. All of them realize, to one extent or another, that one must have the courage to face the reality of his or her life, which can be achieved only through living in an unceasing mode of self-examination/ introspection. This, however, is one of the most difficult (and yet most necessary) things that each and every human being needs to strive for. The difficulty comes from the fact that in order to be astute observers of ourselves, we need to have a completely pure and absolute point of reference outside of ourselves, in other words TRUE reality, so that the introspective process itself can be clear and objective from beginning to end, hence maximally beneficial to each individual. And it is in this very matter that courage most frequently eludes us and indolence and conceit take charge: it is simply easier to go on in our traditional patterns and modes of existence, even if it leads to devastating results:

    "The best story, however, was told to me by the painter Siqueiros. It occurred toward the end of the MexicanRevolution when two officers, old friends who'd been students together at the military academy but who'd fought on opposing sides, discovered that one of them was a prisoner and was to be shot by the other. (Only of Beers were executed; ordinary soldiers were pardoned if they agreed to shout "Viva" followed by the name of the winning general. ) In the evening, the officer let his prisoner out of his cell so that they could have a drink together. The two men embraced, touched glasses, and burst into tears. They spent the evening reminiscing about old times and weeping over the pitiless circumstances that had appointed one to be the other's executioner.
    "Whoever could have imagined that one day I'd have to shoot you?" one said.
    "You must do your duty," replied the other. "There's nothing to be done about it."
    Overcome by the hideous irony of their situation, they became quite drunk.
    "Listen, my friend," the prisoner said at last. "Perhaps you might grant me a last wish? I want you, and only you, to be my executioner. "
    Still seated at the table, his eyes full of tears, the victorious officer nodded, pulled out his gun, and shot him on the spot."

(from Luis Buñuel's autobiography My Last Sigh)

II. Fatal Fantasy
 And if a GREATER reality is indeed now knocking on our door; and if, in spite of this persistent prompting, the courage to seek out and learn about this GREATER reality still eludes us; what do we do? What can we do?
     Well, the first thing we can do is to start honestly questioning the ins-and-outs of our own picture of reality. And this is something that really takes a keen sense of observation. Luis Buñuel was one who was gifted with such a sense. His best films are literally encyclopedias of what is wrong with our world and with us.
    In the pure Spanish tradition, men aspired to live noble and honorable lives. One only needs to reflect briefly on Cervantes' character Don Quixote to realize how out of step this chivalric tradition is with the rest of the world. In the present state of things, it really does seem absurd. And yet, its absurdity is just a measure of how far the world as a whole has actually sunk. For it is the re-acquisition of the manly virtues of nobility, chivalry, courageousness, heroism, gentlemanliness, truthfulness (to name just a few) that is needed most in the world today.
     The famous Spanish actor Fernando Rey, Buñuel's most oft used "alter-ego" on screen, frequently plays the part of a Spanish gentleman, usually of wealth and/or high rank, who, despite a certain noble facade, soon reveals himself to be a "can of worms" of perversity, fetishism and cowardly weakness. Worminess actually is the suitable expression for this kind of man, as well as much of what the mankind of today has become. Buñuel uses Fernando Rey's characters as a means of investigating the cowardly rot that lies underneath even our most highly polished exteriors. To accomplish this, Buñuel draws upon his surrealist roots, often blurring the lines between dream, fantasy and reality. For example, in the film Viridiana, Fernando Rey's character allows the beautiful Viridiana, his niece, who is also a nun, to believe that she has been made impure and thus cannot return to the convent. He does this all under the guise of utmost gentility and culture (he listens to and plays highly spiritual works from the Baroque era), while underneath he seethes in lust, filth and selfish desires. These particular manly anti-virtues can also be seen in films like Tristana and Buñuel's last film That Obscure Object of Desire.
Almost always Buñuel's male leads end up suffering gravely from their unwillingness to change their ways and pursue the path to true manhood. Buñuel experienced this in his own life - how could it be otherwise? In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, he frequently refers to engaging in creative fantasizing about women. But, to Buñuel's credit, he is NEVER complimentary about the ultimate effects of such behavior, whether concerning himself or his fellow man. As a matter of fact, inspite of some references to "the innocence of imagination", he views it all as some kind of surrealist nightmare. Take his film Belle de jour as an example - can there be any better depiction of the spiritual decay caused by the carefree indulging in impure thoughts ? This film is indicative of our failure to perceive the immensity of responsibilty of our role as custodians of the thought-process. The direct consequence of this failure is that"...since we are all apt to believe in the reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies into truths." (My Last Sigh).
      And so with an endless proliferation of these admittedly false imaginings to our credit, we are ultimately left wondering where our lies end and true reality begins: "All my life I've been harrassed by questions: Why is something this way and not another? How do you account for that?" (My Last Sigh). The freedom to think, to imagine, has made us prisoners to those same thoughts and imaginings, leaving us practically helpless to fend off superstition, wishful thinking and a boundless array of confused notions and teachings:
     "What am I to God? Nothing, a murky shadow. My passage on this earth is too rapid to leave any traces; it counts  for nothing in space or in time. God really doesn't pay any attention to us, so even if he exists, it's as if he didn't....Since I reject the idea of a divine watchmaker (a notion even more mysterious than the mystery it supposedly explains), then I must consent to live in a kind of shadowy confusion." (My Last Sigh)  
   In his films, Buñuel delights in exposing his and all of mankind's self-deception and the hideous entrapments that result.
    1) The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie. A small group of upper-middle class men and women find themselves unable to disentangle themselves from their own thoughts, beliefs, fears, memories, and dreams. The most memorable scene concerns a gardener-Bishop, who, after hearing the confession of a dying man admitting to poisoning the Bishop's very own parents many years before, gives him absolution and then takes out a shotgun and kills him. Buñuel also uses a very effective "road to nowhere" motif throughout the film.
    2) The Milky Way. Two modern-day pilgrims, making their way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, encounter a rich tapestry of characters, events and dogma from past and present Christianity. If viewed without prejudice, this film offers an opportunity to reflect over the serious consequences of rigid belief systems. There are many memorable scenes, including a debate in a restaurant on the phenomena of communion and transubstantiation - but is it really like the rabbit in the paté?
    3) Simon of the Desert. An incredibly perceptive rendering of the unnaturalness and hypocrisy associated with religious fanaticism and extremism, in general. The film concerns the life of St. Simeon, a 5th century Stylite, who spent the greater part of his life on top of a 60-foot pillar. People from all over come to be healed, including a hand-less convicted thief, who, upon receiving new hands through Simon's petition, immediately uses them to slap one of his children. In the end, it's the persistent Devil (played by Silvia Pinal), who finally brings Simon back to earth, transporting him to a New York discothéque where the new dance rage is "the latest and the last" dance called the "Radioactive Flesh". The actual puniness of this "high and mighty" man (and all of us) is bluntly revealed. A unique film, which, in its effect, should encourage all of mankind to get off its own inflated pedestal and start searching for true reality.
    4) Nazarin. Father Nazarin sincerely strives to imitate (albeit superficially) the life of Christ. Despite his best intentions, however, he remains blind to the processes of Creation, which demand of him that he first learn and then follow his own unique path as a simple human spirit. In the end, he is given a "crown of thorns" (symbolized by a thorny pineapple), and we are left to contemplate the disasterous outcome of a man (among many men), who had become too self-deceived to help himself.
    5) The Phantom of Liberty. Buñuel's greatest statement about the absurdity of our existence, raising the deepest questions about the true meaning our lives. By weaving a continuous string of events, which constantly subvert our expectations, Buñuel creates an intricate tapestry of bourgeois life. The criss-crossings of the characters' paths throughout the film is a fine illustration of how we ourselves continuously weave our own paths in and through Creation, which, in turn, attract or repell other paths - altogether forming a vast, colorful array which suggests the multitudinous interactions of sub-atomic particles. However, like most people, Buñuel perfers to keep the whole thing a mystery: "Mystery is inseparable from chance, and our whole universe is a mystery." But the really keen observer will note simply that the more Buñuel leaves to "chance", the more is revealed some unifying force behind it all - although to really see just how perfectly everything in Creation is unified, a Source of Knowledge is needed that sheds New Light into the shadowy confusion that we call "mystery". Such a Source of Knowledge is a unique book "In the Light of Truth: the Grail Message" by Abd-ru-shin.
III. Cowardice Be Gone! The Courage to be Free!
 In The Phantom of Liberty, there is a scene where a perfectly normal looking businessman goes to the top of a building, opens up his briefcase, assembles a gun and begins shooting people on the streets below. At his trial, the jury is unanimous in finding him guilty of his hideous crime and sentences him to death. At that moment, his handcuffs are removed, he shakes his lawyer's hand and heads out the door . . .
      This shocking scene actually has echoes in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre:
    "He was free, free for everything, free to act like an animal or like a machine . . . He could do what he wanted to do, nobody had the right to advise him . . . He was alone in a monstrous silence, free and alone, without an excuse, condemned to decide without an excuse, condemned to decide without any possible recourse, condemned forever to be free." (from The Age of Reason)
     And the failure to make responsible use of our freedom, as reflected in the above Sartre quote, is yet another manifestation of the all-pervasive cowardice, which now has become the greatest plague for mankind - for its effects, being of a spiritual nature, have inflicted far greater damage upon humanity than a plague which just destroys the body. Without courage, man is an utterly useless, hapless creature. All spiritual movement grinds to a deathly halt, so that the intense pure longing and seeking qualities, which are natural attributes of the human spirit, cannot possibly surface and become active in the world of matter.
      There are really so many ways that we can unconsciously entrap and weaken ourselves and our spirits:
1) Mindless slavery to bourgeoise values and customs as reflected in domestic/family, business/bureaucracy, recreation/sports and all types of cultural activites, including cinema.
2) Religious dogma and rigidity of any kind.
3) The misuse of language, including lying, cursing and slang.
4) Fantasizing or indulging in impure thoughts.
5) Occult activites of any kind.
6) Engaging in impure activities, propensities and habits, as well as, ignoble conduct in both large and small ways.
7) The assumption that Help would be immediately recognizable to many (or even to one) is yet another tragic indication of a severely impaired, deeply imprisoned species.

What separates Buñuel from directors like Fellini and Pasolini is that he (Buñuel) had reached the point in his life where he was actually repulsed by the filth and corruption rampant in our world. If some of this filth made its way into his films, it was to nullify its sensation, not to glorify it. Through his repulsion of many worldly entrapments and his courage to reveal them for the poison that they really are, Buñuel had taken a big, bold step in the raising of his own consciousness.`

We need courage to seek, find and face the Truth about who we are and what we have become. And then we need courage to change our life's course, to transform from our present state into beautifully unique, fully functional and natural human beings in the Glorious Garden which is Creation! Or else....

"There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell - but the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! The grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful - but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us - they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish."

(from "The Premature Burial" by Edgar Allen Poe, 1850)