Oscar Arce brings Luis Bunuel's Surrealist cinema to Santa Monica
For Oscar Arce, the films of Luis Bunuel are more than just cinema, they are life itself. Arce heads the Luis Bunuel Institute, which preserves items, scripts, memoirs and the films of the cinema master. On March 1, Arce will be involved in the double screening of two Bunuel classics at Santa Monica's Aero Theater: "Los Olvidados" and "That Obscure Object Of Desire."
After the screening there will be a "Surrealist Cocktail Party" complete with drinks and selections from Bunuel's favorite menu.
One Friday afternoon in Chinatown, Arce sat down to discuss Bunuel, the man and the films, with several mementos and artifacts from the great man himself.
For film lovers and filmmakers the world over, Bunuel's work is some of the most cherished and unique for its feverish mix of Surrealism, drama, dark humor, violence and passion. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once described Bunuel's films as "the double arch of beauty and rebellion." Bunuel films like "L'age d'Or," "Viridiana" and "The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie" are famous for their surreal images mixed with sharp criticisms of the upper classes and near scientific analysis of human hypocrisies, fetishes and obsessions. Even those who don't know the name or even what Surrealism is, the cultural impact is there. The next time you see an ad where someone plays the piano floating over the ocean, you will be seeing a lasting influence of the Surrealist movement.
"I didn't know about Bunuel until I was in college where I was exposed to 'The Andalusian Dog,' and I took an interest," said Arce about when he first learned about Bunuel's work. The film he mentioned, "Un Chien Andalou," is a classic 1929 surrealist short written with the painter Salvador Dali. It remains iconic for its opening sequence where a man (Bunuel) slices a woman's eyeball with a razor. "It really resonated with me," Arce reflected.
Arce then came across one of Bunuel's sons, Juan Luis Bunuel, and a partnership flowered that would result in projects such as a celebrated 2000 retrospective to celebrate Bunuel's centennial. Since then Arce, with the Bunuel family, has helped present Bunuel's work all across the United States while at the same time preserving his legacy including artifacts, memorabilia, scripts and even Bunuel's house keys.
"Jean Claude-Carriere, who wrote many films with Bunuel once said, 'once you cross paths with Bunuel, you're never the same," said Arce. The Luis Bunuel Institute also actively licenses and screens Bunuel films, bringing obscure titles to audiences. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Bunuel was forced into exile in Mexico where he made over 21 films, many of which are still unavailable subtitled in English for American audiences.
One of the films that will be screened on March 1, "Los Olvidados," chronicles the lives of children in the violent slums of Mexico City with a fierce mix of realism and surrealist flourishes. "It was his comeback at the age of 51," explained Arce, "he becomes one of the most prominent directors to open up what is now known as 'international' or 'foreign' cinema." On the table near Arce sat an Ariel, the Mexican equivalent of an Oscar, that was given to "Los Olvidados."
As Arce sees it, and many cinephiles would agree, Bunuel films like "The Exterminating Angel," where a group of Mexican oligarchs find themselves unable to leave a mansion for unknown reasons and become savages, survive the test of time for particular reasons. "They have a lot to do with what it is to be human. Political reasons, economic reasons, they question authority and the future," said Arce. He then pointed to a script on the table titled "Agon." Written in the 1970s yet never filmed, the script deals with global terrorism and a war over oil. "He very well knew where we were going," emphasized Arce.
Having worked for a little over decade preserving Bunuel's legacy, Arce can't help but be influenced himself by the films and their philosophy. "I don't work for anybody, I work for myself. You have to have a conviction with the projects you take on, especially in Los Angeles," he said.
Bunuel's films are also renowned for their exploration of desire. In his 1967 "Belle de Jour," a bored Parisian upper class wife harbors secret masochistic fantasies, to satisfy them she secretly works at a brothel. In "That Obscure Object Of Desire," one of the two films to be screened in Santa Monica on March 1, an older man falls for a young Spanish dancer who taunts him (and is played interchangeably by two different actresses). One wonders what Bunuel would think of "Fifty Shades Of Grey."
"I don't know anything about 'Fifty Shades Of Grey,'" laughed Arce, but adding that "his philosophy is less is more, this idea that a woman is much sexier when you look at her legs as opposed to her whole body." A famous foot fetishist, Bunuel's films are full of close ups of legs and feet, and in films like "L'age d'Or," impassioned lovers are desperate to consummate their love but are pulled apart by unforeseen circumstances as they lose themselves in ecstasy fueled by the imagination.
Yet Bunuel himself married in 1930 and stayed married to the same woman, a French woman named Jeanne Recaur, until his death in 1983. Her memoirs, "A Woman Without A Piano," are currently being translated by Arce into English so they can finally join Bunuel's own, masterful memoir, "My Last Sigh," in American bookshelves. "Even though she tells all, in the end it's very loving. They loved each other strongly. She respected him, he respected her. What they had at home was very sacred to them," explained Arce.
As Arce prepares to present two Bunuel classics at the Aero, other projects are in the works. He revealed that the renowned composer Stephen Sondheim, famous for titles like "West Side Story" and "Into The Woods," is now working on a grand musical based on Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" and "The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie." Even Thomas Ades is preparing to unleash an opera based on "The Exterminating Angel" as well said Arce.
For film students yet to discover the master's work, Arce shared a bit of advice for them once they discover Bunuel and seek to make their own work. "Make your films your own," he said, with a special conviction.