Friday, September 08, 2017

The Exterminating Angel

Email on Buñuel from 2012

I recently watched the Criterion Blu-ray re-edition of Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel [El ángel exterminador, 1962].* The following is an email I sent in 2012 to an acquaintance who asked me for my thoughts about the film, I think in relation to a movie she was making at the time.

*One Peter writes to DVDBeaver, who includes his remarks in their review of the Criterion Blu-ray:

"I'm surprised no one has mentioned this, but the Criterion reissue of EXTERMINATING ANGEL is a dual-pronged botch: it's 1.37, erroneously, and is absolutely a 1:1.66 film. There's way too much headroom throughout (and, of course, below as well), clearly borne out by the design of the credits, as well. A preposterous transfer choice for a 1962 production such as this, even more obvious by a quick glance at the framing at any given point during the film.

And it suffers from the same atrocious sound as the original release. It sounds like the source used has soundtrack damage from the beginning until about the 1 hour and 16 minute mark, at which time it finally disappears. My ears tell me it is a scratched optical track, resulting in distortion/white noise.

Someone along the line applied compression/noise reduction (not very well) for the first 40 minutes, leaving a lot of artifacts behind and making the dialogue occasionally hard to hear but basically acceptable. But at the 40 minute mark, the background noise in the master becomes overwhelming, and remains that way for 36-ish minutes. I cannot believe no one has pointed this out; it's almost as though perhaps whomever mastered it confused it for the sounds of the storm raging outside earlier in the film and forgot about it?"


These observations are only my take-away from this viewing; this movie is enormously expansive, and reveals new things at different times and to different viewers.

On one level, it aligns itself, consciously so or not, with the "mansion/country-house bourgeois/aristocrat dinner-party" tradition in cinema that generally serves to critique the bourgeoisie and deliver an examination of the world via microcosm, often through the interplay of "upstairs/downstairs" or "insider/interloper." The most famous examples probably being, off the top of my head, 'The Rules of the Game' (the bear in Buñuel's film is a hilarious metamorphosis of [and nod to] Renoir's character in his film, when he dons the bear costume for the pantomime performance), 'Last Year at Marienbad' (from the year right before 'Exterminating Angel'), and -- maybe the first ever example of this strain -- Buñuel's own 'L'Age d'or,' from 1930. My understanding is he carries this even further in 'The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,' -- but, scandalously, I've still never seen that film or any of the final Buñuels from 1970 onward.

I think one could even say that 'The Exterminating Angel' is an anarchist re-rendering of 'Last Year at Marienbad' -- again, maybe a conscious response, or not, on Buñuel's part. It's tempting maybe to call this film, or these strains of films, as satires, but in Buñuel's hands, and given his disposition and world-view, I think it's something closer to... I was going to say "parody," but that's not it -- it's something closer to profanation. Since 'Un chien andalou' Buñuel has taken a devilish delight in not just critiquing societal mores and the sacred cows of Western civilization, but savaging them utterly. It's worth pointing out that, alone among these films, 'The Exterminating Angel' is the only one that addresses the need to use the bathroom (an obvious dilemma, with everyone stuck in that room) -- with the guests having to take their shits behind the angel painting -- a visual pun on what it means to be an "exterminating angel," but more of that later...

The guests' tribulations as the days pass come off to me (to use the word again) as a profane parody of Hardship -- in the highest sense of the word, e.g. the suffering depicted in Buñuel's early essay-documentary 'Las Hurdes.' They exist like a poisoned or profaned allegory and -- one of the radical things about the film -- in fact this mock-allegory ('the sufferers,' 'those who undergo hardship', no chance of escape possible from their station in life! -- a lavish salon) undercuts the general notion of allegory in general -- on which, needless to say, Christian tradition and ritual are so dependent. It's part of Buñuel's agenda, in every film, to show up the Church, to scandalize it, in an attempt to counter its centuries of hypocrisy, of folly, and of dangerous pre- and proscriptions. To that point, I see the "arrangements" of the guests (and the theme of arrangement) as much as a kind of mockery of religious tableaux (or nativity sets) as a censure of the rote positions or stations that their class, and those beneath them, are expected to take (or fill) in the course of everyday life -- in terms of work, of social stakes, and (endemic to the guests' class) of the triviality and repetition ad nauseum of "leisure."

Which brings us to that Repetition theme. The arrival scene plays out twice; an introduction between two of the guests occurs twice, but in variation of the reaction of the one to the other. The days themselves come one after the other with no escape in immediate sight. The two dead lovers in the closet repeat (in double now) the corpse locked up in the other closet. Repetition as "eternity" (and eternity itself, then, repetition -- and so the promise of an after-life in Heaven seems a very boring prospect, indeed). In the words of "the Valkyrie," Leticia (played by Silvia Pinal, gorgeous -- she's also the star of 'Viridiana' and appears in 'Simon of the Desert' -- her husband produced all three of these films) -- the guests are "like pieces of a chessboard moved thousands of times." They 'reassume' their positions at the end: theirs is an eternal stasis -- this sudden "discovery" that they must repeat the order of that first day following the piano recital, that this will break the spell, appears to me as probably a completely arbitrary 'solution': that they are, for once, (in contradistinction to stasis) demonstrating VOLITION, but that volition = repetition, is inherently absurd; and it's very possible that they might have left at any point. (As to why the guests on the outside could not 'enter' -- I would only say that there's always a push-me-pull-you relationship between the bourgeoisie and the "supporting" tier -- and the same goes between the Church and the faithful.) Buñuel portrays the entire situation as a sort of Black Mass. The repetition which runs throughout the film is not only an expression of the futility of Man in the stream of a constant and cyclical "eternal return," but also a sort of profanation of "the return" of the Biblical Savior -- both in terms of the Resurrection, and of the promise of Christ's reintervention at the time of Armageddon.

To that point: "the exterminating angel" -- a phrase which is a contradiction in terms, should be a paradox, but has nonetheless made up a cornerstone of the Christian mythos: when the archangel Michael asserts himself, sword in hand, against Satan in the prophecy of the Book of Revelation (written as nothing more, in all actuality, than a sustained allegory -- cf. Elaine Pagels' recent book, 'Revelations'). When the guests go behind the panel with the angel to take a dump (which I think is fucking hilarious), they report looking down into the water between their legs and seeing visions straight out of the end-times (which I also think is fucking hilarious). (The Apocalypse is later brought to visual life in the surreal succession of fever-dreams shared by the guests in that sequence near the end, where saw goes to the fingers of a hand, to cello, to mannequin head against the lightning.) An angel, then, who helps them 'evacuate' or 'exterminate' their waste, too.

(Note that the guests are so eager to be covering things up, and hiding them away -- the corpses, the lovers' lovemaking, their shit and piss in the closets/secret-chambers; blankets constantly pulled up over the exhuasted attendees; a sheet going over the box containing the morphine -- as though the covering of that can have any real camouflage effect, in the eyes of the ones who've already spotted it. A conceit that applies to the greater world at large...)

(Also re: the hiding and the sexual undercurrents: I think one of the funniest scenes is early when the hostess suggests to her lover, in a room off to the side, that they should steal away to the bedroom -- and if her husband comes in, "I'll say I was showing you the incunabula." -- An incunabula is a document from the mid-millennium or earlier which was (pre-printing-press) still "printed" via woodblock -- it can be a religious text, etc. The suggestion is that they've collected one of these artifacts which is ostensibly on display in their bedroom [that itself being funny], but there's also the suggestion with the word "incunabula", which is obviously obscure, that she's referring to her pussy.)

That said, the overarching incarnation of the exterminating angel in Buñuel's film is itself two-fold: (1) The Genteel Class, who will wipe itself out (cf. 'The Grand Illusion' and 'The Rules of the Game'). Divine providence (they're sequestered on "Providence Street") means the punishment due for vanity, cruelty, folly. (2) The Church in the social world. Divine providence means the extermination of the faithful.

The end sequence portrays the guests now piously in attendance in the cathedral for a funeral mass (missa solemnis / "solemn mass") held, apparently, for they-themselves. And of course the proto-Groundhog Day "eternal return" rearrives -- the 'faithful' cannot leave the Church; or, WILL not... The second to last shot of the film (before the entrance of the flock of sheep) is of a riot, of gunfire: a shocking cut with no discernible (on the quote-unquote "diegetic" level) precursor in the film: but of course, the entire film was the precursor to this shot: this unrest is an explosion of the outside world, of society (as opposed to Society) and the masses, to contextualize all the "interiority" which Buñuel has to this point in his film displayed and ruthlessly dissected. And it is a prophecy, a "revelation," of what the '60s would hold in store for that aforementioned world at large.

Anyway, those are my thoughts -- hope this helps sort the film out somewhat..

(Oh, last-minute thought! -- I also meant to add re: Providence Street -- when we see this earlier in the film it has the connotation that, in such a neighborhood, in such a house: 'we should all be so lucky', with the ironic suggestion too that this place is 'divinely ordainted' -- of course, "providence" comes to take a more complicated tack, cf. the previous email.)


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