Sunday, September 30, 2007

Wuthering Heights


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How many ways are there to segue from a Blog-A-Thon on William Wyler to one on Luis Buñuel? More than you might think. Flickhead, the host of the latter 'Thon, has illustrated one pathway by posting a terrific photograph with the two men posed less than a yard apart from each other (Wyler's standing next to George Cukor, who's standing behind Buñuel). It was not the first time the directors had rubbed elbows. In 1971, in celebration the Cannes Film Festival's 25th edition, both men were among a group of twelve international auteurs honored. The others were Lindsay Anderson, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Robert Bresson, Rene Clement, Frederico Fellini, Vojtech Jasny, Masaki Kobayashi, Orson Welles (who was not present at the festival) and Serge Youtkevitch. You may say, "wait a minute, that doesn't add up to twelve!" Blame the New York Times article of May 13, 1971 from which I obtained this list, for coming up one short. Wyler biographer Jan Herman wrote that there were five directors honored, not twelve: Wyler, Buñuel, Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Rene Clair. Obviously further research on this gathering is merited.

Another clear path between the two directors is that they, with apologies to Yoshishige Yoshida, Peter Kosminsky, Suri Krishnamma, Robert Fuest, A.V. Bramble and Jacques Rivette, directed the two most enduring film versions of Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights. It seems Buñuel had the idea first, as the book was a favorite of his surrealist crowd in the early 1930s. According to Francisco Aranda's Luis Buñuel: a Critical Biography he worked with Pierre Unik, and briefly with Georges Sadoul as well, to write a screen adaptation shortly after the completion of Land Without Bread in 1932. But Buñuel would not have the ability to get the project off the ground until after he'd established himself as a director of narrative features in Mexico. Wyler's Wuthering Heights was released in 1939, earning numerous Oscar nominations and establishing Laurence Olivier as an international star. Buñuel would not begin revising his old script until 1952. The film was shot in 1953 and released in 1954 under the title Cumbres Borrascosas (the title the Brontë book was known by in Spanish translations). Later it was retitled Abismos de Pasión.

Both the 1939 American version and the 1954 Mexican version of Wuthering Heights were filmed in their respective countries' Southwestern scrub desertlands. Wyler's version had its outdoor scenes shot in the still-rural outskirts of Los Angeles. Buñuel, according to biographer John Baxter, shot the film
at the hacienda of San Francisco de Quadra in the barren uplands of Guerrero, near Taxco. Critics noticed immediately that this was pretty odd country. Thunderstorms crash and flare each night, but dawn reveals a land as parched and bare as the slopes of Paracutin. Most of the trees are dead, but Eduardo, the effete Hindley character, still finds plenty of butterflies and insects for his collection.
But Buñuel's Wuthering Heights makes no reference to geography, and indeed changes the names of its characters so that Cathy becomes Catalina (played by Irasema Dilián), and Heathcliff becomes Alejandro (Jorge Mistral). If Wyler's version attempted a recreation of Brontë's Yorkshire, down to the vast quantities of Calluna vulgaris imported from England and planted on the hillsides, Buñuel's version seems set in its own unique landscape if not land, an arid one all the better to inflame the illogical passions of the characters.

Buñuel wanted to enhance the l'amour fou aspects of Brontë's novel, and one way he achieved this was by beginning the film at the moment of Heathcliff/Alejandro's return upon having made his fortune. By spending so much time with Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley as youths, Wyler's film explains the tragedy of the romance quite plausibly. He shows how the connection between Heathcliff and Cathy is sown, and also how their class differences must keep them apart. Buñuel, by contrast, simply drops us into a world in which the fundamental bonds and barriers between the characters have long since been established, and insists we pay attention instead to just how they are resisted. As Sue Lonoff de Cuevas has so succintly put it, Wyler's version of the romance is "sentimental" and Buñuel's "anti-sentimental."

This despite a romantic-style musical score adapted by composer Raul Lavista from Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Buñuel had used this music before, in both Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or. When discussing these two films, and specifically in reference to the latter, Peter Conrad has written, "An orchestra happens to be playing Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which treats love as a mystical rapture; for Dali and Buñuel, it is more like a demented regression." In Wuthering Heights Wagner's themes are rapture and regression all at once, the Liebestod endowing the final sequence in particular with a great deal of its disturbing resonance. Watching it recently, I found myself wondering if it was at all possible that Bernard Herrmann might have seen Buñuel's film before being inspired to masterfully borrow the same theme to signify the l'amour fou of Vertigo. Vincent Canby, in his 1983 review of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights, suggests that the film had not played in New York City (Herrmann's lifelong home) until 1976, except perhaps at one of the city's Spanish-language theatres. It's intriguing to imagine the composer catching a Mexican Buñuel film at a place like the Elgin (which played only Spanish-language films in the 1950s), but the connection is most likely to be happy coincidence, I suspect. Yet, apart from its placement in the final scene, Buñuel was not happy with the music in Wuthering Heights. At least, he said as much later in life. Aranda quotes him:
It was my own fault. My negligence. I went to Europe, to Cannes, and left the composer to add the musical accompaniment; and he put music throughout the film. A real disaster. I intended to use Wagner just at the end, in order to give the film a romantic aura, precisely the characteristic sick imagination of Wagner.
But Baxter notes that the director did not leave for Europe until April 1954, after the music track for the film had already been fixed in place. And Aranda quotes Buñuel again, this time from an interview that took place while he was in Cannes that year serving on the jury that selected Gate of Hell as top prizewinner: "For Cumbres Borrascosas I put myself into the state of mind of 1930; and since at that time I was a hopeless Wagnerian, I introduced fifty minutes of Wagner." Here Buñuel seemingly is taking personal credit for the abundance of music in the film, and in the context of a discussion of how much he generally dislikes film music, too. So did he change his mind, or just his tune? Another subject for further research, it appears.

More reviews of Buñuel's Wuthering Heights well worth reading include: Ed Gonzalez's take at Slant, Fernando F. Croce's capsule at CinePassion, and a review newly-written for this very Blog-a-Thon by Robert Monell of I'm In a Jess Franco State of Mind.

And if you're in the Frisco Bay Area wondering when your next chance to see a Buñuel film on the big screen might be, it looks like you may have to wait until December 17th, when Belle de Jour will be brought to Artists' Television Access along with a post-film discussion. It's part of a series devoted to silver screen sex workers presented by Whore! Magazine to benefit the health care efforts at the Mission District's St. James Infirmary. This fall at ATA looks particularly busy with interesting screenings in general, including the Other Cinema fall program, the ATA Film and Video Festival October 10-12, a continuing series of Guy Debord films, a stint as a venue for the 11th Arab Film Festival (which has just released the full contents of its program), and an October 26th evening of music and film entitled Roman Meal that you really do not want to miss. Trust me on that one.

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