The Golden Age of Explosives and Mud-Wrestling

“Sometimes, on Sundays,” the title card reads, and buildings begin to explode. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s L’Age d’Or (1930) is not and never has been merely a movie, a projected image-entertainment intended for time-killing and vicarious thrills. Rather, it is, and has always been, a bomb, secretly strapped to the chest in high society, but, unlike the explosive worn by the anarchist in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, which waited for the pressing thumb to find the perfect moment to detonate, L’Age d’Or discharges its ire and elan in perpetuity, 80 years and running. Most people just don’t know it’s happening.

We do. You and I, we live in the smoke and raining flotsam of its expression, not just because we are cinephiles or Bunuelians or even lingering Surrealists, but because we know the cultural past doesn’t dissipate and vanish but haunts us, like childhood traumas and imprintings, and we ignore it at our peril. “Instruments of aggression” is how a title card characterizes the scorpion’s pincers, in Bunuel’s famous found-footage doc opening, and it’s a suitable way of thinking about the film – as a joyous weapon. But it’s also modern culture’s greatest celebration of impulse non-control, and how sexually ferocious that is, and how the rest of us can go fuck ourselves. It’s Dada, it’s punk, it’s situationism, it’s our most entertaining deep-sleep dreams, it’s a collective nightmare released from its shackles and allowed to terrorize the villages. Sure, it’s the subversive instinct’s seminal anthem film, but it’s also a party, the first definitive time a film self-reflexively manifested itself as the romp the filmmakers had while making it.

It’s also uncritizable, a fact of unnatural nature. If it feels truncated and shortcut (as some later Bunuel films do, too), then that’s as it should be – a “complete” movie would not howl with such dire antisocial lust. In those youthful, passionate, Surrealist days of yore, the film’s affront was such that Parisian right-wing groups protested and mobilized their newspapers’ readers to physically decimate the theater in which it played (slashing Dali and Ernst paintings hanging in the lobby as they went); two days later, police shut the movie down for good. Four years later, beset by a sudden Catholicism, the family of the Vicomte who financed the film officially withdrew it from circulation. It’s been a long time since the League of Patriots stormed Studio 28, and the days when a mere film could incite riots and encourage civilians to lay siege to the projection booth are long gone. More’s the pity; we’ve changed. Such is the tragedy of subversive movements – eventually, what was devised to conflagrate becomes standard-issue life and times.

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L’Age d’Or’s ability to appall the middle-class may have faded – although, in typically Bunuelian fashion, the idea that Jesus attended a Sadean orgy and emerges mysteriously shaven as a result (did Jesus fuck his beard off?) could still incense the church-going American who’ll never see it, never submit themselves otherwise to the fingerless-hand caress, the obscene sucking of statue toes (and Bunuel cuts to the marble figure’s expressionless face!), the entire last act’s relentless, driving military drumroll. But the movie remains alive. Perhaps Bunuel and Dali made the film largely to muster a reaction, to confront social orthodoxy. But history does funny things to manifested acts of high-spirited rebellion – it sanctifies them, makes them beautiful and holy and honorable. The moment of the tumult passes, but the object becomes the moment’s testament, a deathless song of hope.

But that’s all extracinema, and lovely and vital as it is, it neglects the propulsive narrative heart of L’Age d’Or – namely, Gaston Modot, already a veteran of French silent cinema and a compatriot to the early-century avant-garde in many mediums, striding fiercely through the movie as the angry, horny free spirit cutting across the grain of 20th century European bourgeoisie. Looking quite like a nattily attired Bruce Campbell in a Guy Maddin visitation to the Surrealist years, Modot’s Everyman opens with a hot grapple in the mud with his beloved (Lya Lys), interrupting a solemn honorary surface for the skeletons of dead bishops on a hillside; he is apprehended and separated from the woman, swooning with frustration and growing dizzy imagining her sitting on the toilet. (Flush! Close-up of seething magma!).

He is led by police (or are they?) away and through the film, wrestling free at one point to satisfy the impulse to kick a puppy. Finally, with an apparent head trauma, Modot’s blue-balled juggernaut explodes in a fit of coitus interruptus rage, laying waste to a posh dinner party, and throwing “things” out a high window to the street: a burning Christmas tree, a priest, a plough, a stuffed giraffe, fistfuls of pillow feathers, etc., evacuating his social bowels, as it were, of the absurd clutter distracting us all from simply fulfilling our desires. (Remember that in 1923 fellow Surrealiste Louis Aragon wrote, “I would like to see films made such that suddenly in the dark a woman would get up and say as she threw off her clothes, ‘To the first of these gentlemen!’”) Bunuel and/or Dali had surely seen Rene Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat a few years earlier, in which an irate dragoon camped out in a bridegroom’s townhouse tosses random furniture items out of practically the same high window, just as other L’Age d’Or DNA (the top-hatted upper-class buffoons, the flying feathers) were repurposed by Jean Vigo in Zero de Conduite three years later. But the thrust was and still is unique – an already crazy film gone thoroughly off its meds, grabbing at a dream of liberty. On the soundtrack, the drum score drills on, as if training us in anarchic insurrection.

That Sade is the ultimate touchstone here, the filmmakers dropping the bomb of 120 Days of Sodom without needing to show the action of it (Bunuel and Dali would’ve been imprisoned just as Sade was), is inevitable; he was the Surrealist’s Siddhartha, and his presence in the cultural brainpan remains as troublesome and untenable as a dangerous faultline or bipolar lover or wild animal. L’Age d’Or itself is something altogether more human, an extremity of will and defiance that’s also as inspiring and harmonic as a three-and-a-half-minute pop song. It’s still exploding.

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Acknowledgments to the blog A Mythical Monkey Writes About Movies, from where the images from the film embedded with this entry were found.

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