Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’

“And then I draw an ear on you so I can speak into the silence”

I haven’t seen any movies by Luis Buñuel, but I know who he is, of course, because I’ve seen the video clip of the dude slicing open the woman’s eyeball, and he’s fairly influential among most filmmakers, and movies are, the last time I checked, a big deal. So I was interested in this book, which Fermín Solís originally published in 2008 but which is now in color (it wasn’t back then) and, presumably, translated (by Lawrence Schimel) for the first time. SelfMadeHero, purveyors of weird comics for all, brings this to us!

This book takes place in 1932, after Buñuel made Un Chien Andalou (the movie with the eye-slicing scene) and as he’s not sure what he’s doing with his life. He’s wandering around Paris with his friend Ramón, wondering where he can get money for his next movie. Ramón inexplicably wins the lottery a few months later, and he and Buñuel head off to a small town in Spain, where Buñuel wants to make a documentary about the “uncivilized” people who live there. This movie becomes Las Hurdes, which is believed to be the first “cinema verité” movie. Solís focuses on the movie-making part of the process, as the book ends before Buñuel even finishes it. But he’s on his way!

This is not as weird a book as you might expect, given its subject matter. The first part is Buñuel and Ramón walking around Paris discussing their art, and the second half is Buñuel and Ramón and two friends wandering through the Spanish countryside insulting every person they see. Not much happens, which isn’t a big deal, but it’s not clear what Solís is trying to do, either. Buñuel comes off as a bit of a hypocrite and, like a lot of artists, not a terribly nice person. He claims to believe in the tenets of surrealism, but doesn’t seem to live by them, and he acts petty and bourgeois quite a lot. When he gets to Spain, he claims he wants to film the people as they are, but he’s not above manipulating things to make it more “realistic.” There are a few strange elements, including the vague end of the book, but for the most part, it’s just Buñuel walking around the Spanish countryside talking a good game but revealing himself as kind of artistically bankrupt. I very much doubt that was Solís’s intention (maybe it was?), but that’s what comes across. Buñuel, who was 32 at the time, comes across as immature and not really committed to surrealism or realism. He talks about making grand gestures with his art but doesn’t seem to make any. He talks about the rot at the core of modern life but seems to revel in it. Ramón writes at one point that Buñuel is a mess of contradictions, which is fine, but it doesn’t seem enough to hang a story on.

Solís’s art is, honestly, a bit more in keeping with the spirit of Buñuel. It’s not that it’s terribly surreal, it’s just that Solís draws things in a slightly odd, disjointed style that balances the tension between art and commerce well, with his crisp attention to the nice clothing that Buñuel and Ramón wear contrasted with the rags the Spanish peasants have, with the weirdness of Paris’s labyrinthine streets and the wide-open spaces of the Spanish countryside, and with Buñuel’s odd visions and his experience in the mud. Solís even repeats a few panels as Buñuel and Ramón walk around Paris, making the city a more surreal vision than anything Buñuel comes up with. Solís also gives Buñuel a slightly crazy look throughout the entire book, so he appears slightly off-kilter from the rest of humanity, which lends a visual strength to the idea that he’s some wild revolutionary. It’s a clever choice, because his visual representation doesn’t square with how Solís writes him, and so once again we get the tension between the true rebel and the one pretending to be one. The art is interesting, and it elevates the story nicely.

I’m not saying that Buñuel wasn’t a rebel in terms of filmmaking or that he didn’t push the limits in his art. He clearly did. I’m just writing about this particular comic, which seems to look at Buñuel with a bit of a jaundiced eye and pull back the curtain a bit, perhaps exposing him more than a more slavish biography might do. The character in this book is an artist, true, but he’s also complicated and somewhat less than admirable. It doesn’t diminish his achievements, but it does show that artists, no matter how lofty their stated ideals might be, aren’t above the strictures of life, and Buñuel certainly wasn’t. I don’t love this comic, but it’s an interesting look at an artist whose art might be bizarre, but who remains depressingly and/or fascinatingly human.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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