I am an optimistic guy – albeit with a realistic streak, I like to think. I tend to believe that, more often than not a (slim) majority of people will do “the right thing” (as I see it, anyway) and humanity will persist despite our flaws.
But every so often I counter behaviour or historical evidence that really challenges my optimism and my general faith in humanity.
This is an hour long series of absurdist vignettes by the same people (Bunel and Dali) responsible for “Un Chien Andalou,” one of the great film shorts in the history of the medium, and a film anyone interesting in film history, absurdism, or provocative art owes it to themselves to see.
Whereas “Andalou” is still shocking to this day – at least its most famous scene, one of the most shocking in film history, still is – L’age d’or has dated rather horribly. It’s hard to see it’s vignettes having the same kind of impact as shorts like “Andalou,” but at the same time, stuck together like this they are kind of boring – not particularly funny – I laughed a couple times – and though absolutely absurd, hardly shocking in any way. Rather, they serve as a history lesson to the mores of the time.
This film was considered so scandalous it was condemned and, more than that, people were actually physically attacked at a screening.
Now, I have always tried to imagine the famous riot at Le Sacre du printemps; I have always tried to put myself in a place where music like that could be shocking. I have never truly succeeded, but I do feel like I can at least sort of sympathize with the people who walked out. (I can’t sympathize with the people actually rioted, but what I am trying to say is that I would like to think I can imagine a world so closed and so conservative that Stravinsky’s music seemed world-shattering and that this was not acceptable.) But I have a really hard time doing that here.
I have seen some “shocking” movies – most of which do not live up to their reputation – this was not one of them. Now, I know I’m coming at this through the lens of horror films and decades of boundary pushing art that others would call smut (or whatever). But try as a I might I cannot understand how anyone, no matter how right wing, found this movie threatening. Certainly most of the people who attacked the screening can’t have actually watched the movie, for if they had they certainly wouldn’t have done what they did, right? I mean, does a cow on a bed cause one to lose one’s mind? Does licking the toes of a statue force you to throw ink at a film? I certainly hope not.
But that reaction – such strident condemnation in the press of a film most hadn’t even seen that it caused physical violence – just goes to show that no matter how dated this film is, no matter how boring I found it, no matter how moderately amusing I found the absurdism that I usually cherish, this film was necessary. That a society could be so stuck up that it would find something like this outrageous in dangerous is entirely believable (to me).
But that is a society that needs to be taken down by something like this. As long as people riot over works of art they haven’t even seen, as long as people get apoplectic about music, images, or words, it is necessary that someone pushes buttons and boundaries.
People who want to burn books, who riot over art, who think physical violence is a legitimate response to human creativity – these people are cretins, idiots, blowhards. They ruin life for the rest of us. They make me rethink my optimistic outlook. But at least there are others out there who will create things that expose them as the cretins they are, so we see them coming.