Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Surreal Sex: L'Age d'Or

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Salvador Dali's erotic silent film

Surreal Sex: “L’Age d’Or”

Thanks to the Museum of Modern Art’s recent exhibit “Dali: Painting and Film” (through 9/15/08), which features over 130 of the artist’s paintings and drawings, scenes and films brilliantly juxtaposed side by side, I feel I now understand Salvador Dali for the very first time. Though erotic Freudian imagery, sexed up amoebas and disembodied cocks, may be what draws one into the Surrealist’s paintings, it’s his use of lighting and perspective that keeps you coming back for more. For Dali never was a painter at heart, but a man possessed by a cinematographer’s eye. Within the limits of the flattened canvas Dali’s mind was able to create – see into the future – that which modern day CGI allows for the screen. In fact, both showman and visionary, this master of the bizarre does not even make sense outside of filmmaking! A piece of the puzzle is missing when his paintings are seen alone and static, not in conversation with Bunuel or Hitchcock (or even Cocteau). Viewing Dali’s artwork without a cinematic context is like trying to talk about (his friend and sometime collaborator) Warhol without mentioning The Factory.

So with this in mind let’s revisit Dali and Bunuel’s classic study in sexual frustration, the erotically surreal “L’Age d’Or”.

Like their earlier collaboration “Un Chien andalou” (featuring the infamous razor-to-the-eye sequence), “L’Age d’Or” is really a series of seemingly extemporaneous images, this time revolving around two lovers forever being frustrated in their carnal desire (an early example of Bunuel’s lifetime running gag of upright citizens unable to consummate their attempts at escaping the land of the bourgeoisie – be it dinner parties or sexual etiquette). Tellingly, we’re introduced to the well-heeled pair without the requisite back-story of romance and impending marriage, which at least would mitigate the sin of lust in the eyes of the Church and righteous society. Nope, the first glimpse we get is of the nattily attired male and prim female passionately pawing at one another, slithering and writhing like snakes in the dirt. That is, until the woman’s cries of ecstasy distract the nearby religious pilgrims trying to hold a solemn funeral (sex and death naturally intertwined) for deceased Majorcans, who rush to rip the heathens from each others’ arms. The look on the man’s face as he licks his lips, wild eyes still burning in close up as his lover is escorted away, resembles that of the seediest pervert, sharp suit in lieu of a trench coat though all is identical underneath.

But it’s Bunuel’s next cut to a medium shot of the brunette cutie waiting alone in a brightly lit room, unquenched desire radiating from her face, followed by the insertion of an image of hot lava undulating suggestively which is borderline blue. Title cards soon put things in proper historical perspective, letting us in on the joke that pious Rome was once decidedly pagan. But like in modern day Times Square, purification has its limits, and we see the still dirty, literally sand covered man (escorted by plainclothes officers no less!) as he stumbles along the street, unable to keep his horny gaze from the various billboards that come alive to tempt him with female fingers and luscious legs. His object of desire lying languidly on a couch sighs, her face a mask of arousal, before Bunuel’s camera jumps back to the man’s fantasizing eyes peering through the window like a peeping Tom. Bunuel and Dali emphatically understand that it’s the sexual push and pull of the shots, heightening the tension, the longing facial expressions and heaving body language, those physical signs of thwarted orgasm, that express the beating animal heart of mankind.

When the couple finally meet again it’s at a (typical Bunuel) ritzy party, polite bourgeoisie niceties, ritual socializing coming between them as they bite their lips, undress one another with their eyes from across a crowded room. When the man fed up with small talk slaps an elderly socialite in overreaction to a spilled cocktail his caveman brutality only makes the hot and bothered dame desire him all the more. (Proper behavior be damned when there’s steamy sex to be had!) Hiding behind a curtain he motions her to sneak off with him outside, the element of a secret liaison only escalating arousal. Though the back and forth of the pair frenetically devouring each other’s fingers, locking lips by a frigid statue while a concert plays nearby is more ludicrous than sexy, the scene that follows once the man has been called away is shockingly pornographic even today (nearly eight decades after the film’s scandalous release). The act being simulated is never in doubt as the woman teasingly licks, then voraciously sucks on that statue’s big toe with all the coyness of Paris Hilton on the red carpet. Though Bunuel had the balls to end “L’Age d’Or” by juxtaposing the Marquis de Sade with Jesus Christ (emerging from a “120 Days of Sodom” orgy) in the last scene, it’s this toe fellatio that stays with you, the erotic equivalent of a razor in the eye.

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