On the trail of Luis Buñuel

Biographer Ian Gibson has spent seven years reconstructing the first half of the life of the great surrealist filmmaker The results finally see the light next month

Irish-born writer Ian Gibson is also the author of biographies of Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí.
Irish-born writer Ian Gibson is also the author of biographies of Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí. SANTOS CIRILO

Seven years ago, after publishing his biographies of Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí to great success, the Irish-born writer Ian Gibson set out to complete a project he'd been contemplating for a long time. Every so often, as he went about his research into the lives of the poet and the painter, he would come across the name of a filmmaker who had been a close friend of both men. Just in case, Gibson kept a file open on Luis Buñuel, and some time later figured that if he had already covered the first two cultural giants, it would only make sense to explore the third as well. After all, didn't Lorca, Dalí and Buñuel make up the great trinity of 20th-century Spanish creators?

This white-haired, ruddy-faced Hispanist has always thought, as befits his Anglo tradition, that a country without biographies "is lame," because its identity is incomplete. And when he found out that the director of Un chien andalou had only "a few biographical attempts" to his name even though he'd been dead for 30 years, Gibson was hooked.

"Not that I was really surprised," says Gibson after producing nearly 1,000 pages, which will see the light in October under the title Luis Buñuel. La forja de un cineasta universal (1900-1938) (or, Luis Buñuel. The makings of a universal filmmaker). "You need to speak several languages and have written the biographies of Lorca and Dalí in order to publish a work about the life of Buñuel."

It is a hot afternoon in the Lavapiés neighborhood of central Madrid. In between sips of cold water, surrounded by dozens of books, movies and folders that went into producing his new book, Gibson confesses he has just barely scratched the surface of Buñuel's complex life. Certainly, it can be no easy task to follow the trail of somebody who lived in Spain, France, the US and Mexico; who filmed 32 movies that significantly influenced the film industry; who was obsessed with religion, eroticism, death, surrealism and exoticism; who rubbed elbows with some of the most important people of the century and was there for some of its most momentous events; and who, above all, was something of a "dark horse" who did not like to reveal the intimate truths about himself, and was accustomed to protecting himself with a mantle of deceit.

Man Ray's 1929 portrait of Buñuel.
Man Ray's 1929 portrait of Buñuel.

That is why Gibson confesses with melancholy and frustration that he "couldn't do the whole book, and I see no possibility of doing the second half because I am already 75 and each book represents five or seven years of work. There would have to be a miracle, like a millionaire showing up to fund the research, so the follow-up wouldn't take so long."

The book ends in 1938, when Buñuel leaves Spain on his way to Hollywood. "Thus the title La forja de un cineasta [the makings of a filmmaker]. Because his early years in Aragón, at the Residencia de Estudiantes, in Paris, as well as his first films, already contain the fundamentals of everything that will come later in his life. The foundations are there, and I hope my work will help others carry on."

The Irishman, who became a Spanish citizen in 1984, walks to one end of the apartment and opens the door of a small office, revealing even more books, movies and folders. "It's the second part of the material I used," he explains. The project was born out of the research he conducted on Lorca and Dalí. Those notes helped him produce a careful chronology of the life of Luis Buñuel Portolés (1900-1983). Gibson traveled several times to the small Aragonese town of Calanda, birthplace of the creator of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. There he nosed around in municipal and parish records, talked "a lot" with relatives and friends, and patiently, passionately, climbed the surrounding mountains to gaze on the same views that Buñuel once did. Gibson also spent hundreds of mornings in the Filmoteca Española's Buñuel archive and at the Reina Sofía Museum, in order to locate the anecdotes that really matter and make sure he got his facts straight.

Buñuel was always dragging out the macho myth, boasting about having a large penis"

"You can only do this with passion, almost with madness," he explains. "The book has over 2,500 references. I am a reference maniac: all my sources are there so anyone can check them."

His morning routine would be followed by a nap and an afternoon perusal of the material obtained earlier that day. Then, he would immediately write or edit a page or two. Seven years of this working method ("interrupted by a couple of books, Lorca y el mundo gay and La berlina del Prim") led this biographer to conclude that "Luis Buñuel was a man of obsessions. These obsessions originated at an early age, they were insistent and merciless, and thanks to the miracle of cinema and his enormous talent he was able to convert them into artistic material and into an exploration of the human condition."

For instance, Buñuel "was always dragging out the macho myth, boasting about having a large penis, and acting tremendously fearful of the whole gay issue. In his memoirs, for instance, he never once mentioned his brother Alfonso. Everyone knew Alfonso was openly gay, but Buñuel never mentioned him and didn't even go to his funeral, which took place while he was filming Viridiana here in Madrid. He sent his son Juan Luis instead. It's not that Buñuel was gay. It's just that he couldn't stand the topic. It was one of his tremendous silences. This also played a role in the way his relationship with Lorca cooled off. He knew his friend was a genius and he loved him very much, but he was gay. What would people say?"

During his research, Gibson particularly focused on the filmmaker's relationship with his mother. "It was very deep. His father died when Luis was 23, and his mother became a very young widow. Buñuel practically inherited his mother. And his mother adored him, being her first-born. She was very beautiful and very domineering. Everything follows along those lines."

Ian Gibson never met Luis Buñuel personally. "Not face to face. I wrote to him, and he replied, but I was never able to go out to meet him in Mexico."

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