Saturday, January 04, 2014

More and Less than Invisible, Worse than Real

Sometimes an angel is a room you can't leave. The Exterminating Angel (El angel exterminador) is the story of a group of wealthy, aristocratic society people who inexplicably find themselves psychologically unequipped to leave a dinner party and so remain in the room for months. Luis Bunuel's brilliant 1962 film is about a bizarrely simple, collective, and uniquely human madness.

Edmundo Nobile (Enrique Rambal) invites a group of fifteen or so acquaintances to his enormous mansion for a dinner party after an opera. Meanwhile, nearly all of the servants choose that very evening to quit or leave for the night leaving behind only the Major-domo (Claudio Brook) as well as three sheep and a young bear.

As the evening grows late, the group moves to the music room where they listen to one of the women play piano. Afterwards, each of the men and women slowly decides to sleep in the room, despite one or two observing obligations they have for the next day that require them to be home. The next day, some of the women awaken desiring to freshen up. They stop at the threshold between the music room and the dining room and . . . somehow the conversation turns them back into the music room.

Eventually the party guests consciously realise they peculiarly lack the will to leave the room. They go days without food, eventually breaking open the wall to get water from a pipe. They use Chinese vases in the cupboard as toilets, the women having a bizarre conversation about how they can hear distant oceans and birds when they open the vase lids. The three sheep, frightened by the bear, innocently wander into the music room where the humans slaughter them and roast them over a fire using a broken cello and floorboards for kindling.

Outside, meanwhile, these socially prominent people have been missed. The military has gathered in front of the mansion but a team ordered in somehow just winds up back at the barracks. The government works on a plan to communicate with the party goers via loudspeaker but ultimately concludes that to do so would be impractical. Possibly because there's no real reason someone can't simply walk into the house.

There's no invisible barrier. Something just happens in everyone's brain that keeps this specific group of people isolated in the music room of the mansion. Is it unnatural? The people in the room inevitably bicker and form factions. One woman who helpfully had chicken feet in her purse conducts a Kabbalah ritual to reverse the spell. Two men who are Masons yell a secret password that requires any nearby Masons to come to their aid. Nothing works.

One keeps coming back to the impression that there's nothing keeping them in. That they've somehow hit some pure, fundamental vein of human compulsion from whence layers of other compulsions typically accumulate. Here, a group of three guests turning against the owner of the house, two lovers who long to be alone, a woman who has hallucinations of disembodied hands seeking to grope her--so close to the source, these motives of human abstraction take on a form made stranger by the context.

Sylvia Pinal gets top billing despite the movie being definitely an ensemble film. As in the previous Bunuel film she starred in, Viridiana, Pinal's character, Leticia, is a virgin and she takes a great deal of pride in that. She's nicknamed "the Valkyrie". She's not a nun as she is at the beginning of Viridiana but it's clear she's meant to represent a traditional, spiritual and moral purity. But she seems to be as trapped in the room by her own mind as the rest of them. It's hinted she might have a better chance of effecting their escape than the others but the movie doesn't make this certain.

Twitter Sonnet #582

Armies of bluebirds hedged out the wardrobe.
Pillbox ribbon soldiers stole the new gloves.
Earthworms fall out miles above the globe.
Paper crowns return to lost restaurant loves.
Egyptian shoes reflect melted tinsel.
Tiger prayers flay the laser iron.
Giant snakes rumble out like a diesel.
Descent shades atmosphere to a cyan.
Stand alone flatbeds wait behind the glass.
Eight by eleven inch paper soon dawns.
A white wooden sun awakens the ass.
David Niven steps out on the wet lawn.
Two tin rabbit ears sow a sapphire.
Thirty tapes establish the vampire.

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