When L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age) had its first public showing in 1930—and only public showing until 1980—it caused a riot. The audience (an obviously well-prepared lot) threw ink on the screen and trashed the theater to express their outrage at Luis Buñuel’s often savage attack on the Catholic church—not to mention his willful twisting of the “rules” of film. What is not recorded is just how long it took for this riot to break out, i.e., how much was the reaction a foregone conclusion? (In many ways, the 1929 Buñuel-Salvador Dali collaboration, Un Chien Andalou. is actually more shocking, butit was also on 16 minutes long.) To say that the film caused a controversy is something of an understatement. (The film’s producer was threatened with excommunication.) It also effectively killed Buñuel’s filmmaking career for nearly 20 years, until he was able to make Los Olvidados (1950) in Mexico. Even today it’s easy to see what all the fuss was about. There’s little discernible plot, and the film shifts gears constantly, mutating freely from one genre to the next seeking to outrage the viewer.
There’s a kind of story line following a pair of lovers, but even they mostly seem to fit into the movie as part of the casual outrages that fuel the film (the lovers are introduced into the narrative while rolling in the mud). As far as their part in the film is concerned, they start out making love in a manner that disrupts a nationalist religious ceremony, are pulled apart, and spend the bulk of the film trying to get back together. This, by the way, is after the movie has presented itself as a documentary about scorpions. I trust this gives you some idea of how strange the whole thing is, even if it hardly explains the film. Just how do you explain a film in which a soldier chooses not to particpate in some battle because the other soldiers have accordions? By the time L’Age d’Or gets to its incredibly blasphemous conclusion — depicting the end of De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom with an unusual participant — it has attacked nearly every moral and religious taboo you can imagine. Love it, hate it or be merely baffled by it, you’ll finally admit that there’s really nothing like it in the history of film.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present L’age d’Or Friday, May 30, at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District (upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com.