Land Without Bread is a thirty-minute documentary about a small town that lives in destitution, where it seems a culture has flourished despite rampant starvation and illness, and I’d like to think that I’m not alone in having thought that it was real.
My friend Pavel told me he watched it in film school with a professor who relished the class’s gullibility and then told them that none of it’s true. The movie exists somewhere between a practical joke and satire. Sort of an example of how easily-swayed we are by images – especially when those images are well-crafted, and supplemented with commentary.
Bunuel kills a few animals here. Actually kills them for the sake of the movie. He gets two different angles, both beautiful in an awful way, of donkeys falling off a mountain. A chicken is strung up by its legs so that a man on horseback can pull its head off in some sort of ceremony.
So far in the Project I think I’ve only puzzled over the ethics of filmmaking when it comes to matters of representation (though there’s plenty to be said about the ethics of directors’ abusive tactics, like with how von Sternberg allegedly terrorized his cast and crew on the set of Shanghai Express) but I’m puzzling over the ethics of film on two fronts with this one: first, there’s animal cruelty – which is blanketly reprehensible, no matter how well it might serve the art. The other ethical question that pups up here is the ethics of manipulating one’s audience.
Here, of course, Bunuel can say that Land Without Bread is meant to be a satire and that if anybody thought it was real, and found themselves affected by it, well the storyteller can’t be held accountable for the audience’s response (topic for another day: I actually believe that the artist can, generally, be held accountable for certain responses from the audience). I’m not sure that Bunuel ever did take that position but, if you’ll indulge me in following pursuing this thought as though he did, I’ll point out that this response – deferring blame to his audience’s naivete – would be disingenuous.
Cinema was still in its infancy in 1933. People like Eisenstein (Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October) and Vertov (Man With a Movie Camera) were experimenting with how much the medium could be contorted without losing coherence, demonstrating the general dexterity of visual narratives, and it seems clear that Land Without Bread is another form of that same experimentation. In a way, what Bunuel’s doing here, demonstrating how easily an audience can be manipulated, could have been seen as vindication for the Hayes Code’s paranoid puritanical censorship in this era. This is why Howard Hawks was forced to sully Scarface with belabored denunciations of its hero: the title cards saying that Tony Camonti is reprehensible, the nervous-but-noble soliloquy of a concerned police chief, a town hall meeting of citizens being indignant with the government’s lack of action against organized crime, the fact that our protagonist, played by Paul Muni, couldn’t simply die (the tragic fall at the end of his rise) but had to be humiliated. The fucking subtitle, even: Shame of a Nation. All these precautions in the interest of keeping an audience from being swayed in the wrong direction by what they see.
But should Bunuel be concerned with that? Is it his problem that his work of art lends creedence to a suppressive entity (another topic for another time: did that censorship stifle creativity more than inspire it, for filmmakers who had to find interesting ways of telling their stories around it?)? Well, the egalitarian first-amendment approach is to say that Bunuel ought to be given free reign to do as he pleases. Say what he wants.
But let’s say, hypothetically, that Bunuel’s target audience was American. There’s no way that this was actually the case, but let’s pretend that it was. And so here he goes releasing Land Without Bread into the cinematic climate of 1933, where every other filmmaker’s creativity is being stifled because censors are afraid that audiences can be easily duped. Bunuel enters that climate (again, hypothetically) with the intention of duping his audience.
That seems like a dick move.
There’s plenty of legitimacy, at the same time, in wanting to just defend his right as an artist to say what he pleases. I’m discovering a conservative bent in myself, though, in feeling like artists ought to practice some self-censorship if they’re planning to release something that’s gonna complicate the lives of their peers.
But I also wonder if I actually believe that. Because let’s say I’m a parent with a four-year-old kid. I don’t wanna have the birds-and-bees talk for another couple years. Then I take my kid to see an animated movie, it’s rated PG, and in that movie there’s a scene where some talking mouse goes to bed with another talking mouse and they end up having a kid. Something like that, ahdunno, something subtle but also suggestive enough that it puts me in a position of having to talk with my kid about something that, quite reasonably, I wanted to put off for a while. In respect to this, I can totally understand the argument that, hey, the world isn’t gonna hold off on exposing your kid to the realities of sex and violence until you feel comfortable to talk about them. I’ve made the argument myself a couple times.
Now that some of my friends have kids, however, I’m also sympathetic to their anecdotes of just how influential their little ones are, and what a problem it can be when the wrong idea reaches them too soon.
(I’m writing this essay at a bar that I visit probably three times a week and the bar tender at the moment is also the owner, she’s about 45, and she’s got a kid who’s my age. After a couple beers, writing those last couple paragraphs, I was about to ask her if she remembers her daughter asking uncomfortable questions as a kid. Then it occurred to me, suddenly, that an example of such a question, apart from “where do babies come from” is “what happens when we die?” Then I realized that my bar tender’s answer might reveal to me whether she believes in a god or an afterlife. I realized, too, that for some reason I really don’t wanna know what my bar tender’s spiritual beliefs are. Why not?)
Anyway. Hypotheticals and authorial intentions aside, Land Without Bread is a good movie. It’s beautifully shot, the music is lovely, and Bunuel’s own French narration is soothing, enveloping, like if you’re at work and it begins to rain spaghetti so hard you suddenly can’t see the parking lot.
It moved me (even if it did so under false pretenses) and there’s enough talent behind the camera to assuage whatever indignity might spawn from that.
And it got me thinking about shit, which is cool too.
I think that this movie was a commentary to the power of propaganda, which given the time in which it was made makes perfect sense. You can tell exactly the story you want to tell if you give it the right angle. Bunuel take this to the absurd extreme and it is telling of the power of propaganda and how gullible people were that many viewers bought it. We don’t know the context so for us it is more difficult to see this is a scam, but we are faced with exactly the same problem today, we just call it fake news.