My Last Sigh
Until he was about seventy-five, old age was a joke or an abstraction for Luis Buñeul. He had been seriously deaf since his forties, and had carefully cultivated the role of the hermit: lively in his mind, but not living in the world. “Look,” he would say when he caught sight of a decrepit ancient on the street, “Have you seen Buñuel? Only last year he was still going strong. What a collapse.” On the other hand, as this gag itself indicates, he was always capable of boyish humor, the sort of thing that made him a heroic mischief-maker in Spain before he turned his hand to the mischief of the movies. There is a nice late example in My Last Sigh, slightly flubbed by the eager economy of the English version. When the question of an Oscar came up for The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Buñuel, straight-faced, told a group of Mexican reporters that everything would be all right, he had paid the $25,000 he had been asked for. “Americans may have their faults,” he said, “but they are men of their word.” Banner headlines in Mexico, scandal in Los Angeles, floods of telexes. Buñuel explains that it was a joke, calm returns. Three weeks pass, and the film receives an Oscar. Buñuel remarks to his friends, “Americans may have their faults but they are men of their word.” The translation drops this admirable punch line.
In his life as in his films, Buñuel managed to cheat time, reshuffling its cards, making it seem tame or trivial. Then, as he says, in the last five or six years, old age began in earnest, la vraie vieillesse. Weakness of legs, eyesight, prostate. Dizziness, lapses of memory, failures of coordination. Hospitals. The diagnosis is easy, he would say. I’m old, that is my chief disease. This would be his answer when you asked him how he felt. You might add, “Well, apart from old, how do you feel?” Then he would grin and say, “Apart from that, I feel terrible.” There is a funny scene in his last film but one, The Phantom of Liberty, which records a personal brush with medicine. A doctor called Pasolini says to his worried client, “I should like to make a small incision. Simple medical curiosity. Whenever you like. When you can find the time.” A pause. “Will tomorrow suit you?”
In his last years, Buñuel was waiting for death with something like impatience—the sort of impatience you show to a child who is slow with his shoelaces. The jokes would still come, though, and he welcomed occasional visitors. “I like solitude,” he wryly says in his book, “as long as a friend comes and discusses it with me now and then.” The last time I saw him he was toying, quite theoretically, with the idea of political preferment in Mexico, that land of rising and falling favor. “If I had the choice,” he mused, “I think I should like to …
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Bunuel’s Voice February 2, 1984