I’m a fan of history and film, and with recent riots hitting news (especially stupid riots) I was reminded of the most famous civil unrest at a movie theater, the Buñuel Riots. Rarely does a movie lead people to attack the screen (unless it’s with popcorn), but Lois Buñuel’s did that, twice. Yet, early film history is like all history, full of half truths and half lies. Since we’re all starting off unclear on what exactly happened, I’ll start with what I know so far.
Lois Buñuel, a surrealist director, with the help of Salvador Dali, famed 20th century painter of melting clocks, made two notable films around the end of the silent era. One, “Un Chien Andalou” is not for the squeamish. The other, “L’Age d’Or,” is not for the easily offended. As for the riots, Total Film repeats what I know: the films “literally provoked riots at screenings.” Time to find out if it was not just literal riots, but physical too.
Now onto the discovery phase:
The first film by Buñuel, “Un Chien Andalou“, was called by Roger Ebert, “the most famous short film ever made,” (although more likely that award would go to a Wallace and Gromit or Pixar short). It is certainly the most controversial short film.
Note: the opening scene may cause faintness. Offenses within.
The filmmakers knew how controversial their film would be when it first premiered at Studio des Ursulines in Paris. In an article titled “When Art History Goes Bad” the author claims fear of a riot, “prompted Dalí and Buñuel to bring sacks of rocks with them on the film’s official opening night, just in case they might need to defend themselves.” IMDB concurs. “At the Paris premiere, Luis Buñuel hid behind the screen with stones in his pockets for fear of being attacked by the confused audience. ”
Roger Ebert cautions belief in “sacks of rocks” story. In his Great Movies article on “Un Chien Andalou”, he writes:
Bunuel’s memories were sometimes a vivid rewrite of life. When he and his friends first saw Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary Soviet film “Battleship Potemkin,” he claimed, they left the theater and immediately began tearing up the street stones to build barricades. True?
Although it is possible Buñuel had stones on hand, he did not need them. The premiere on June 6, 1928 came and went without incident. Film Reference.com writes, “Buñuel brought rocks in his pockets to the premiere screening to throw at the audience if they hated it, but the surrealists loved it. The film had an eight-month run at the prestigious Studio 28.” As for any riots, I’m siding with Michael Koller in Senses of Cinema who writes, “although there are reports of disruptions of screenings, these seem to be based on false memories of events surrounding the release of Buñuel’s next film, L’Age d’Or.” No riots. Let’s move on to the good stuff.
I can say, for certainty, the film “L’Age d’Or” caused riots. Or more accurately, a screening of L’Age d’Or at Studio 28 in Paris was the scene of a riot. Confusion over the event begins with its date. Some articles say this happened at the film premiere on November 28, 1930. Others claim it happened on December 3. From what I can tell, the more in-depth articles claim the latter. Bernard P.E. Bentley, in “A Companion to Spanish Cinema“, writes “the film officially opened on November 28, but the riots did not start until December 3.” IMDB agrees, and add the time of the riot occurred half way through the film screening.
Here is a dossier of events, played out like a news feed:
- The BBC, IMDB, Sydney Morning Herald, Film Reference.com, Encyclopedia.com all report ink being thrown at the screen.
- Encyclopedia.com claims rotten eggs were thrown at the screen.
- The BBC and Encyclopedia.com report “stink bombs.” Film Reference.com says there are “smoke bombs”
- Encyclopedia.com claims tear gas was set off.
- Encyclopedia.com claims members of Studio 28 were clubbed. Sydney Morning Herald says “patrons were beaten up”.
- The BBC adds, rioters “fired guns into the air.”
- Film Reference.com reports chanting. Encyclopedia.com claims these chants include cries of “Death to the Jews”.
- The BBC reports the foyer was trashed. Film Reference.com and Filmcritic.com says the lobby featured a surrealist exhibit, which was destroyed. Jim Loter says “several Surrealist paintings” were destroyed. Sydney Morning Herald says there were painting from Dalí destroyed. IMDB says the paintings slashed included ones from Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and Man Ray. Village Voice’s film guide states, there were Dali and Max Ernst paintings in the lobby which were slashed.
- Jim Loter claims there was damage to “the cinema’s projection equipment.”
- Filmcritic.com says “the police stormed the theater” and “patrons endeavored to set it aflame.”
- IMDB and Encyclopedia.com placed blame the violence on the fascist “League of Patriots”. Encyclopedia.com also blames the Anti-Jewish League.
Victoria Advocate says the film “led to six days of right-wing attacks on the theater.” Village Voice says the film was shut down two days after the riots. New York Magazine says seven days. Film Reference.com says three months. Village Voice and New York Magazine say the police banned the film, Jim Loter blames, “the official French censor, after ordering a few scenes to be cut, banned the entire film.” Film Reference.com says it was not seen again until 1980. More accurately copies of the film were still available but in limited supply. According to AMCtv.com, the film was first shown at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art in 1933, and again in the 1960s. It was not widely seen until it’s official US premiere in 1979.
There are a few theories to why the riot occurred. One thought is the Fascists and Anti-Semites were led on a misguided belief that the film was the work of Jews. In fact, Buñuel was a lapsed Catholic turned Atheist. Dalí was an on-again off-again Catholic. Yet, if you were an Anti-Semite and heard of a very Anti-Christian movie being released, you might make assumptions. (Full disclosure: don’t be an Anti-Semite.)
Jim Loter believes the right-wing attack on L’Age d’Or was neither an attack on the film’s controversial images nor a misguided belief that it was the work of Jews, but the alignment in Paris between the surrealists and the Communist Party in Paris. The intellectuals behind surrealism were starting to focus on political will. This might explain why the paintings were slashed. This was an attack on Surrealists as a whole, not just the film. Buñuel’s film was just one of the intended targets. I was swayed by this argument when I originally thought the riot took place on opening night. Since the stink-bombs and rioting 30 minutes into the film inferred premeditation on the part of the rioters, why would they prepare to riot at a movie they haven’t seen yet? But a December 3rd riot means they had five days to hear about the offensive and sacrilegious imagery throughout.
The most popular reason for the riots is the most obvious reason: the film offended the audience. The film easily offends Christians (full disclosure: this includes me), capitalists, as well as the high and middle class. As for the Antisemitism, since the film was anti-Catholic, angered patrons assumed the director was Jewish. The plot can be confusing, the sexuality nears pornographic, and did I mention the protagonist gleefully kicks a dog?
This all goes towards what many think is true: Buñuel wanted a riot. If he had rocks to throw at the “Un Chien Andalou” audience, it meant he was prepared. Some believe he was hoping to throw the rocks. In “British Film Institute film classics”, Rob White and Edward Buscombe theorize that Buñuel and the surrealists wanted a riot, as it would give them added attention from the media. Multiple articles mention Buñuel’s disappointment at the success of “Un Chien Andalou,” with Jim Loter stating, the director showed, “dismay at his film’s being appreciated as an artistic expression instead of a call for violent Revolution.” Pacific Cinematheque believes the L’Age d’Or was intended to offend and “didn’t take long to hit its intended mark, meeting with howls of indignation and outrage soon after its Paris release.” This is backed up by film critic Ado Kyrou who said it was the filmmakers goal, “not to please but rather to alienate nearly all potential spectators.”
What can’t be debated is the effectiveness of the riot. It clearly succeeded. French surrealists immediately lost interest in filmmaking. Buñuel, having burned all his bridges is Paris, left just days after the riots to begin work at MGM Studios in Hollywood. If It would be decades before he’d return to success in artistic film, and even longer to see his first two films become among the most influential in experimental cinema.