THE OPENING SEQUENCE to Un Chien Andalou (1929) marks the most remarkable and provocative debut in film history -- not because of the infamous sliced-open eyeball, or even the wickedly hilarious casting of the director himself as the wielder of the razor. What's so stunning about the first images from Luis Buñuel's long career is the perfectly positioned camera, the languorous rhythm (matching flawlessly the tango beat he insisted accompany the film), and the marvelous sense of expectation and inevitability.

After only a few years as an assistant director, Buñuel had somehow intuited that the cinema was inherently surrealistic; that, like dreams, it could make its own continuity -- both spatial and temporal -- based on editing and camera angles. Consequently, he displayed from the beginning a familiarity and mastery of form it would later take Truffaut, Antonioni, even Welles, years to achieve.

It's this often-overlooked aspect of Buñuel's art -- its elegance and beauty -- that makes his films ageless. So many surrealist films from that time now play only as cinematic history lessons, experiments long past their ability to shock or even delight, stuffed and mounted for classroom examination. Un Chien Andalou is alive still, and dazzling as ever. The Last Supper tableaux from Viridiana (1961) has been copied so often, the original version should have lost all potency; but the headlong zoom that announces it, the perfectly timed crowing of the cock on the soundtrack, Buñuel's breathless montage of details, the beggars frozen in position -- everything makes the scene giddy, no matter how often you see it.

Buñuel never lost his touch; not during the years in exile, making cheapies on assignment in Mexico, nor in the heralded later films, comic masterpieces all, with the finest casts French money could buy. There is hardly another career in film so consistently fine and of a piece -- which will be made obvious by this Thursday night series at SAM (supplemented later on with screenings at Consolidated Works).

I've noticed over the years that when film lovers gather, we hardly ever get around to discussing these remarkable movies. Ozu, Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, sure, but never Buñuel. I suspect that's a sign of how remarkable his films are: so effortless and economical, so catholic (small c!) in their view of humanity, they hardly seem crafted or shaped at all. Which, as anyone will tell you, is the highest level art can attain.

Support The Stranger