Bunuel's last shot

FILM BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Language of Film

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Having just finished reading master screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere’s book The Secret Language of Film I find myself fascinated by one of his observations more than others; that of the first shot Luis Bunuel ever filmed and the last.  

The Secret Language of FilmJean-Claude Carriere’s career has been long and illustrious, having collaborated with Jaques Tati, Philip Kaufman, Jonathan Glazer and Milos Forman to name just a few. It is his lifelong collaboration with Luis Bunuel, however, that fascinates and intrigues film enthusiasts continuously.  They collaborated on nearly all of Bunuel’s films including The Obscure Object of Desire, Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle De Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The pair’s relationship resembled more of a marriage at times with Carriere estimating that the pair ate dinner together more then two thousand times.

Carriere’s book, The Secret language of Film, is a rambling and opinionated  manuscript written by a man with a rare insight into European filmmaking from the 1960’s onwards.  The style is engaging although at times long-winded; fair enough to expect this embracing of freedom from a writer who has spent his career demanding succinct,  economical prose as the screenplay form demands. With 219 pages and only 6 chapters, it is not a rigidly ordered reading experience – and that’s it’s strength. The nuggets of gold are there but you can’t skim read looking for them.

What is harder is not to do it too emphatically, too insistently, too heavily, not to waste precious time on it, for time in the movies cost more than elsewhere. The main thing is to conceal the information we dispense behind vital, interesting action.

Carriere demands economy from his screenplays and advises  writers to take the same approach. He spends much of his writing time attempting to conceal expository facts and, if that’s not possible, to do it as quickly as possible.   “What is harder is not to do it too emphatically, too insistently, too heavily, not to waste precious time on it, for time in the movies cost more than elsewhere. The main thing is to conceal the information we dispense behind vital, interesting action.”

the secret language of film
Bunuel’s first shot (L) from Un Chien Andalou and his last shot (R) from That Obscure Object of Desire.

Probably my favourite anecdote from the book concerns his opinion and thinking on the beginning and the end of Bunuel’s career. “I have always been struck by the two images that opened and closed his career, the first shot he ever filmed and the last.”  The first, being the opening shot from Bunuel’s collaboration with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the last being the penultimate shot from That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Carriere’s observation is profound. Did Bunuel intend it this way? Is it possible these two images would be so alike, so contrasted and yet filmed almost fifty years apart? Consider the similarities: the focal point of the images, the positioning of the hands, the sharp tools. Carriere’s book is full of off-kilter observations like these.

the secret language of film
Jean-Claude Carriere at his desk

Carriere is an artist and he fights for the survival of art cinema. He urges writers and directors to show less not more, to leave things unsaid and to make the audience work for the meaning. “The greater the painter, the harder he makes us work.”  He does not revile television rather sees as something quite different to cinema. He believes that there is no room for ambiguity in television as it is for the masses yet in cinema great movies “readily foster ambiguity, even vagueness”. Carriere’s book, written in 1994, predates the current resurgence of the television drama format led by the HBO’s of the world. I wonder what Carriere would make of shows like the first season of True Detective.

At 84 years old, Carriere’s writing is still going strong. His latest film, In the Shadow of Women, was selected to open the Director’s Fortnight at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Spending a couple of hundred pages inside the mind of a gifted dramatist, who has earned an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, is a true pleasure and a gift to filmmakers. It’s not another “How to write a screenplay” book, far from it. It’s much more than that. The Secret Language of Film is a expose of knowledge, both overt and covert,  by a writer who doesn’t hold back.

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