About 25 years ago, as part of an avant-garde film series at college, I saw this great Louis Brunuel movie called The Exterminating Angel. Well, it wasn’t exactly “great”, now that I think back on it, but it was surreal enough to have made a lasting impression. In it some 12 to 15 members of Franco’s upper crust gather in a stylish Castilian villa. The first 40 minutes or so depict these men and women seated around a well appointed table, exchanging witty repartée on various existential topics. The movie basically goes nowhere during these early stages and I remember thinking — sitting there in the same lecture hall where I endured Psych 101 — that here was yet another obtuse, hyper-intellectual, dialectical drama of the mind that explores, in excruciating detail (and in Spanish), Iberian class struggles circa 1962. Sorta like My Dinner with Andre meets The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Just about the time my roommates and I were getting restless, wondering what better things we might be doing with our youth, the guests do a funny thing: Instead of going home, they all crash in the music room. Next morning, a military fellow in the film calls attention to himself with great ceremony and indicates that, sadly, he must take his leave. But his friends won’t have it; they talk him out of it… Before long a couple stands and makes a gracious but unmistakable move to depart. When the group protests, they look at each other and decide to stay… More high-blown conversation ensues before another guy excuses himself, thanks his hosts, dons his coat and gets as far as the door jam. Those assembled seem prepared to let the man go, but for reasons he doesn’t seem to understand, he turns around and resignedly re-takes his place on the couch.
It becomes clear that no one, for reasons they’re unable to articulate or comprehend, can leave the room.
Eventually the situation becomes dire. Even the servants have fled the premises for reasons they themselves cannot explain. Yet the guests are trapped, by what they don’t know. Hours pass. The police show up outside and attempt to coax them out with bull-horned pleas and instructions. Nothing works. It’s become a veritable hostage situation and eventually the guests eat all the leftovers and dicker themselves into a state of desperate exhaustion. Days pass, farm animals materialize in house (!) and one by one the guests collapse from a lack of food and water.
I can’t remember how the movie ends but my family and I are traveling over the impending holiday. Here’s hoping that life doesn’t mimic art exactly.
Like Brunuel’s dinner guests, we’ve all of us found ourselves stuck inside the some airport’s secure gate area, the bewildered prisoners of grim circumstances beyond our comprehension. Over and over again we try to leave, but for a variety of reasons — some practical, some damned surreal, all of them out of our control — we cannot.
Hour upon hour of travel impotence inevitably leads to contemplation, some of it darned existential. Surely Brunuel must have been an experienced air traveler. I looked into it, and found this telling quote re. The Exterminating Angel: “Basically,” the filmmaker explained, “I simply see a group of people who couldn’t do what they want to… That kind of dilemma, the impossibility of satisfying a simple desire, often occurs in my movies. From the standpoint of reason, there is no reason for this film.”
Godspeed to all of us this holiday season, everyone.