Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Buñuel Riots

This article originally appeared in Brush of the Dust on November 22.

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.

Video: Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Note: the opening scene may make you faint. Offenses and perversions 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 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.

Video: L'Age d'Or
Note: contains scenes of perversion, blasphemy, and dog kicking.

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 BBCIMDBSydney Morning HeraldFilm all report ink being thrown at the screen.
  • claims rotten eggs were thrown at the screen.
  • The BBC and report "stink bombs." Film says there are "smoke bombs"
  • claims tear gas was set off.
  • 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 reports chanting. claims these chants include cries of "Death to the Jews".
  • The BBC reports the foyer was trashed.  Film and 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."
  • says "the police stormed the theater" and "patrons endeavored to set it aflame."
  • IMDB and placed blame the violence on the fascist "League of Patriots". 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 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 says it was not seen again until 1980. More accurately copies of the film were still available but in limited supply. According to, 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 Anti-Semitism, 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.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Skaneateles Skedaddle

I grew up on Skaneateles Lake, one of the cleanest public lakes in the world, Syracuse's drinking water, and one of two locations where hydrofracking is banned in New York State. Other than the beautiful lake, the beautiful village, and the exemption, Skaneateles-ians have something extra special: a love for the word Skaneateles. It's a weird love.

It certainly was not love at first pronunciation. It can produce anxiety in those new to the word, and most telemarketers give up without even trying. Those who try are bound to fail. Twice over the last two weeks I've heard it pronounced "ska-needles" and "skittles." I applauded their effort and laughed in their faces. It's "skan/ee/at/eh/liss" or "skinny-atlas."

Another reason for our pride and love of "Skaneateles" is its meaning. Everyone agrees Skaneateles is an Iroquois word, and for good reason, it's the truth. Most people agree that it means "long lake," and for good reason, it's the almost the truth ("long water" is more accurate). But my interest does not lie in the truth, but in the lies. The fictional origins of "Skaneateles" are more fun than the truth.

There are fat stories. My mother's favorite version concerned an overweight lady, who upon gazing at the lake from the top a hill, tripped and tumbled all the way to the lake shore. When she stood up, miraculously thinner, she yelled "Skinny at last!"  The same punch-line is used in the story of a fat Native American who ran around the lake 20 times."Skinny-atlas" has been around since at least 1902, but I know of no story about a fat map. So here's my try, focusing less on the obese:

Two land-surveyors were debating if they should map the whole world, or just a small area. When they set their eyes upon our beautiful lake, they agreed: Skaneateles.

The Reverend William E. Danforth, in a two-act farce called "The Old District School," claims Skaneateles is "the heathen that held the world up on his shoulders -- they called him Skinny Atlas because he was skinny." The joke would work better if Danforth (who died in 1941, in Skaneateles) had related it back to the lake itself. Let me try:

The great Titan, Atlas, after years of holding the world up on his shoulders, retired to a relaxing lakeside home upstate. He did little but look at its beautiful waters. Whenever his old friends would visit, they'd exclaim, "wow, Skinny Atlas!"

Some 19th-century writers wrote more believable (though still untrue) accounts of the word "Skaneateles." In the 1886 non-fiction book, "The Truths of Spirituality," author Ebenezer V. Wilson claims there once was an Onondagan Chief named Skaneateles. While under the influence of "King Alcohol" the imbibed chief accidentally drowns in the lake. As a spirit, he oversees the citizens of the lake as "an angel of mercy," aiding even those white-men who stole his land. As of 1886, the fake Chief Skaneateles was still in contact with mediums through seances.

The most-referenced false meaning of Skaneateles I could find, is "beautiful squaw" in the Mohawk language. The "beautiful squaw" is meant to mirror the coastal outline of the lake (as one poet put, "she appears molded in thy translucent waters sweet."). If you think about this, the theory doesn't hold water (pun intended, sorry). This theory would work if the Iroquois tribe: 1) cared what the lake looked like from 5 miles above the Earth, and 2) viewed all objects facing northwards.

Onondagan Chief Totowahganeo, on March 18th, 1862, looked to put such silliness to rest. He wrote the Skaneateles Democrat, Skaneateles, "literally rendered, is Long Water." Yet, the myths and the jokes did not abate. Nor should they discontinue. It's a fun name.

Additionally, in his article, Totowahganeo states the lake should be pronounced, "Skeh-ne-a-ties." I guess this means:

A man who dropped his fat tie in the lake. When he picked it up, it reappeared as three smaller pieces of fabric. So the guy says...

Got any alternate meanings I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fustigating "Slams"

Slams sucks, almost as much as Martin Van Buren. Slams (verb), via freedictionary, means:
  • To shut with force and loud noise
  • To put, throw, or otherwise forcefully move so as to produce a loud noise.
  • To hit or strike with great force.
  • Slang To criticize harshly; censure forcefully.
I hate "slams" in news headlines. The bible of the industry is an editor's stylebook, yet when it comes to headlines, use of the slang "slams" (not in the stylebook) is AOK. "Slams" is harsh and unreasonable, even when you agree with the substance behind it. "Slams" can even ruin a person's intention, as the headline Ex-senator Danforth slams harsh rhetoric hillariously proves. The most aggregious user of "slams" is CNN and its political ticker. Some examples:

Obama slams health insurance companies
Palin slams Fox's 'Family Guy'
GOP 'survey' slams Obama
Schwarzenegger slams Palin
Biden slams Palin comment
RNC slams Obama award
GOP slams Obama in Keystone state
Ex-aide slams Palin in leaked book
Davis acknowledges faults, slams GOP
Obama promises new jobs initiatives, slams GOP
Carney slams GOP budge
Al Qaeda No. 2 slams Obama's first months in office
Foxx slams Obama, gets autograph
Republican slams Obama administration on terrorism
GOP senator slams Obama over Libya
Kaine marks start of traditional fall campaign season, slams GOP
RNC slams Obama in first TV ad
RNC slams Obama on his 49th birthday
Palin slams 'bored, anonymous, pathetic bloggers who lie'
Left slams Obama over safety net
Fidel Castro slams 'assassination' of unarmed bin Laden

"Slams" itself tells you nothing about reasoning or motives. There was a tremendous force, but it's origin and it's trajectory is unknown. No reasoning. No motives. Just an attack. Why is the attack more important than the substance and reasoning behind it?

Even if you're okay with knowing about "slams", the headlines rarely tell you the accuracy or success of the political attack. In the case of a few of those headlines, like "Schwarzenegger slams Palin" gives you only a glimmer of an idea of the article's newsworthiness. The article says Arnold is suspicious Palin's anti-environmental statements are all political theater to win the Republican nomination in 2012. Who's right? Any response? At the very minimum, is this a shift in the political winds? By focusing on the fight and not the substance, we get nothing. All we get is boring political theater. Maybe "slams" is a keyword to let the reader know "this article contains useless political posturing".

I guess this isn't all about "slams." This might me my bigger distaste with political theatrics. Let's compromise. Let's start a scale of political attack. Low, Medium, High, Super-high, and Doug Benson. Let's leave "slams" for Doug Benson-sized criticism. For low critical attacks, how about "appraises" or "evaluates". For medium, I like "scrutinizes". For high, the thesaurus has plenty of options, but my favorite is "fustigates". And don't forget the most important part of reporting, finding the truth within the posturing.

So let's reduce or remove "slams" from our political discourse. It's the most essential movement of our lifetime. If there are to be political slams, let it be:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Van Buren. You Suck.

Martin Van Buren and his muttonchops
Truman gets a bad rap. He dropped the atomic bombs, he failed to reign in Stalin, and led America into the Korean War. Nevertheless, he led America out of World War II and depression, saved Western Europe from Stalin, and promoted a wise domestic policy. There was little Truman did that FDR would have disapproved of. When Truman left office he had few supporters. Historians and octogenarians agree FDR is one of the greatest presidents. The Truman fan club is much smaller.

The same situation goes for Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Van Buren kept many of Jackson's cabinet and continued most of his policies. Yet, Andrew Jackson is on the ten dollar bill, and the best you can say for Van Buren is he was mentioned on Seinfeld. Has Van Buren's legacy been as unjustly maligned as Truman?


I have never hid my total hatred for Martin Van Buren. In elementary school, each student was given a president to report on. Unlike some classmates who got "awesome" presidents like Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and the Roosevelts, my assignment was the eighth president of the United States. I combed his story for amazing details but was left with sadness. As a young student in 1991, I knew there was a bad president. His name was Richard Nixon and he was a mean man who almost ruined America. I also knew America did bad things in the past. Slavery wasn't a good thing. Also we weren't too nice to the "Indians" (excuse me for the pre-1992 lingo). With my introduction to Martin Van Buren, my childhood innocence (presidents-wise) was lost. This man was awful.

"Martin Van Buren was the Vice President under Andrew Jackson, and he oversaw the Trail of Tears. In conclusion, Martin Van Buren was the eighth president of the United States. The End."

B+. How dare you ruin my perfect grade in social studies.

Andrew Jackson started two major policies which ruined Van Buren in the short and long-term. The short term disaster was the elimination of the second national bank. Jackson entrusted the states with handing finances. In Van Buren's first year in office, banks closed, inflation and unemployment grew, and the president did nothing to assuage the crisis. Another panic occurred two years later, leaving America (and Van Buren) in further ruin. The crisis was relatively temporary, but cost Van Buren any chance of reelection.

The long term disaster set-up by Jackson was the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The law allowed the United States, as they saw fit, to remove Native Americans from their land. During Van Buren's presidency, the Treaty of New Echota was ratified, leading to the forced removal of the Cherokee. The Chickasaw were also kicked off their land at the start of his term.

In Florida, Van Buren fought Seminoles who refused to leave their land. In his 1838 State of the Union speech, Van Buren said action of the Seminoles left "no alternative but to continue the military operations against them until they are totally expelled from Florida." This was a costly and bloody success.

In the same speech, Van Buren summed up the Trail of Tears.
"The recent emigrants, although they have in some instances removed reluctantly, have readily acquiesced in their unavoidable destiny."

Unavoidable destiny? You're awful! I have not seen a more vile statement by any other American president (prove me wrong). For more awful Van Buren quotes, visit this site. If you don't hate Van Buren yet, reread that statement again.

Although he was vocally against slavery later in life, as president he did nothing of importance to affect this critical issue. In fact, Van Buren opposed the mutinying slaves in the Amistad case. Not cool, Martin.

Van Buren was the first in a long line of terrible presidents. He was followed by William Henry Harrison (died a month in), John Tyler (hated by both parties, later joined the Confederacy), James Polk (started land-grab war against Mexico), Zachary Taylor (slave-owner but otherwise okay), Millard Fillmore (know-nothing loser), Franklin Pierce (terrible president, Confederate sympathizer), and James Buchanan (do-nothing apathetic loser). Quite simply, these eight incompetent presidents presided over the worst bit of American History. The mediocrity began with Martin Van Buren, with the help of his mentor and predecessor, Andrew Jackson.

Van Buren. You suck.

You too Jackson.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Script Doctor: USA vs. Brazil

On July 10, 2011, USA played Brazil in the Women's World Cup quarterfinals. After an exciting first 90 minutes (including a few controversial calls), the score was tied 1-1. After scoring within two minutes of overtime by Marta (don't forget to yell her name loud, reach to the sky and roll the "R"), Brazil holds on until the man-down USA team scores the tying goal with seconds remaining. USA wins in penalty kicks, and celebrations continue today. I must admit, their win still makes me smile.

As the game ended, and the commentators, coaches, fans, and players made their statements, everyone agreed: it would make a great script. Hero of the match, Abby Wambach, said "I don't know if you can write a better script." Many many many others agreed. So I sent it to my local script doctor, and here is his take:

I admit. It was a very good script, especially for an unscripted event. Good script, but not the perfect script. Good job team. But let me make a few suggestions:

1. The back-story needs some fixing. In the script it says the USA team beat Brazil in four of the last six tournaments. That stat should read "zero". Brazil should be seen as an unstoppable force. Brazil is also listed as third in the world, while the USA team is first. That should be switched.

2. I like the Marta character. Can you make her more evil?

3. I'm not a fan of Brazil's own goal in the beginning. Please nix. Plus the woman who made the mistake, Daiane, also missed a penalty kick at the end of the game. This would lead the audience to sympathize with her. Please replace her with Marta. Marta missing the kick is much more exciting. Make it the last kick. And make the final score 5-4. Perfect.

4. Make the match the final game, not a quarterfinal match. We need to see a trophy hoisted, otherwise what was the fight for? Bragging rights?

5. There are two characters with similar names: Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe. This will confuse the audience, please change Rapinoe to Megan Rogers.

6. I like how the crowd came to USA's defense as they battled back, but wouldn't it be even more fantastic if the game took place in Brazil? Just saying. Well okay, maybe Germany works. Or Iraq. Just throwing that out there.

7. If it has to take place in Dresden, change the coach of the USA team, Pia Sundhage, from Sweedish to German. As a child in World War II, she survived the allied bombing of Dresden. Adds another layer. She could have flashbacks throughout the match.

8. After the event, there needs to be at least one of these scenes:
  • proposal(s) of marriage
  • unexpected birth(s)
  • dance sequence
  • team returning 50 years later to the ruins of the stadium.
  • meeting with the president
  • settling the alien/predator conflict
9. Okay, one last thing: can one of the players be a man in drag? Maybe Megan Rogers.

Good luck with the script, "you're almost there."

-Pete the Script Doctor

If you got any other script changes needed, let me know in the comments section.

Check out:
-Greg Cote's match thoughts, and love for the "unscripted possibility of ... anything" in sports.
-ESPN asking women sportswriters their thoughts on USA's victory and its importance.
-The replay of the game on ESPN3.