VHS VAULT presents
Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1967)
Monday, March 26. Starts at 8pm. Upstairs lobby. FREE
The help becomes more impertinent each day.
Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel reveals the slow and sudden unraveling of upper society as they experience an isolated apocalypse in their party hosts’ dining room. Like in other post-apocalyptic movie (zombie, nuclear, vampiric), the unwilling residents of this unknown disaster go through stages of discovery, collaboration, segregation, degradation, and death. Only here, there are no explanations and no reasonable revelations. Buñuel’s beautifully surreal depiction of the decline of bourgeoisie civilization remains unsolved, unknowable, and unexplainable.
The hidden world, which reveals nothing other than its hiddenness, is a blank, anonymous world that is indifferent to human knowledge, much less to our all-too-human wants and desires. – Eugene Thacker
Some have attributed The Exterminating Angel as the precursor to reality television (which has somewhat become the exterminating force of certain creative cultural productions) but the difference lies in the participants’ complicity. Whereas people now willing sign up to be locked in a room with strangers or friends to show “what happens when people stop being polite and start being real” (MTV slogan for The Real World) those features in Buñuel’s dinner party inexplicably wind up in a situation they did not sign up for. Also, whereas reality TV stars are aware of the camera recording them, Buñuel’s camera functions as our only surveillance. Here, the outside world recognizes the incident but is not granted access or agency to see it first hand. But this is precisely what makes The Exterminating Angel so incredibly fascinating to watch; as the façade of civility, kindness, and social graces recedes, a far more ugly and desperate reality emerges. And it’s private.
Undoubtedly part of Buñuel’s cinematic fuck you to the bourgeoisie (L’age D’or, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle De Jour), The Exterminating Angel shows the boundaries of class separation and the subsequent blurring of this distinction in an unbelievable moment in time. This spatial line is represented quite literally within the confines of one room, one in which you can enter but you certainly can’t leave. As a moral holding cell, the room contains not only physical beings but also the societal baggage that comes with each man and woman. When the hosts’ servant also becomes trapped in the room (while the other servants seemingly knew about the event and made sure to evacuate in time), we can see that this apocalypse is for those who operate willing within sanctioned class structure.
Buñuel was indifferent to provenance. His Sadeian taste for the apocalyptic was tickled by the vision of an omnipotent power visiting death on mankind like a farmer spraying insecticide on locusts. – John Baxter
Luis Buñuel’s affiliation with Surrealism, embracement of nihilism, and denouncement of Catholicism are quite well known. His displeasure with “Franco’s Spain” led to his exile in Mexico, where the Spainish-set The Exterminating Angel was filmed. This film in particular is a revolutionary attack on all structures Bunuel detested in 1960s Spain: beginning by addressing class structure and then shifts to the religious realm at the film’s conclusion. At the core, as if it could exist in any other way, The Exterminating Angel is a very fluid surrealist endeavor where time both loops and stands still, wild animals freely roam within domestic space, and people react as best (or worst) as they can to their selective and collective end of the world.