How the exterminating angel incisively criticizes the rich
Modern cinema is full of films addressing the urgent subject of economic inequalities and class disparities. In recent years in particular, projects ranging from Parasite To Knives Out To Ready or Not garnered not only critical praise, but also captivated the general public with their insightful look at examining and criticizing upper-class excesses. However, not all 21st century attempts to broach this subject have ended up being as thoughtful as the work of Bong Joon Ho.
Productions like Elysium Where The platform ended up being a long way from using the medium of cinema to provide effective commentary on the rich. These types of movies frustrate how close they come to saying something substantial about the rich before they fold back and settle for conventionality. Strangely, if modern films like these want advice on how to improve their approach to this subject, they should look to the past. Specifically, they should look to a 1962 film titled The exterminating angel by the director Luis Buñuel.
Right off the bat, Buñuel begins teaching inferior films on how to criticize the upper class, as he conveys the detached nature of the wealthy protagonists through their offhand comments comparing people of lower economic classes to animals and being inferior to. All these rich gathered for a party organized by Señor Edmundo Nóbile (Enrique Rambal) and his wife Lucía (Lucy gallardo). At some point in the night, everyone gathers in a room… then find themselves unable to come out. At first, it’s just because they are all tired and decide to spend the night in this room.
Soon, however, it becomes obvious to all the party-goers that no matter how hard they try, they can’t leave this room. An unknown force keeps them all contained within these four walls. This sets off the surreal part of this surreal horror film, as the main characters grapple with one inexplicable storyline after another in their trapped confines. This trait alone already puts The exterminating angel above so many other cinematic commentaries on class disparity. Buñuel is not afraid to embrace a detachment from reality that is necessary if one is to truly realize the truly uncontrollable nature of the upper class.
Modern projects like Joker who push and push about economic inequality root their stories in gritty realism to make them seem rooted in everyday reality. Unfortunately, they end up silencing their stories and the actions of the wealthy to an extreme degree. Thus, these films seem out of step with a reality where billionaires engage in competitions to get to space while millions of people have no money to buy food. On the other hand, Buñuel’s surrealist story which offers no concrete explanation of what is happening does not only correspond to the inexplicable behavior of the rich. It also offers a mirror of how often, in reality, the lower class are suddenly affected by the wealthier members of society for no real reason. Now the rich are stuck in the same state of confusion as the common people they hurt.
This embrace of the unusual extends to the making of films by The exterminating angel, another trait separating it from other modern cinematic withdrawals of the rich. These recent films frequently use the continuous edit style. This dominant form of editing translates, in certain projects, that what we are looking at is the “normal” state of the world. It’s an appropriate approach for many stories, but if used carelessly, this form of editing, combined with lethargic staging, can have toxic effects. Specifically, he can capture the bourgeoisie in a way that subliminally suggests to the viewer that this is normal. Exorbitant wealth is only a part of reality, after all, the conventional editing does nothing to suggest that what we are watching should be abrasive to the eyes.
The exterminating angel, meanwhile, features a lot of unusual edits, not to mention the blockage and camera angles, which visually accentuate the surrealism of the film as well as the idea that we are not looking at the average members of society. The very presence of such wealthy individuals is about as unusual as the inexplicable scenario they have now found themselves trapped in. Buñuel adopts an editing style in scenes set in this piece that is jagged and at times intentionally disorienting, especially during a dream sequence involving a disembodied hand.
This lucid scene is a microcosm of the most unusual cinematic techniques used in The exterminating angel and they serve as a stark contrast to other segments of the story. More specifically, they are a far cry from the visual aesthetic of brief cuts to the outside world, where relatives of trapped and everyday viewers congregate. These engage in more traditional forms of editing and larger shots. Once the camera returns inside the cramped close-ups and abrupt editing, it becomes more evident than ever what Buñuel is visually up to.
By providing a clear division between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in terms of camera and editing, Buñuel subliminally suggests to the viewer which populations they should consider “normal” and which they should consider “aberrations”. Such multifaceted approaches that use the smallest details of filmmaking to accentuate an attitude towards the rich are sorely lacking in many modern films about economic inequality that leave all their comments on the surface.
This facet of The exterminating angel goes hand in hand with how the film sees the behavior of the rich. Some properties of 21st century pop culture, like Development stopped, filter the detached nature of the rich through aloof behavior. It can be fun to watch in some contexts, but the widespread use of this tactic challenges pop culture representations of the wealthy and their obnoxious behavior. During this time, The exterminating angel does not refrain from portraying the rich as immediately crunching under the first sign of pressure and resorting to turning on each other.
Even before they’re all trapped in a room together, Buñuel’s script tries to portray the party guests as talking badly about each other behind each other’s back and not having to. heart than their own interests. This is especially evident in the behavior of the servants, who look out for one another and have a deeper sense of fellowship. Once everyone is trapped in a room, Buñuel doesn’t portray them transforming into monstrous people detached from their previous characters. What was barely contained below the surface has just taken over. There are real teeth in Buñuel’s portrayal of the rich as they become as beastly as the herd of sheep and cubs they tried to control when their party started.
All these qualities add up to make The exterminating angel something that may still resonate as topical and scathing six decades after its release, but it’s an epilogue that shows just how thoughtful Buñuel’s approach to this topic is. Although the surviving members of this group manage to find a way to escape the room, the story is not yet over. A closing scene depicts a church ceremony that ends with no one willing to leave. Everyone just decides to let someone else go first. The inexplicable situation has now shifted to suggest an even greater scope for social commentary.
With this epilogue, Buñuel suggests that the corruption found among the rich is not the only example of powerful pockets of society exercising too much control over society. Now he is attacking religious institutions, which also tend to cast a critical eye on those “below” and show that they will now be trapped for no rhyme or reason. Just because these wealthy revelers walked out of this room didn’t mean the corruption in society was solved. Compare that to the conclusion of Elysium, where the distribution of magical medical beds that can, among other uses, cure cancer seems to resolve societal inequalities. This simplified view of corruption is avoided in The exterminating angel in favor of something more to do with the horrors of reality.
The exterminating angel is such a skillfully crafted indictment from the top crust that it shouldn’t be surprising that it also ends with a label that dramatically expands the scope of its frustrations. More modern films exploring corruption among the wealthy might draw more than a few clues from such an endlessly creative film.
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