Source: Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath (London: Flamingo, 1985), pp. 31-33
Text: I think I was about eight years old when I discovered the cinema, at a theatre called the Farrucini. There were two doors, one exclusively for exiting, one for entering, set in a beautiful wooden facade. Outside, a cluster of lemonade sellers equipped with a variety of musical instruments hawked their wares to passersby. In reality, the Farrucini was little more than a shack; it had wooden benches and a tarpaulin for a roof.
I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies alone, but was always accompanied, as everywhere, by my nurse, even when I only went across the street to play with my friend Pelayo. I remember how enthralled I was by my first cartoon; it was about a pig who wore a tricolor sash around its waist and sang. (The sound came from a record player hidden behind the screen.) I’m quite sure that it was a color film, which at that time meant that each image had been painted by hand.
Movies then were little more than a curiosity, like the sideshow at a country fair. They were simply the primitive products of a newly discovered technique. Apart from trains and streetcars, already habitual parts of our lives, such ‘modern’ techniques were not much in evidence in Saragossa. in fact, in 1908, there was only one automobile in the entire city, an electric one.
Yet movies did signify a dramatic intrusion into our medieval universe and soon several permanent movie theatres appeared, equipped with either armchairs or benches, depending on the price of admission. By 1914, there were actually three good theatres: the Salon Doré, the Coyne (named after the famous photographer), and the Ena Victoria. (There was a fourth, on the Calle de los Estebanes, but I’ve forgotten the name. My cousin lived on that street, and we had a terrific view of the screen from her kitchen window. Her family finally boarded it up, however, and put in a skylight instead; but we managed to dig a small hole in the bricks, where we took turns watching soundless moving pictures.)
When it comes to the movies I saw when I was very young, my memory grows cloudy; I often confuse them with movies I saw later in Madrid. But I do remember a French comedian who kept falling down; we used to called him Toribio. (Could it have been Onésime?) We also saw the films of Max Linder and of Méliès, particularly his Le Voyage dans la lune. The first American films – adventure serials and burlesques – arrived later. There were also some terribly romantic Italian melodramas; I can still see Francesca Bertini, the Greta Garbo of Italy, twisting the long curtain at her window and weeping. (It was both wildly sentimental and very boring.) The most popular actors at the time were the Americans Conde Hugo (Count Hugo) and Lucilla Love (pronounced Lové in Spanish). They were famous for their romances and action-packed serials.
In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and ‘explained’ the action to the audience. ‘Count Hugo sees his wife go by on the arm of another man,’ he would declaim, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, you will see how he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out a revolver to assassinate his unfaithful wife!’
It’s hard to imagine today, but when cinema was in its infancy, it was such a new and unusual narrative form that most spectators had difficulty understanding what was happening. Now we’re so used to film language, to the elements of montage, to both simultaneous and successive action, to flashbacks, that our comprehension is automatic; but in the early years, the public had a hard time deciphering this new pictorial grammar. They needed an explicador to guide them from scene to scene.
I’ll never forget, for example, everyone’s terror when we saw our first zoom. There on the screen was a head coming closer and closer, growing larger and larger. We simply couldn’t understand that the camera was moving nearer to the head, or that because of trick photography (as in Méliès’s films), the head only appeared to grow larger. All we saw was a head coming towards us, swelling hideously out of all proportion. Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, we believed in the reality of what we saw.
Comment: Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) was one of the world’s great filmmakers. This extract is taken from his autobiography. Toribio was the given Spanish name for the French comic actor André Deed, best known under his Italian name of Cretinetti. Onésime was a different actor. The film with the expanding head may be Georges Méliès’s L’homme à la tête en caoutchouc (1901). I have not been able to identify Conde Hugo or Lucilla Love, who might possibly have featured in Spanish serials, of which there were a number in the late 1910s.