CWRU film researcher edits Juan Luis Buñuel’s memoir

Linda Ehrlich

An unedited family memoir by film director Juan Luis Buñuel, eldest son of famed Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, spent 10 years in Linda Ehrlich’s closet.

With Juan Luis’ permission, Ehrlich, an associate professor of modern languages and film studies at Case Western Reserve University, edited the manuscript, recently published as Good Films, Cheap Wine, Few Friends: A Memoir (Shika Press, 2014).

“This memoir offers a first-hand look at the life of a vibrant man who has been surrounded by important figures of the 20th century, including his father, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró and Orson Welles,” writes Ehrlich.

In his memoir (originally written in English for his children), Juan Luis, 80, traces family events, from his father’s awareness of the rise of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain to exile in France, New York City, Hollywood, and, eventually, Mexico.

Following the artistic innovations of his first three films made in Europe (Un chien andalou, L’age d’or, Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread), Luis Buñuel created many of his subsequent films in Mexico, where Juan Luis spent his adolescent years.

Juan Luis learned filmmaking while working various jobs on films by Welles, Louis Malle, J.A. Bardem and his father. He wrote and directed three feature films—Expulsion of the Devil (1973), Lady with the Red Boots (1974), Leonor (1975)—and many documentaries, including a series for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and two about his father’s hometown, Calanda, Spain.

The memoir details how his father’s early friendships with Salvador Dalí and the poet Federico García Lorca impacted Juan Luis’ life. Calder was like a second father who saved the family during hard times and inspired Juan Luis as a sculptor and painter.

Juan Luis’ engaging anecdotes also offer insight into the artistic world of such figures as actors Fernando Rey, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Maria Félix; artists Man Ray and Rufino Tamayo; directors Ingmar Bergman and Luís Berlanga; and writers Carlos Fuentes, García Márquez and James Jones.

Readers also learn of his involvement in such important political movements as the Paris demonstrations in 1968, the Black Panthers and the reforms of Panamanian ruler Omar Torrijos.

Luis Buñuel was invited back to Spain in 1960 to make Virdiana (1961), a film that Ehrlich notes was anything but safe because of its subtle attack of religious and bourgeois hypocrisies. Juan Luis recounts smuggling the reels of his father’s completed film across the border to France, hidden beneath bullfighter’s equipment.

Once safely in France, Virdiana was entered in the Cannes Film Festival, where it won highest honors. A high-level Spanish government official, invited to speak at the ceremony, was fired the next day when the Vatican denounced the film.

The memoir’s beginning

Ehrlich met Juan Luis during a campus visit in 2004 when the Oberlin College alum was on a speaking tour in Ohio.

Messages flowed between Cleveland and Paris, where Juan Luis now calls home.  One email mentioned a memoir.

Ehrlich asked to read it and received a digital copy. She urged him to make it public.  With a German publisher considering it, Ehrlich shelved the manuscript.

“Last year, I wanted an intellectual challenge and thought about editing the book,” she said. Juan Luis agreed.

Thinking it would be easy, Ehrlich said she didn’t envision the 10-hour days ahead with a computer, iPad and other devices opened to French and Spanish dictionaries to verify correct spellings, dates, names and places.

Computer 22 in the Kelvin Smith Library’s Freedman Center became her unofficial “office” as she became engrossed in the book. She reorganized and redesigned the original unillustrated manuscript, with the help of Jared Bendis, the library’s creative new media officer.

She also received help from other people at the university: the Freedman Center staff, and Elena Fernández, Charlotte Sanpere-Godard and Christine Cano from the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, and alum Corey Wright for computer skills.

Last December, Ehrlich traveled to Paris to choose photos and clarify story details with Juan Luis. When the final editing was done, she knew the project was worth the commitment.

“I read the manuscript more than 19 times and never grew tired of the stories,” she said. “Through Juan Luis’ musings about his extended family in Spain and France, I began to understand the unpretentious, fun-loving and brave nature of this remarkable group of people.  It was a joy to live for a while in the ‘Buñuelian universe.’”