Friday, March 06, 2020

The Young and the Damned (1950)

Los olvidados, Mexico, 80 minutes
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Luis Alcoriza, Luis Buñuel
Photography: Gabriel Figueroa
Music: Rodolfo, Halffter, Gustavo Pittaluga
Editor: Carlos Savage
Cast: Roberto Cobo, Alfonso Mejia, Miguel Inclan, Estela Inda, Alma Delia Fuentes, Mario Ramirez

Spanish Surrealist director and cowriter Luis Buñuel was naturalized as a Mexican citizen in 1949, which may account in part for the foray into social realism he takes with The Young and the Damned. Various business considerations no doubt came into play as well. It was probably never easy making a living as a midcentury Spanish Surrealist filmmaker. The movie is better known in cineaste circles by its original name, Los olvidados, which translates literally as "the forgotten ones." I think it bears comparison, as Latino social realism, much more with movies such as City of God or maybe Amores Perros or even Roma than with other pictures in Buñuel's catalog before or after. That would include most famously, perhaps, 1929's Un Chien Andalou and 1972's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but don't forget Viridiana and The Exterminating Angel from the early '60s. I would class The Young and the Damned more as an outlier, in short, even if it is presently considered Buñuel's second-greatest picture in the critical roundup over at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

You'd be forgiven for wondering what happened to the Surrealism, but it is actually here, caught briefly in a dream sequence and more generally in the very harsh tenor of this picture (Surrealism, after all, has always been about brainstem perceptions as much as anything). The harshness also suits the social realism, of course. I have no problems with that in theory. I've been fascinated all my life, since at least S.E. Hinton's remarkable novel The Outsiders, with stories of juvenile delinquency, violence, and disaffection. But Buñuel's treatment is so primitive it's almost too much, even in the relatively compressed running time. It's a low-budget affair, obviously, but practically seems to wallow in its conditions, a kind of pornography of despair on some levels. Set in Mexico City, these down-and-outers have zero glamour, no doubt as intended. A surprising amount of time in this picture is devoted to people heaving rocks at one another, and inflicting terrible damage too, including death. They have other ways to fight, and the movie has other themes too, but the rock-throwing may best epitomize the plight Buñuel is depicting here. When you have nothing, and the ground you walk on is stony already, well, what do you think you're supposed to do?

Much of this picture is so dismal it can't help but be shocking. In that way it's not dated or obscure at all A blind man is attacked by the youth gang. They rob him and wantonly do all they can to destroy his source of income. A man with no legs is attacked by the youth gang. They rob him and throw away his wheeled cart. Kids trying to go straight are preyed on by the youth gang, whose leader, El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), is a hateful overgrown miscreant. He uses his size to his advantage over most of his pathetic followers and he uses dirty tricks to get past people closer to his own size. He pursues the sister of one of his pals and the mother of another, and you get the clear sense he's not above rape either.

"This film is entirely based on actual incidents and all characters are authentic," a note early on tells us. I don't doubt that's true but so is Dragnet. This movie is much closer in spirit to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (also based on actual incidents and authentic characters) than Do the Right Thing. It's not particularly thoughtful or sensitive and I keep getting the feeling it's meant to dishearten. Perhaps it is intended to shock its audience into taking action. But it almost seems more likely to shock us into numbness. Luis Buñuel, as comics illustrator R. Crumb has said about himself in another context, "is not a nice man." And this is not a fun movie. Buñuel's cruel children may not be as bad as that kid in the Jerome Bixby story, "It's a Good Life," but they're pretty bad, and the ones who might be redeemable tend not to make it. Maybe the movie this is closest to in the end is the mid-'90s creep show Kids.

Which is all cold hard truth, right? The bad sleep well, the good die young. Et cetera. Pick your own clichés. We're likely familiar with these truths to some degree in our own lives, and in a world spiraling into an epoch of foolish desperation and madness it's more relevant than ever on a level. I'm not necessarily flailing for comfort or trying to justify something that's such a relentlessly bleak downer. Buñuel's specific gifts as a filmmaker are all over this, even as primitive as it is, and if he abstracts out the humor that often accompanies his pictures (and it's missed), there might at least be some sense here that he is laughing at the discomforts his picture produces. Certainly the kids here would likely find our squirming and tut-tutting a source of amusement, or more likely contempt. The Young and the Damned is more enjoyable than Salo, I'll give it that.


  1. I love all of the references here to other films. Excellent comps in each case. I made the Roma comparison, myself. But these are really good. And that last sentence ... well, it's a good way to end things, but really, EVERY movie is more enjoyable than Salo :-).

  2. Ha, it's true, that's an easy one -- EVERY movie.