Spanish film director Luis Bunuel’s 1961 masterpiece, Viridiana—frequently cited as the best Spanish film of all time despite being made in Mexico—concludes with a recreation of the Last Supper. It is a sequence that transcends the rest of the film, and to this day endures as one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. The picture’s namesake heroine, Viridiana, a carnal symbol of the immaculate Virgin, has welcomed the poor, the homeless, the ragged and destitute into her wealthy manor as an exercise in noblesse oblige and spiritual catharsis. When she is called away, the inmates take over the asylum and find to their delighted dismay, an elegant table overflowing with a sumptuous feast. Naturally, they help themselves. But their enjoyment quickly turns into a comic-tragic debauch as their crude, unchecked appetites overwhelm any semblance of etiquette and the elegant dining room transforms into a raucous grotto of gluttony and lust.
At once a satire of Catholic symbolism and also a throwback to medieval European Christmas festivals of disorder, the “Last Supper” sequence—as critics call it—remains a polarizing, revolutionary celluloid image. At once both depressingly predictable and shockingly disorienting, Bunuel severs the dream of civilized (re: privileged) society as the framework of a thousand years of tradition and caste is turned inevitably, inexorably topsy-turvy.
The cover art of the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet depicts a discreet, gold-limned invitation to dinner. The letters R.S.V.P. stamped unobtrusively at the bottom-left corner in a delicate cursive script. When you open the invitation, you instantly witness the aftermath of the feast: all five members of the band sprawled drunkenly about a hall in varying states of stupor around a massive table littered with wasted sepia-toned excess: untouched piles of fruit, half-eaten salmon, huge broken cheeses, and a seemingly untouched fricasseed pig. Tokens of the ancient and the temporal sit scattered: earthenware pitchers, silver teapots, a candlestick sculpture of a Sixties-era star-bedazzled head. In the middle of the foreground, Keith Richards reclines on a draped bench dangling an enormous flagon. A boxer dog rests on his crotch. With a lunatic grin, he hoists a knife with a green apple impaled upon it (a playful nod to the Beatles, whose White Album appeared in stores the same month?) to Mick Jagger’s gaping lips. It seems in keeping with the sly humor of the Stones that a lone sheep appears in a shadow from the stairwell leading up to darkened bedrooms.
The original cover art of Beggars Banquet featured a grimy portrait of a toilet stained by graffiti. The legend is that it was considered too obscene to be released at the time, and only appeared on subsequent releases. No doubt it augmented the Stones’ reputation as a dangerous, envelope-pushing rock band, but I prefer the subtle alternative cover. The invitation to a fine engagement in which all hell breaks loose. Given this visual introduction, the lead-off track makes perfect sense. It becomes the introduction and welcome from the decadent party’s host: “Please allow me to introduce myself/ I’m a man of wealth and taste./ I’ve been around for a long long year/ Stole many a man’s soul and faith…”
This party, like the best parties, is one in which you must get destroyed to last the night. If Viridiana sought to upend Catholic Spanish traditions, Beggars Banquet, in the guise of five loutish stand-ins, promises to upend the world itself.
Beggars Banquet was released in November, 1968, to a public that had already witnessed the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the abdication of LBJ, a festering hellhole in Vietnam, the inversion of the dream of the Summer of Love and an American presidency, only days before, shanghaied by Richard Nixon. In retrospect, Lucifer was probably as a good a host as anybody. The Stones themselves would get caught up in the turmoil they christened mere months later, when their Hell’s Angels security guards killed a man at free concert at the Altamont Speedway. The event haunted them, and for a while they stopped playing “Sympathy for the Devil” in concert. As everyone knows, the grisly scene was captured on film, its own societal death knell, in Gimme Shelter, eight years after Bunuel’s classic. Today both are available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.
I’ve listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” hundreds of times. So has anybody who’s ever seen a Martin Scorsese trailer. (Does he own the rights to it by now, or what?) But listening to Beggars Banquet on vinyl, I finally heard the song for the first time. Or heard its most relevant part: “But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game…”
Yesterday I drove back from Big Sur to Los Angeles. Before I got on the 1 for the arduous trek home, I stopped with Sara for an hour at the Kevah Café at Nepenthe. From that sun-drenched promontory, I stood at the railing for some time staring out silently at the high mountains dusted with broom, flecks of muted colors—violet, orange, yellow and brown dotting the deep greens—tracking a haphazard progression to the endless sea, invisible beneath a layer of endless cloud. Slowly, the marine layer touched the earth and rose up a crack in the rock like a gentle hand reaching without grasping.
From my vantage point I could spy into the gift shop one story below. A young girl timidly tapped a Tibetan gong with a soft wooden mallet. The sound clanged for a moment, then a store clerk with a long gray ponytail took the instrument from her hands and beat a gentle tattoo that reverberated expertly into deafening stillness. I felt the sun cooking the flesh of my face as I recalled the time, eight years earlier, I’d first traveled to that spot.
At that time, unwilling to leave, I stopped Noe’s car at a turnout on the side of the road and walked down a rocky path toward the tilted promise of water. Halfway down, a shudder ran through me. I stopped in my tracks and craned my gaze back to the looming mountains. The grade seemed suddenly much steeper. I mistrusted my footing and the straightness of the path below. Caught, then, for the first time in my life. Filled with the twin promise of dread and desire for the life that would come when I left that vortex of repose. What choice did I have? To go or stay rooted there forever? A looming sense of insecurity permeated every fiber of my being. A fear of something towering and unknowable as God. I named that feeling Kali, looking up at my girlfriend waiting on the crest above. I turned back up the hillside, got in the driver seat and drove home.
Now, as the fog rose up the rocks and the echo of the gong clamored into silence, I penetrated the heart of that long-ago fear. I took refuge in the clamoring stillness, and one by one the singular joys and disasters that had captured me since came tumbling back. Tumbling one by one they fell into the sightless sea. Free at last I stood unburdened, possessed of nothing. A soul laid waste, but refreshed, kindled by glowing cinders.
Unity, in harmony and argument, in violence and embrace, are all one in that place, in that way, in that churning thoughtless repose. I didn’t once feel the presence of God, but I didn’t feel the Devil, either. I finally understood his game.
THE ROLLING STONES BEGGARS BANQUET, 1968, London Records