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Saturday, March 27, 2010


Spanish director Fernando Arrabal has what some would call a "skewed" outlook on life, a fact that's quite obvious to anyone who's encountered any of his paintings or films. While I've not seen his first three films, VIVA LA MUERTE, I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE, and THE TREE OF GUERNICA, trailers and various clips hint that his earlier output is the most aggressively bizarre. With THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION 2, Cult Epics has assembled the remainder of the director's works--which run the gamut from the almost-but-not-quite conventional to the unremittingly strange--in a set that his fans will no doubt want to add to the first one.

Arrabal's CAR CEMETERY, aka Le cimetière des voitures (1983), is a punk-dystopian retelling of the Christ story, replete with nudity, sado-masochism, graphic depictions of a laundry list of other perversions, bizarre surrealistic imagery, and an irreverent (though somehow non-blasphemous) sense of humor. But despite all this, Arrabal's oddly ineffectual film adaptation of his own play comes off as a low-budget cross between JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and GODSPELL as conceived by Ken Russell.

In a post-nuclear society where fascist police search the ruins for rebellious young punks who still believe in peace and love and all that stuff, a leather-clad rock 'n' roll messiah named Emanou (Alain Bashung, who died in March '09) gathers his followers in an auto graveyard to dispense divine wisdom and perform miracles. His true believers are a motley bunch given to bacchanalian excess while availing themselves of the carnal wares of fat pimp Milos as he presides over his bustling auto-brothel.

Milos' star attraction is the beautiful Dila (Juliet Berto), who still turns tricks although her heart and soul belong to Emanou. In one of the film's loveliest images, Dila performs as a mermaid in Milos' prized pre-apocalypse water tank along with some dolphins. She also allows herself to be dressed as a human wedding cake and wheeled around to attract potential customers. Dila receives holy messages from a tiny guitar-plucking angel she keeps in a glass jar (I'm not sure, but it looks like Arrabal doing a cameo), although it's not clear how she happens to possess such a thing.

An apparent disciple shortage limits us to two rather sorry specimens, the derby-domed Topé (Boris Bergman), resident Judas equivalent, and Fodère (Dominique Maurin), who seems just as faithless and doubting as his associate. We know Fodère is meant to remind us of Peter, since in an early scene he idly muses something about how he thinks that soon, he may deny Emanou three times before the cock crows. This statement just comes out of nowhere and the character does nothing else to remind us of anybody in particular, much less an ardent disciple.

Much time is spent depicting the lecherous indulgences of characters both beautiful and grotesque, although I don't recall any of this sort of thing still being all that shocking in 1983. From time to time Emanou will amaze everyone by performing a resurrection, healing the afflicted, or re-enacting various other passages from the New Testament as his onlookers "ooh" and "aah" and groove on how cool he is. In one scene, he blandly performs highlights from the Sermon on the Mount while standing on a wrecked car, and in another, he feeds the hungry mulitude not with two loaves and two fishes, but with two Big Macs. (He neglects to ask anyone if they'd like fries with that, however.)

As all this is going on, two members of what pass as the police are roaming the scorched countryside in a bulldozer searching for the right car cemetery where the rebellious punks and their anarchist messiah are hiding out. A tall, matronly woman and a wiry bulldog of a man, the two comical cops supply most of the film's humor as she incessantly urges him to work out to utter exhaustion in order to beat some unknown record, while he plies her non-stop with ardent sexual pleas. "My giant is crying," he implores her. "Smell my candelabra, Lasca."

An amusing flashback shows us Emanou's birth in a garage, where he's visited by three wise beauty pageant contestants (Miss Myrrh, Miss Oro, and another whose banner I couldn't read though I assume she's Miss Frankincense or something) bearing gifts. There's the obligatory Last Supper, not all that different from Leonardo da Vinci's depiction save for the guy with the saxophone and the fact that Dila has her head in Emanou's lap.

And, of course, after Topé betrays him to the cops with a (French) kiss, there's the crucifixion, which consists of Emanou being chained to a wrecked motorcycle and hoisted aloft. We then skip the resurrection (an unfortunate omission reflecting JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR's secular tone, which this film, interestingly, has largely avoided) and go straight to the ascension, depicted by a badly-animated cartoon dove, and the fadeout, which is surprisingly anti-climactic.

The Cult Epics DVD is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital French-language soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras consist of trailers for the Arrabal films contained in the first collection (THE TREE OF GUERNICA, VIVA LA MUERTE, and I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE). The film lacks the sort of driving rock music soundtrack I expected, although the song Emanou performs during his final concert does have a catchy bass line.

Despite the extremely garish trappings, the Biblical events are recounted in a relatively straightforward manner, so rather than being satirical I think Arrabal is more interested in drawing a parallel between Christ's persecution and that of his own father, who was imprisoned for political reasons at the start of the Spanish Civil War (a subject which dominates his earlier work as well). Beyond that, CAR CEMETERY is mainly an exercise in absurdity and excess that didn't engage me on an emotional level. Most of its impact as a story is diluted by the main character, Emanou, since he's pretty much a cold fish without any kind of charisma whatsoever. Even during the Passion, he lacks passion.

I think I remember seeing a VHS copy of Arrabal's THE EMPEROR OF PERU, aka L'odyssée de la Pacific (1982), in a budget bin somewhere once, with a different name and a really crappy-looking cover, and thinking that it was just about the last thing in the world I'd even think of watching. Now I'm glad I got a chance to see it, but I really wish I'd seen it when I was a kid.

This low-budget French-Canadian production starts out looking like one of those obscure foreign children's movies that your local station might've pawned off on you on Saturday afternoon along with PIPPI LONGSTOCKING or SUPERBUG. Certain elements, however, raise this odd effort above the norm as it matter-of-factly explores some rather serious territory while often veering into a pleasingly headscratching surrealism.

Toby and his older sister Liz are a couple of playful, somewhat spoiled kids living with their rich uncle and aunt, who also take on a Cambodian refugee named Hoang for the summer as he awaits placement in foster care. The three children become fast friends and have many biking adventures in the woods, where they meet a crippled old former railroad engineer named Tubo (Mickey Rooney) living in a vine-covered freight car converted into a hermit's shack.

Toby discovers a derelict locomotive engine near an abandoned roundhouse, and with Tubo's help the children restore it to working order. Their plan is to travel to Cambodia and find Hoang's mother, who had to give him up during their flight from oppression, so that he can marry her. This is complicated when the mayor shows up and announces that the city council has voted to place Tubo into a rest home for his own good. As the police descend on his secluded shack with lights flashing, the children scramble to prepare the locomotive for their escape.

Much of the film's running time is devoted to depicting Toby's wild flights of fantasy in which sees himself as a champion drag racer, a dashing astronaut, a celebrated orchestra conductor, and a courageous fire chief braving the raging flames to rescue his beloved duck, Federico, from a burning building. The segments are narrated by a breathless play-by-play commentator ("Braver than Popeye! Braver than Joan of Arc!" he exclaims) and also feature a deadpan Hoang as trenchcoated ace reporter Bumphrey Gokart. This is the usual kid-fantasy stuff done in a light and entertaining style and is quite amusing.

Taking the film beyond such fluff, however, are Hoang's startlingly serious flashbacks of life in Cambodia, one of which shows sadistic soldiers invading his village and holding a child upside-down by his feet, threatening to shoot him. We also learn that his father has been taken away to a concentration camp, and witness Hoang's traumatic separation from his mother during their escape from Cambodia. She makes him promise that he won't cry, which explains why Hoang always seems so solemn and stoic--he's still trying to keep his promise.

In a quietly intimate conversation late at night in Hoang's bedroom, he reveals to Liz his intent to find his mother and marry her. Liz asks, "And when you marry your mommy, will you know how to kiss her? Like in the TV ads?" In an accompanying flashback, his mother's comforting face is replaced by that of Liz herself. This is the kind of thought-provoking stuff Uncle Walt probably wouldn't have felt inclined to include in his version of the story.

As in those old Swedish PIPPI LONGSTOCKING movies (which I love), adults are either sympathetic allies who are themselves childlike, or absurdly officious nincompoops. Mickey Rooney's "Tubo" is the former, introducing himself as the Emperor of Peru when they first meet and offering the kids a cigar. When told that cigars give you cancer, he retorts, "That's not true! Doctors with all their hogwash. I'll tell you what gives you cancer--soap and water! Washing all the time! That gives you cancer, only faster." Toby responds brightly, "I'll have a cigar!"

Clearly, this isn't one of those films intent on pounding sundry lessons into young viewers' heads. The kids are shown having outrageous adventures free of adult supervision and doing pretty much whatever they want, existing in their own world which operates by their own rules. They even discover an old coal mine thanks to some indigent circus performers they encounter and start mining coal for the locomotive's steam engine, which the severely screw-loosed Tubo thinks is simply grand.

Rooney, one of the greatest actors who ever lived, has a ball in his role, clearly ad-libbing much of his dialogue and letting his own vast stores of natural nuttiness fully round out the character. In Tubo's own fevered fantasies, he's either a bewigged emperor with an army of midgets or, fittingly enough, Napoleon, and in one segment reminiscent of the old TV faith-healer shows we get to see him rising joyously from his wheelchair thanks to Toby, the world's greatest doctor. "Marry your mother?" Tubo bellows in response to Hoang's plan. "Why, if more of my subjects had only married their mother, we'd have had less divorces!"

This movie has been released on VHS with such titles as ODYSSEY OF THE PACIFIC and TREASURE TRAIN. The only other DVD version I could find online was called LITTLE CHAMP and was paired with Shirley Temple's THE LITTLE PRINCESS as a two-fer. The DVD from Cult Epics is in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen with both English and French soundtracks and English subtitles. There are no extras. Edith Butler's musical score contains both the usual jaunty kid-movie music and some nice New-Agey stuff.

THE EMPEROR OF PERU falls a tad short of strict political correctness, and may actually be a little weird, but I think sometimes that's good for kids. It causes them to form their own thoughts instead of simply absorbing someone else's. And the strangely open-ended fadeout--which reminded me, believe it or not, of the end of RUNAWAY TRAIN--will probably leave you wondering what the heck you just watched, no matter how old you are.

Disc three in the set contains a trio of shorter films, each about an hour long. 1992's ADIEU, BABYLONE! is shot on video and tells the story of a strange, radically non-conformist young woman (Lelia Fischer) who roams the streets of New York carrying a velveteen rabbit and a giant pencil. She begins to murder people whom she decides don't deserve to live, bewitching them and applying garish makeup to their faces before ceremoniously gutting them like carp and scampering away. "All that flows in your veins is the blood of the most insipid turnips!" she tells one of her potential victims. Since she resembles a demented Elaine from "Seinfeld", these images are doubly strange. "I walk, a herring beneath my dress; I am nauseous," she writes in her diary. "What a life--I wish I were shipwrecked."

At one point, she recalls her childhood with a Cambodian refugee named Hoang, and we see a scene of them together which is taken from THE EMPEROR OF PERU. Is this Liz grown up? Weird. Arrabal's bizarre stream-of-consciousness narrative is an endless barrage of surreal verbage matched by the dazzling montage of images he's photographed and strung together, accompanied by some quacky, hilariously chipper little songs.

Next comes JORGE LUIS BORGES: UNA VIDE DE POESIA (Borges, a Life in Poetry, 1998), in which video of the blind, elderly Brazilian writer's final address before an audience is interspersed with Arrabal's usual surreal images and music. It's slow going, but Borges is such an interesting character that listening to his philosophies on art and life is a rewarding experience.

The final film, ARRABAL, PANIK CINEASTE (2007), features the director himself talking about his films and how his life experiences have influenced his art, and recounting the formation of the Panic Movement with like-minded iconoclasts Roland Topor and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Also appearing are actress Nuria Espert, who played his mother in the autobiographical VIVA LA MUERTE, Alain Bashung of CAR CEMETERY, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. The film, while very informative to anyone interested in Arrabal, is deadly dull. But after seeing clips from his earlier efforts, I have to concur with Henri Chapier when he asserts: "Many psychoanalysts have taken an interest in Arrabal's work."

THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION 2 comes in three separate keepcases housed in a heavy cardboard box which, along with disc 3, is illustrated with Arrabal's own intriguingly odd artwork. A grab-bag of mostly worthwhile efforts, it should provide fun viewing for those seeking the rare and unusual.

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Guely of Sweden said...

Borges is from Buenos Aires,Argentina. Great review!

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks! Arrabal's films are interesting, to say the least.