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Tuesday, April 13, 2010


As much as I enjoyed volume two of THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION from Cult Epics, it feels like a somewhat less essential assortment of odds and ends compared to this first set containing the Spanish filmmaker's most twisted, controversial, and aggressively surrealistic images and ideas.

The most autobiographical and visually confrontational of Arrabal's films, his feature debut VIVA LA MUERTE (1971) is the story of a little boy named Fando (short for Fernando, I'll bet) dealing with the arrest and imprisonment of his father during the Spanish Civil War and the discovery that it was his mother who turned him in to the fascist government for being a "red" and an atheist. Fando idolizes his missing father, whose forbidden ideologies begin to transform the teachings of his domineering mother and other elders into warped Freudian nightmares in his fervid adolescent mind.

The delirious onrush of puberty that fuels Fando's imagination becomes an Oedipal obsession which finds him lustfully keyhole-peeking on his mother. In one scene, he literally strokes his lizard as he peers at her half-naked body, then bites its head off. Okay, I can partially identify with that, because if I was in a movie and the exquisite Núria Espert played my mom, I'd probably stroke my lizard, too. But I wouldn't bite its head off. Unless I found out that I was in a Fernando Arrabal movie, in which case it would probably be the most normal thing I'd do that day.

The message of the film is that both the fascist state, which uses violence to crush dissent, and rigid conformity, which does so in a variety of insidious ways, are bad. This is a springboard for Arrabal to indulge in plenty of scenes, both real and imagined, which ridicule religion and the military. Of particular note is a fantasy in which Fando and some other boys castrate the local priest and feed him his own junk. "Oh, my balls! How tasty they are!" he gushes. "Thank you Lord, for this divine dish."

Another highlight finds Fando's mother stripping to the waist and forcing him to whip her back with a belt in penance for her sins ("Harder! Faster!" she moans in ecstasy) while she in turn grabs his crotch and gives it a vise-like squeeze. Her treachery in blowing the whistle on Fando's father inspires a vision in which she tapes black X's over his eyes as he's tied to a post, then gleefully mounts a tank and exhorts the leering soldiers, to whom she has given herself sexually, to shoot him. In one of the film's most startling moments, he's bound in a tiny wooden cage while she stands over him and defecates on his head.

Fando, meanwhile, is either increasingly losing touch with reality or it's losing touch with him. When his beloved grandpa dies and he's told to give the departed a last kiss, Fando does so and then begins to lick the old man's face. He lights up a cigarette during class one day and sits there puffing like Bogart while his teacher, a pudgy nun whom he envisions as a rooting pig, has a fit. The adult world around him grows stranger by the minute as he struggles to make sense of his father's fate, while both his alienation from and strange sexual attraction to his mother continues to confuse him. (Mahdi Chaouch, as Fando, is an amazing child actor who is convincingly in character every moment he's onscreen and gives a performance of surprising subtlety and depth.)

This, however, is nothing compared to the dizzying heights of weirdness Arrabal has in store for the viewer. An actual slaughterhouse is the setting for a sequence that will leave mortified animal lovers agog as a live bull is violently beheaded, disembowled, and castrated. Fando's mother holds the bull's testicles aloft and then squirms ecstatically through the flowing gore (Núria Espert is the very definition of a "trouper" here) before inserting a grown-up Fando into the animal's open carcass and sewing him up inside it. It's a crashing wave of repellant but disturbingly potent symbolism that leaves the incredulous viewer aghast. And if you're like me, you'll wonder how in the hell Arrabal managed to persuade his cast to enact some of this way-OTT stuff.

Back in what passes for the real world in this movie: increasingly suffocated by his mother's overbearing influence and that of his other stodgy and oppressive elders, Fando begins to develop a constant cough. Although the doctor diagnoses it as TB, it seems more as though his lungs are rejecting the very atmosphere around him. As he's taken to the hospital for a barbaric operation, his possessions are ordered burned--we see his little handmade theater and the crude dolls that represent his family going up in flames--as though his odd presence is being purged from the village. In the end, the only person who loves Fando for himself and remains loyal to him is a sweet little girl named Thérèse whose other constant companion is a pet turkey on a leash.

The DVD is in 1.78:1 widescreen with both French and dubbed-Spanish soundtracks and English subtitles. Along with a lobby card gallery and a trailer for I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE is an interesting interview with Arrabal during which he fondles a wooden chair and smells his shoe. The keepcase also contains a six-page foldout booklet with liner notes by Rayo Casablanca.

Often accompanied by an incongruously cheerful children's tune that will reappear in much of Arrabal's later work, VIVA LA MUERTE is a heady concoction of perverse, Bosch-like images that aren't easily assimilated. I'll probably watch it again whenever my life starts to feel a little too normal and I need a stiff dose of crazy.

I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE, aka J'irai comme un cheval fou (1973), features yet another warped mother-son relationship that makes me wonder how much of it is also drawn from Arrabal's own experiences and/or hangups, and how much is just him messing with us. The main part of the story, however, is like a wish-fulfillment dream that mixes the surrealism of his other work with the childlike fantasy of THE EMPEROR OF PERU, building to a bizarre yet oddly optimistic ending.

After apparently murdering his rich, clinging mother and fleeing with her cash and jewels into the desert, Aden Ray (American actor George Shannon) encounters a primitive Pan-like troll named Marvel. This naive and gentle soul lives in a cave with his goat Theresa and various snakes, scorpions, and insects, and knows nothing of the outside world. When asked if he can read, Marvel responds, "What does 'read' mean?"

Marvel asks about civilization, and as Aden tells him how wonderful it is we see people in gas masks making joyless love and racing around with shopping carts. Television, he explains, is "a blind woman who teaches philosophy and caresses the foulest recesses of our brains."
Every time Aden describes the wonders of his world his words seem hollow and meaningless, although the naive Marvel finds them intriguing and funny.

Fascinated by Marvel's utterly guileless innocence and mystical communion with nature, and reveling in the first taste of freedom that he's ever known, Aden nevertheless can't wait to introduce the eager naif to the big city, which, of course, will have consequences both delightful and dire. All the while, police continue to close in on the fugitive Aden, and his newfound happiness with his soulmate Marvel proves fleeting.

While VIVA LA MUERTE was unrelentingly downbeat, this time Arrabal renders dreamlike images both dark and enchanting. The former dominates early on as we see some of the traumas that warped Aden's childhood, including the time he stumbled upon his mother (Emmanuelle Riva) being willingly sexually abused and degraded by the handyman. While she gets what is commonly known as a "facial", a distraught and confused Aden masturbates himself into a frothing epileptic seizure.

Heavily symbolic scenes include the boy Aden as Baby Jesus, mouth taped shut, as his Virgin Mary mother drives needles into his penis, and the older Aden lying catatonic in his mother's arms as she lights his erect member like a candle. Yikes. It's no wonder that he fantasizes about nailing her outstretched tongue to a table.

On a lighter note--traditionally handsome Aden and childlike dwarf Marvel make quite a pair. Their first meeting is hilarious--Marvel offers Aden some food, which he likes. What is it, he asks. "I wrapped it in rose petals," Marvel says proudly. "A little flour...mixed with goat shit." Aden watches in wonder as Marvel greets the morning by twirling ecstatically like a top beneath the rising sun until he levitates. Some blind desert dwellers arrive and implore him to heal them, which he does by dabbing their eyes with his saliva.

Hachemi Marzouk is perfect in the role--you can't help but be captivated by this grotesque little bundle of joy as he scurries around with no ambition whatsoever except to know and give happiness, and dispensing miracles without a second thought. "What is happiness?" he asks, and while Aden ponders the question, Marvel answers it himself by scampering down a sand dune with joyful abandon.

When the two arrive in the city, we fear that the awestruck Marvel will be corrupted by its sin and temptation. Yet it's as though he has a force-field of innocence that prevents this from happening. When a scheming circus owner tricks him into dancing around in boxer shorts for paying customers, Marvel not only enjoys the experience but shares his joy with everyone else by releasing some lions from their cages, causing a panic. Aden keeps trying to get unwilling hookers to give him his first sexual experience, yet Marvel, with his sweet personality, manages to snag a beautiful woman into a whirlwind marriage ceremony presided over by his goat.

One of the most vividly moving sequences takes place in a church after Marvel impulsively insists on attending mass. As a dour priest haranges his flock about their impending damnation, the tearful Marvel approaches a large crucifix and gently removes the crown of thorns and a nail from one hand, magically drawing blood. "Blasphemer!" everyone angrily accuses, yet for a moment we see the image of a loving Christ smiling down upon him.

The DVD is in 1.78:1 widescreen with French soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras include a lobbycard gallery, the trailer for VIVA LA MUERTE, a six-page foldout booklet with liner notes by Rayo Casablanca, and another interesting interview with Arrabal.

After the on-the-nose autobiographical odyssey of VIVA LA MUERTE, I WILL WALK LIKE A CRAZY HORSE finds Arrabal beginning to express other feelings in other ways. The final gripping minutes are both horrifying--some will find them utterly disgusting--and inspirational, climaxing in a thrilling moment of hard-earned transcendence. The horror has barely faded before a happy ending leaves us smiling, and the swirling maelstrom of Arrabal's imagination seems to have been allowed a brief moment of peace.

With THE GUERNICA TREE, aka L'arbre de Guernica (1975), Arrabal takes the Spanish Civil War head on with his most ambitious work to date. He shows us how the war affects the small village of Villa Ramiro, which is lorded over by Count Cerralbo (Bento Urago) and his fascist nephews. The count's only son, a liberal artist named Goya (Ron Faber), refuses to side with him against the common people and retreats to the nearby town of Guernica, where liberty is cherished.

Vandale (Mariangela Melato, FLASH GORDON), a beautiful but very eccentric woman regarded as a witch by the people of Villa Ramiro, also flees to Guernica on her donkey after the count's nephews attempt to rape her and runs into Goya. As they dance during the town's celebration of its renowned "freedom tree" the fascist military attack Guernica from the air and bomb it to smithereens.

Vandale and Goya return to Villa Ramiro to fight with the peasants, who have stormed the count's castle and are preparing for the coming siege by Franco's forces. Arrabal's anti-Catholic imagery here is some of his strongest stuff yet--a church is desecrated as a man gleefully urinates on a religious statue while a midget rapes another statue of the Virgin Mary and smears her face with his semen. A priest, who represents the Vatican's support of the fascists, has the large crucifix (which is shot to pieces) wrested from his hands and replaced with a shovel. Later, another priest will demonstrate his support of the military by ceremoniously licking a general's face and then passionately French-kissing him.

The battle scenes are infused with the same energy and scope of Sergio Leone's depiction of the American Civil War in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. Black-and-white newsreel footage is inserted throughout, somehow fitting right into the mood of Arrabal's footage without any jarring effect. Vandale rises to the occasion as her innate courage and determination make her a leader of the revolt, with the brave Goya fighting by her side, both discovering qualities they weren't even aware they possessed. Arrabal explores Mariangela Melato's highly-photogenic face with an artist's joy.

While the usual surrealism continues to appear, these scenes interrelate more with the story rather than commenting on it from a distance. As the film progresses, the absurdity of the more fanciful images barely surpasses that of the historical events, until the difference between the two becomes almost indistinguishable. It's as though Arrabal's creative zest in depicting the actual atrocities of the war matches his desire to express himself symbolically.

When we see a bullfighter elegantly slaying helpless midgets in the ring as the jaded nobility look on, it fits almost seamlessly into the rest of the narrative, as do the horrific executions which take on a carnival-like atmosphere. And with such strong material to work with, Arrabal no longer needs to expand his imagery so far into the realm of the fantastic in order to express himself.

During the military tribunal which follows the fascist victory, a teacher is sentenced to death by firing squad for the murder of Count Cerralbo. When the count shows up to prove that he's alive and to testify on the teacher's behalf for hiding him during the fighting, the teacher's death sentence is revoked--to be replaced by another one, death by garrotting, for having enough influence with the Communists to ensure the count's protection in the first place. The mass executions which follow are a free-for-all of depravity. (It's no wonder that after such an exhausting study of injustice and inhumanity, Arrabal would next choose to make a children's film with Mickey Rooney.)

The DVD is in 1.78:1 widescreen with a French soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras include a lobbycard gallery, theatrical trailer, a six-page foldout booklet with liner notes by Rayo Casablanca, and an amusing featurette with Arrabal hanging around outside Grauman's Chinese Theater asking passersby if they've ever heard of Guernica.

With Goya and Vandale's passionate embrace amidst the shimmering rays of a setting sun, the film ends with optimism and hope in the face of bitter defeat. The music swells grandly as we're left with a stirring image of romantic beauty that is one of Arrabal's most heartfelt and triumphant moments. A work of crude magnificence and fierce conviction, THE GUERNICA TREE secures Arrabal's place as one of the most fascinating and intriguing directors of all time.

As a filmmaker, Arrabal operates as though the camera were connected directly to his torrid, overheated subconcious and simply expelled reels of bizarre film imagery as he thought it up. For someone to consciously create this kind of stuff, he'd not only have to be seriously whacked out, but also revel in it and devote his life to exploring it. Which, as THE FERNANDO ARRABAL COLLECTION so clearly demonstrates, is exactly what he has done.

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1 comment:

Obulious Toobach said...

my video review of this movie. i loved it!!