Viva la Muerte and I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D E R E K   H I L L

"Surrealism is not a new or an easier means of expression nor even a metaphysics of poetry. It is a means of total liberation of the mind and of all that resembles it."

-- excerpt of a tract distributed
by the Bureau of Surrealist Research,
27 January 1925

"The chief enemy of creativity is 'good' taste."

-- Pablo Picasso

Playwright, novelist, poet, filmmaker, essayist, provocateur -- Spanish born Fernando Arrabal has continually challenged audiences worldwide regardless of the medium in which he is working. In true Surrealist fashion, his work is insightful, obvious, disgusting, beautiful, political, absurd, humane, violent, maddening, breathtaking, and always unforgettable; alchemical explorations on what it means to be human. Unlike other directors who have swum in surrealist waters, such as Federico Fellini, David Lynch, or even Alejandro Jodorowsky, Arrabal roots his films in the political as well as the psychological. Arrabal was also co-founder of the notorious "Panic Movement" -- a sort of living theater of chaos and rebellion meant to celebrate the Greek god Pan -- along with fellow filmmaker Jodorowsky (who adapted Arrabal's play Fando and Lis to the screen in 1967) and French illustrator and novelist Roland Topor (The Fantastic Planet, The Tenant).

Born on August 11th, 1932, shortly before the Spanish Civil War erupted, Arrabal was quick to learn about the harsh and absurd realities that life frequently bestows upon innocent and guilty alike. His father, an officer in the Spanish Army and an opponent of the military coup that attempted to overthrow the head of the elected liberal Popular Front government, was sentenced to death for his insubordination. The elder Arrabal's sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he eventually escaped in 1941, never to be seen again.

The tragic loss of his father haunts much of Arrabal's work, although no more strongly than in his 1970 film, Viva La Muerte. Based on his own 1959 novel, Baal Babylone, the film is set during the tumultuous days of the Spanish Civil War. Episodic in structure, Viva La Muerte is a harsh and often nightmarish coming of age tale of young Fando (Mahdi Chaouch) and his search for meaning in a universe that is sorely lacking in any.

Feeling pressure from his family (namely his mother, played by Nuria Espert), the church, the school, and from his peers, to deny his Communist father's legacy, young Fando escapes into a series of savage Oedipal fantasies. Unlike say, Fellini, who sentimentalizes his youthful fantasies in films such as Fellini's Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1974), Arrabal unleashes one gruesome and disturbing image after another: his mother defecating on his father's head; his father beheaded by his mother; his mother wallowing in the butchered remains of a newly slaughtered bull.

Arrabal's Spain is a lawless wasteland where reason and intelligence have been overthrown by drunken fascists who drive through the countryside shouting death-worshipping slogans. In fact, as detailed in the liner notes to the DVD, Arrabal was inspired to title his film from a quote by the founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion who said, "Down with intelligence! Long live death!"

But as unforgettable as Arrabal's cry from Hell may be, the film ultimately leaves one disconnected from much of it since the visual demonomania is rarely anchored with any emotional weight. Unfortunate, since Arrabal's rage against fascism is honest and worth heeding.

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse (1973) works a little more smoothly, although it too nurtures and suffers from some of Arrabal's more wild Freudian preoccupations. But there are also elements of tenderness and satire that help balance Arrabal's artistic terrorism.

Following the brutal death of his mother, suave "modern" man Aden (George Shannon) flees into the desert to escape the prying eyes of a shadowy secret police agency that is mysteriously interested in him. Aden wanders upon a childlike dwarf named Marvel (Hachemi Marzouk), who is able to conduct miracles, like levitation and turning day into night. Aden learns to do away with many of the ideas that Western society has conditioned in him, i.e. notions of beauty, material wealth, and what actually constitutes a full spiritual life. Fortified with his new beliefs, Aden heads back to the city with Marvel and a goat, hoping to assimilate back into civilization. Aden buys a new swanky apartment, tries to fix Marvel up with beautiful women (who are repulsed by his ugliness), and eventually tries to come to terms with his own self-destructive incestuous fantasies. Of course, things don't work out that easily and Marvel eventually returns to the desert.

Crazy Horse, like its predecessor, can be a troubling experience if you're not prepared for its ruthless and sometimes clumsy dissection of what ails the modern world. But strip away the awkward lampooning and there awaits much food for thought. Ultimately, though, the film works better on a visceral level than an emotional or intellectual one. Arrabal's bizarre imagery can say everything and nothing at the same time. Whether it's watching Aden give birth to a human skull or witnessing Marvel devour Aden's corpse, piece by rotting piece, as an act of love and sacrament, Crazy Horse is sure to provoke the viewer into dealing with what is happening on the screen. Arrabal may be guilty of numerous cinematic sins, but boring the viewer isn't one of them. His evocations of outrage concerning our seemingly never-ending capacity for stupidity and evil may be ugly and hard to watch at times, but it is always morally centered and life affirming.

Cult Epics' DVDs are splendid and should more than satiate the Arrabal connoisseur. The newly remastered prints look consistently excellent and show very little wear and tear. Besides the requisite trailers and a small lobbycard gallery, the only real considerable extras to speak of are two fascinating video interviews with Arrabal, which were conducted in the summer of 2002. With a glint in his eyes and a wine glass delicately placed in his hand (unless he's grappling with a stool that frequently makes an appearance throughout both interviews), Arrabal touches on his relationship with his Panic Movement collaborator Jodorowsky, filming in Tunisia, the use of music in his films and an artist's means of communicating with his audience, among other things. Arrabal also chats on the phone with God, who surprisingly enough enjoys Arrabal's savagely anarchic, yet always humane films.

Viva la Muerte and I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse are now available on DVD from Cult Epics in new digital transfers. Both discs includes an interview with director Fernando Arrabal, a lobbycard gallery, and a theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $29.95 each. For more information, check out the Cult Epics Web site.