Sunday, June 21, 2009


I have had this film for 3 or 4 years now, and really, I should have seen it long ago. I was only missing out. However, thanks to the wonderful film communities that have sprung up stronger since I acquired my initial bootleg, English subtitles now exist for the film. As mesmerizing as its images are, what gives this film its power are the ideas that are present. The images are hypnotic, having what the film itself could potentially describe as "occult rhythms," but without an idea behind the sublimity present in the super 8 film that populates the film, we'd be left with nothing but aesthetics.

There are several ways I would characterize my relationship to film: First and foremost, I am obsessive. Secondly, I find that a story works best (or is most interesting) when rooted primarily in abjection and the uncanny. I think abjection is an important term when considering this film. For me, the loci of abjection and the uncanny in cinema is met when genre film--particularly horror--intersects experimental. This is an allowance of the fantastic with an allowance of materiality, a performative necessity (as in the film itself is performing an act as we, the viewers, are watching), and an insistence that the qualities of film (image music text; movement, narrative) can achieve more than the inherent, assumed qualities of what is considered the classical Hollywood narrative achieve.

Arrebato itself is at the threshold of genre and experimental cinema. Finding itself with one foot in both worlds, meshed together perfectly, it is a cinema of ideas, a cinema of power. It is a cinema of abjection. We'll start with this.

It's easy to turn to the theoretical construct--developed primarily by Julia Kristeva--of abjection when discussing the horror genre. A primary element of abjection is the idea of "letting go of something we would still like to keep."1 A dismembered arm, from the perspective of the amputee, is abject. Horror cinema is often a cinema of viscera: "blood, semen, hair and excrement/urine, we recognize these as once being a part of ourselves, thus these forms of the abject are taken out of our system while bits of them remain in our selves."

According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. We encounter other beings daily, and more often than not they are alive. To confront a corpse of one that we recognize as human, something that should be alive but isn't, is to confront the reality that we are capable of existing in the same state, our own mortality. This repulsion from death, excrement and rot constitutes the subject as a living being in the symbolic order.

Arrebato is located in the space of abjection. It's narrative drive is the idea of the "rapture" (the literal translation of "arrebato"), a semi-mystical state of heightened being, a "pause," as Pedro, who is developing the rapture refers to it. When we are first introduced to Pedro, he does nothing but shoot film, an obsession that, we find out, helps him to keep from eating, sleeping, fucking, or shitting for prolonged periods of time. He lives in a state of hysteria, wildly crying as he watches the short fragments of film that he has shot. The only time he can calm down, the only time he can face the reality of humanity, is with the help of "dusty-dust"--heroin.

While Pedro drives the narrative of the film, it is through the world of Jose-- a filmmaker and heroin addict--that this narrative unfolds. Structurally, the narrative of Pedro is embedded within the Narrative of Jose, until the end when the two collapse into each other (almost ontologically). As the film begins Jose is editing a film, a vampire feature that he is visually dissatisfied with. He arrives home from his apartment, after being gone two weeks for a shoot, to find his lover who had formerly left forever, and a parcel from Pedro containing a key, a reel of Super8 film, and an audio cassette.

Eventually Jose sits down to listen to the tape, which retells the story of Jose's interactions with Pedro, as well as the development of Pedro's filmic alchemy. Upon initially meeting Jose, Pedro recognized something special in him, something that isolated Jose as an ally to Pedro's esoteric cause. while Pedro's haunted voice presents the idea that what it is that Pedro can "see" is something mystical, it's obvious to the audience that the only thing that these two men have in common is an utter obsession with the cinema. As Jose remarks early on in the film, “It’s not that I like cinema… it’s cinema that likes me." Jose is presented as akin to real world filmmaker Jess Franco-- despite the fact he doesn't always feel satisfied with what he's done, he has to be making films. Pedro's obsession has already been explained, taking up literally all of his time. For better or worse, both Pedro and Jose are addicted.

This cinematic addiction is paralleled by Jose's relationship with Ana--his ex-lover who formerly left. Their relationship, normal at first, quickly devolved into an intense bond dependent upon heroin to keep it together. The heroin/relationship subplot helps to heighten the intensity of the film, the desperation present, a motivation for the film's denouement: a material example of obsession.

But now we must return to the idea of abjection: "The concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not." Let's consider re-writing this sentence as: What appears on film during cinema exists between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not. Film's materiality captures a representation of a physical place, a physical person, an action that is literally happen. But what we see when we watch a film is not the actual physical place, it's not the real person, it's not the actual action: what we see is an image. What we see is neither live nor dead; rather, it's a representation of the image.

And this is what the film is about: Arrebato presupposes that film can be more than a representation--it suggests that film has power, and as Roberto Curti points out in his brilliant article on the film, "the image of an object put on film does not share the same ontological reality as that of the filmed object." Eventually, both Pedro and Jose become nothing but film. They are no longer ontologically present in the physical, material world at the end of the film. Rather, they become pure simulacra--a copy without an original. They are ontologically film. The vampiric nature of the camera, brought to life through Pedro's "occult rhythms," has sucked people out of the real world into "film-world."

It is through this ideological construct that a simple jump-cut removing an actor from the frame becomes terrifying. Obsession leads to men away from the "real" world and into something else. A metaphysical afterlife that can be seen but not felt. Pedro knows that he is going to ostensibly "die" as the red pauses on his developed film become longer and longer, yet he prepares himself for and faces his "escape" with both desperate terror and a severe insistence. There is utter beauty in the desperation, and we can feel it in all of Pedro's footage, the pulsing, rhythmic representations of the world moving at an intense tempo: the moon crossing the sky, a penis erecting with the air of flora in bloom, clouds erasing the blue of the air with a mask of white, people moving through life, etc., etc. These images are cinema's pulse, the bloodstream that keeps it alive.

Arrebato itself echos the ideas that it diegetically presents: the film itself holds power over the viewers, calling upon desperation and rhythmic images, coupled with a compelling storyline, to cull the viewer into an active trance-like state. It is mysterious, enigmatic, and compelling. It is a film.

1: All quotions pertaining to abjection come from

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Upon initially hearing about this film, I was fascinated by it's combination of structuralist film techniques and a narrative looking into the lives of two very different murderers. I was a bit hesitant to watch the film for a while due to Benning's reputation: from what I understand, he has a tendency to make films full of static shots of landscapes with little to no narrative, films that they tend to be long, considering they seem to be structural experiments (most of Benning's filmography averages the length of a normal cinematic feature, an hour and a half).While organizing some of my movies the other day, I re-encountered my copy of this film and decided to ignore my expectations and watch it.

The film ostensibly examines two murderers: 16 year old Bernadette Protti, who killed a classmate for no discernible reason; and the infamous Ed Gein, who, as any horror fan knows, was the prototype for cinematic manifestations of terror ranging from Norman Bates in Psycho to Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, it's Benning's techniques, and how he approaches his source material, that make the film something exciting.

The film is fragmented into two segments, the first half "examining" Bernadette Protti, the second Ed Gein. Each half is approached in the same manner, beginning with what I'll call a prolonged "establishing" shot. The shot sets the tone for the landscape that each crime is taking place in. Protti's story begins with six minutes of a woman repeatedly practicing her tennis serve, representative of the useless banality of life in the suburbs. Gein's half begins with an extended static shot of a desolate, Midwestern landscape: an overcast sky, dead plantlife-- an emotional void.

Following each establishing shot, Benning shots more static landscapes of various elements of each subculture that the murders are rooted in: the posh suburbs and the Midwestern heartland. Eventually fragmented information, delivered via voice-over narration, begins to hint at the subject matter that the film encounters. After many of these flat, banal shots, the viewer encounters the "meat" of each segment: an interview with the murderer reconstructed from "actual court transcripts."

It is during these icy scenes that the film acquires a very abject and emotional core. Benning's camera stares directly at the subject as they answer questions posed by an interviewer off-screen. The actors playing the murderers are flat and unemotional: to viewers they are virtually inhuman.

Protti proves to be the more interesting subject, as Gein already has a major media presence. If we, as an audience, can assume that the dialogue that Benning's film presents is drawn from an actual transcription, then the flat, impersonal delivery that the actress playing Protti provides perfectly highlights the confusion of adolescence. Protti stares into the camera unable to articulate any sort of motivation as to why she killed her cheerleader-acquaintance, unable to externalize, with language, anything that she is truly feeling. It's terrifying to watch, as Protti is very confused, and, despite the stoicism of the film, it's clear that she is also fairly terrified (albeit not out of grief, but rather of what exactly is happening in her own life, the fact that she has completely lost control).

Following the interview, in each fragment, Benning provides static and dynamic landscape shots, punctuating the landscape inspired trance-state (which is generally accompanied by what is understood as diegetic sound) by including somewhat ironic, yet still abject and remarkably sad scenes accompanied by pop music (in the first half, a teenage girls talks excitedly on the phone while a song from "Cats" plays, in the second half, a latent 1950s housewife archetype dances by herself to Patsy Cline's "Tennessee Waltz"). I get the impression that the banality of each landscape is suppose to draw some parallel to the murders, but the film reads better when we consider the landscape, as it is shown to us, as tainted by the banality of the murders. Shots that had no emotional impact shown before the interview suddenly resonate, and the prolonged nature of each scene inspired uneasiness instead of boredom. It's almost manipulation in a remarkably non-manipulative manner: the film simply offers an objective circumstance in which the viewer can consider the implication of each crime, and landscape.