By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Tears of the Black Tiger,” Magnolia, 2007]
With Abbas Kiarostami’s “Through the Oliver Trees” the most notorious prisoner of Miramax’s burial chamber for hard-to-market foreign films, Wisit Sasanatieng’s “Tears of the Black Tiger” has finally emerged into the light of day whisked away by Eamonn Bowles’ Magnolia Pictures for a very limited run in a few urban theaters a few months ago, almost seven years since Big Harvey bought it up at Cannes, and now climaxing its censored trajectory in uncut, unfucked-with, un-Weinsteined DVD form. All that persecution, secrecy, greedy neglect and mishandling can put a martyred shine on any movie, but “Tears” comes off now as a particularly fascinating victim, a delicate, unclassifiable orchid of a film that Weinstein, and the middle-brow audience he has been so expert in suckering, had no chance in appreciating. As with the Kiarostami movie which is still officially locked-up for good, and is available only in NTSC on bootleg DVDs from iranianmovies.com Weinstein responded only to cinephiles’ buzz, and opened his checkbook. When he actually saw what he’d paid for, he shook with frustration, and the famous Shelf of Oblivion received another dust-collector.
Picturing Harvey’s sputtering horror has inevitably become part of the film’s frisson. Not that Wisit’s lurid, crazy, campy Thai gorefest/melodrama needs more textual baggage it intersects with and parodies handfuls of old film genres, including some that were already parodic (namely, cheesy Thai versions of the American western). It’s a Thai western, alright, but one set in a Wild West of palm trees, painted fluorescent skyscapes, primary-color lighting, arch theatrical design, a Village People sense of costume design (the muscly gunslingers here all wear color-coordinated tight shirts and immaculate kerchiefs tied around their throats), sub-Herschell Gordon Lewis grue, contemporary combat munitions (rocket launchers, Uzis), and ponds crowded with lotus pads the size of truck tires.
The story is a pretzel of a hundred movies star-crossed lovers, embittered gunmen, a maiden facing an arranged marriage, tragic misunderstandings, bloodbrother betrayals, shoot-outs and corrupt villains. Frankly, Wisit’s cast is rarely up to the screenplay’s demands in any serious way, but they’re not asked to be: the drama, posed and mannered, is as rabidly earnest and drolly ironic as any film by Douglas Sirk, R.W. Fassbinder or Guy Maddin. (Here, when two gunfighters pledge loyalty to each other, they don’t just shake on it they bleed into each others’ glasses of tequila, drink up and then dance.) It’s a one-of-a-kind movie, even (reportedly) for Thailand, a freaky gout of self-conscious retro-style. What we would’ve done to see Harvey’s face…
Some would misuse the word “surrealism” in reference to Wisit’s Pop Art pulp pie but for real, raw, hardcore surrealism that hearkens right back to André Breton’s rudest drunken daydreams, we now have available to us the primary features made by Fernando Arrabal. Along with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor, Arrabal was a founding member of the neo-Surrealist “Panic Movement” in 1960s Paris, which manifested, as these kinds of things used to, in theater performances, movies, books and heaps of public outrage. Arrabal’s films are even more “Panicky,” or subversively profane, than Jodorowsky’s much more famous “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain.” But these are popular terms that need analysis, since most of what’s considered “subversive” in the popular culture plays more accurately as just sophomoric and childish. Arrabal skirts the line in “Viva La Muerte” (1971), an autobiographical sketch about a boy with rampaging Oedipal problems growing up during the Spanish Civil War and after his father was murdered for being a Communist. More to the point, it’s a roughshod stew of subjective dream imagery genital mutilation (fake), slaughtered animals (real), crucifixions, sexual play, random violence, nude children, etc., all solarized with video colors and shot with the bull-headed gracelessness of a mushroom-addled teenager determined to piss off his parents.
“I Walk Like a Crazy Horse” (1973) is a little more coherent, and more didactic a suave, rich American man (George Shannon) with a good case of Oedipal lust himself flees into the desert after his mother dies and meets a merry midget living with goats in the dunes. In no time at all, they’re frolicking, kissing goats, eating sand, crapping with their butts touching, etc., until they decide to head back to civilization. The third film, “The Guernica Tree” (1975), is the most orthodox, detailing the ravages of WWII on a small Spanish village that was already home to lunatic excesses in predatory sadism and primitive madness.
Shot mostly in France, Italy and Tunisia, Arrabal’s films are not polished art objects, but, deliberately, anarchic spit-shots in society’s eye, chockablock with taboo tableaux and violative juxtapositions. The Panickers, like the Surrealists before them, spoke in terms of liberation, of sundering social restrictions and defying power. It’s always been a questionable approach who’s being liberated, from what, exactly? but Arrabal’s films are the closest either movement came to a legitimate political act, confronting as he does again and again police force, military might and capitalist decadence. The problem is, the alternatives he offers are ridiculous, and the pagan vocabulary he uses silly.
But you don’t go to Surrealists of any era for answers or solid arguments you go for the brio of adolescent resistance, the messy nuttiness of life and culture lived (or attempted) outside of civilization’s bell jar, whether or not it makes sense, speaks a truth or gets a little too involved with Catholicism, farm animals and feces. Maybe you go, too, for the extra-cinematic thrill of imagining your mother, or teacher, or priest, shook to their self-satisfied socks (just as Big Harvey surely was, in his way) by a Surrealist transgression.
“Tears of the Black Tiger” (Magnolia) is now available on DVD; “Viva La Muerte” and “I Walk Like a Crazy Horse” (Cult Epics) have been recently re-released on DVD, while “The Guernica Tree” is available as part of The Fernando Arrabal Collection, also from Cult Epics.