How to Get High: Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato (1980)

By Lauren Bliss


For my friends


Much could be said about Ivan Zulueta’s cult classic Arrebato (Rapture, 1980). As a philosophical manifesto for the cinema, it is complex, sensitive, and humorous in its treatment of the question ‘What is cinema, what does it do?’ The film is the story of a struggling horror director José Sirgado (Eusebio Poncela), who is haunted by a strange film sent to him by his ex-lover’s cousin, Pedro (Will More). Pedro sends the film to José in an attempt to uncover its mystery: a frame of Pedro sleeping has disappeared and been replaced with a blood red mark on the reel.

The psychological disturbance of Pedro and José playfully manifests itself in the materiality of the film. Voice-overs of Pedro confuse the dialogue and his image pops up like a ghost in the everyday world of José. In addition, the film slips in and out of its narrative, and psychedelic sequences scramble the continuous montage.  Like the transient and hallucinatory filmic layering of Cabin in the Woods (Joss Whedon, 2011), or Brian de Palma’s Blow Out (1980), Arrebato is a self-reflexive investigation of the cinematic and its affective nature. It explores the construction of the horror genre, the questions that cinema raises as to the difference between reality and fiction, and the problem of Hollywood and spectacle. At times, the film is so doubled over it seems that it is scared of itself! However, this review will not take these points any further. Much needs to be said about this rich film; indeed, it would make a fine subject for a dissertation. But the question that it also raises, which would be clouded by any heavy-handed theoretical or intellectual musings, is: how to have a good trip. Arrebato, in this context, is not just a love-letter to the cinema but is a love-letter to its hallucinatory powers and to the dark desires of the human mind and body. It is a love-letter to a state of amour fou. The film mimics the intoxication, confusion and self-destructiveness inherent to a passionate relationship and is an experiment for states of maximum intensity, as they exist between the ecstatic and joyful, and the horrific and nauseating.

Zulueta suffered from the perils of heroin addiction. Arrebato, like his short Leo Es Pardo (Leo is Dark, 1976), unravels the inner-drama of addiction and tripping out. Every main character in Arrebato is a drug addict. José, Pedro, and José’s girlfriend, Ana (Cecelia Roth), and ex-girlfriend, Marta (Marta Fernández Muro), regularly amuse themselves with heroin, acid, cocaine and mushrooms. When they get high, their capacity for heightened consciousness is obstructed by the indolent and apathetic physical state that the drugs put them in (Jose screams to Ana, “If I shoot-up, I can’t fuck!”). In the opening sequence, José is putting together his latest horror film with his editor. They argue. José wants to end the film with a clichéd sequence where the female vampire stares at the audience through the screen and the film fades to black. (José says it is the only interesting part of the film, the part that the audience will “immediately” understand). His superficial understanding of cinema is undone by the arrival of Pedro’s package. He begins to see Pedro’s ghost and hear his voice. It becomes unclear whether José is watching the film, or whether the film is watching José (and indeed, what are we looking at?). To put it bluntly this lack of subjective certainty is, quite naturally, a state of extreme consciousness. José turns to heroin and his addiction becomes what stops him seeing or experiencing the world around him in this uncertain way. With film, as Arrebato tells us, we can be witness to the process of watching our own intoxication. There’s nothing wrong with tripping out, but Arrebato seems to say that cinema, rather than drugs, is better at inducing altered states; not necessarily because it is as physically affective but because it increases capacity for feeling, as it removes the pretense of total fantasy. To have a good trip, according to Arrebato, one needs to be conscious of their consciousness.

If we think of drugs as mimetic, as a product that heightens and represents what is already there, then I would say, with Arrebato, that cinema does a better job at getting a person high. Films such as Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (Mark Leckey 1999), Epileptic Seizure Comparison (Paul Sharits 1976), Wavelength (Michael Snow 1967), the work of David Lynch, and even Destricted (Various 2006), to name but a few, are examples where film successfully mimics the bizarre, but everyday, psychotic, sexual, and affective ramblings of the mind and body. Arrebato is a fine example of the problems of drug use, particularly in a world where drug addiction is perhaps, at least as it seems to me, the most banal, conformist relationship a person can have in the 21st century; just as the institutions of marriage and a steady career were once necessary staples of the 20th century. I do not wish to turn this review into an angry rant, but the message of Arrebato echoed very closely the problem that haunts the bodies and minds of my generation. Drugs, both legal and illegal, are everywhere. As I would argue it, in a classically Foucaulian sense, to use drugs in revolt is no longer to act as rebellious or revolutionary but is, paradoxically, to return to the arms of certainty and stability and, indeed, into the arms of the State. Perhaps this is the way it has always been? Of course, neither Arrebato, nor my critique of the film, is suggesting an anti-drug message. On the contrary, the film recalls what Antonin Artaud said about opiates. Artaud, like Zulueta, was addicted to opiates. For Artaud, writing at the time of prohibition in the United States, he saw that criminalising drugs would simply led to greater drug problems. In his essay ‘General Security: The Liquidation of Opium’, he writes against cure, against closure and against criminalisation and medicalisation as solution, “Unfortunately for illness, medicine does exist”. For Artaud, everybody is mad. His position resonates with that of the spectator in Arrebato, as he writes that it is the “lucid madman” who can experience states beyond the speechless world of the opiate addict.

Arrebato is not another superfluous film on the romance of drug use. Rather, Zulueta has written a love-letter to intoxication, and he shows us how to best revel in the dark powers of the psyche.