The career of the visual artist and filmmaker Iván Zulueta bridged the transition from the culturally repressive context of late-Francoist Spain to the transgressive movida madrileña underground of the return to democracy. His early work, pop-influenced and publicly visible, offered an oblique critique of the officially-encouraged retrograde culture from within the margins of the mainstream, but with his subsequent experimental shorts and his legendary 1980 cult film Arrebato (“Rapture”) he moved into the shadows of the underground and his now-established status as ephemeral maudit auteur of the period of transition to democracy.
Like his transition-era contemporary Pedro Almodóvar, Zulueta’s work reflects a complete rejection of tradition—especially the nationalist, xenophobic and anti-modernist imagined tradition the regime used to justify itself—but unlike Almodóvar, who is the clear success story of the movida, Zulueta “stands for everything about the period which was impossible to assimilate; his work speaks of frustration, obsession, powerlessness to deal with everyday realities.” (1) His work offers, through varied modalities, an invitation au voyage, an evasion by way of ecstatic transport through drugs, sex, fetishised popular culture objects and above all filmic experimentation. Where Almodóvar’s first films popularised a good-natured, pleasure-fueled movida that helped many artists break into the mainstream—the actress Carmen Maura, the singer Alaska, several visual artists and Almodóvar himself—Zulueta’s best work and its themes remained unassimilable, both formally and thematically incompatible with the expectations and desires of a Spanish, or any other, wider public. By consistently privileging experimentation over commercial appeal, individual rapture over collective politics, and addiction and isolation over fame, Zulueta ensured for himself both artistic freedom and marginalisation. (2)
Zulueta’s non-conformism has to be understood in its context of late-Francoist Spain, a society of imposingly programmatic Catholicism and official cultural xenophobia. His work, uncomfortable with religion and eager to absorb foreign influence, runs counter to both of these monolithic national imperatives, forming a problematic relationship with officialdom for which precursors abound in his own country. One repeating line of flight away from the Spanish cultural structure is the mysticism and evasion seen in the writings of Santa Teresa, San Juan de la Cruz and Federico García Lorca, and the experimental films of José Val del Omar, among others. While it may not be convincing to see in Zulueta’s work a continuation of the mystic line, it could be argued that the impulse to flee the quotidian through rapture has persisted, changing form as Spain has modernised but remaining confined to the darkness of convents, basements and the alternative cinema spaces that screened Zulueta’s work. But where in the concept’s archaic sense rapture was brought about by the contemplation of the divine in nature, art or elsewhere, in the case of Zulueta the vehicles of transport are mostly more modern, and serve to evade the mediocrity of the retrograde cultural conformism of his context. Aside from his early film-school projects, most of Zulueta’s short films are available, along with his two features. I will discuss the more or less two thirds of Zulueta’s work that can readily be located on digital format.
Zulueta was born Juan Ricardo Miguel Zulueta Vergarajauregui, and grew up in the family villa in San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque) where several of his films were shot. His mother painted, and his lawyer father directed, from 1957 to 1960, the famous film festival in his home city. When he moved to Madrid in the early 1960s to study filmmaking, his plans were frustrated by a requirement that students be at least twenty-one years old to study direction. Faced with a wait, he travelled on a merchant ship to New York, where he studied illustration and painting at the Art Students League and discovered in the underground art and film scene a will toward experimentation that was almost completely absent, or at least invisible, in Spain, and which would inform his graphic and filmic work. (3) He returned to Madrid to study filmmaking at the Escuela Oficial de Cine (Official Cinema School), starting in October 1964, where, faced with the dominant moralising naturalism of the cinema of the time, which he found to “not call into question the communication between the film and the spectator,” he opted for experimentation. (4)
International Pop Arrives
After making several film school shorts, Zulueta’s first appearance on the Spanish cultural scene happened on television, with the arrival of international pop culture to Francoist Spain on the weekly variety program Último grito (“Last Shout”). The show—which was directed by Zulueta (within strict limits imposed by the show’s censors) and ran from 1968 to 1970—combines complicity with mass-marketed youth culture with its critique. It introduced a sheltered Spanish audience to Anglo pop culture through early rock videos and interviews and showed low-budget narrative short films that satirised the clichés of the traditional regime-approved cultural iconography. Although in the context of official resistance to foreign cultural intrusion the mere screening of a Monkees video might be considered subversive, the show does formulate occasional explicit critiques of the retrograde popular culture of the time by appropriating some of the more critical aspects of the sixties counterculture—Frank Zappa’s ironic undermining-from-within of the rock music industry is one example—and through the corrosive authorial intervention of Zulueta and company in the short films, such as the parody La cerillera huerfanita contra Papá Noel (“The Little Match-Girl vs. Santa Claus”) that ridicules the moralising sentimentality that was the dominant tone of regime-safe culture. Último grito was abruptly canceled when the more-conservative Alfredo Sánchez Bella replaced Manuel Fraga as Minister of Information and Culture.
A side project of the television show resulted in Zulueta being contracted for his first feature film, the 1969 Un, dos, tres, al escondite inglés (“One, Two, Three, Hide and Go Seek”), whose plot revolves around a fictional version of the Eurovision song context. Present in the background is Spain’s 1968 Eurovision win that resulted in part from Franco’s sending emissaries from the Spanish television channel (Televisión Española, or TVE) to book foreign programs and concerts in exchange for votes in the contest. (5) The Spanish song selected in Zulueta’s film, “Mentira, mentira” (“Lie, Lie”) shares the drab enthusiasm of Spain’s official Eurovision selection of that year, “La, La, La”, both of which reflect a national collective denial of the passage of time, as aesthetically distant as possible from the radicalised culture that was generating the famous upheavals of the time in Paris and elsewhere.
Un, dos, tres… itself is very derivative of Richard Lester’s Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night (1963) and Help! (1964). It features music videos, pop art, infectious slapstick humour and a simple plot that opposes the traditional culture favoured by Francoism with a more modern pop music product. When the romantic ballad is officially selected to represent Spain in the “Mundocanal” song contest, a group of central characters who run a record shop—named “Ugh!”—selling only what they somewhat oxymoronically call “authentic pop music,” set out on a crusade to foil the enterprise. The producers are looking for a band with a more modern image than that of the ballad’s rather unglamorous singer-songwriter, but the subversive heroes eliminate the chosen pop bands one-by-one through various comical acts of violence that take place at the end of each video. This provides an excuse to show a video of each group performing their own song. Like Último grito, the film combines critique with complicity, subversion with promotion, and is oddly belated, a few years behind what was happening elsewhere.
Un, dos, tres… then, thematises a conflict between the nostalgic, sentimental and retrograde official culture and an optimistic, sentimental and cosmopolitan culture derivative of the tamest of international pop music. Much of the film’s footage consists of videos featuring Spanish bands—with names like “Henry y los Seven”—performing a local version of Anglophone pop music often sung in oddly-pronounced English. This use of English, while a commercially attractive “hip” gesture, also ran counter to the regime’s nervousness regarding linguistic diversity. The regime required, for example, all foreign cinema to be dubbed into Castilian, and the Eurovision-winning “La, La, La” was originally to be sung by Joan Manuel Serrat in Catalan, but under notice that this would have violated the regime’s linguistic purity policy, Serrat was forced to cede to the pop singer Massiel, who eventually won the tainted competition. The use of English, then, is not completely innocuous, and the music, although it seems incredibly tame today, evidently carried a somewhat rebellious charge in the strictly-controlled Spanish cultural field of its time, which was being subjected to a tightened censorship regime after the reaction against the early-‘60s liberalisation known as apertura (“opening”).
Experimentation and Rapture
His work with TVE concluded, soon Zulueta began to draw the album covers and film posters for which he would become famous in the movida madrileña—the Madrid underground scene of the years of the transition to democracy—and beyond. He was also making experimental films, mostly in Super 8. Freed from audience and producer demands, he began to explore the sense-making and sense-destroying possibilities of montage and the immersive and perception-altering power of the manipulation of image velocity in a trio of short found-footage variations. The first of these is Kinkón (1971), a silent adaptation of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 classic, King Kong. (6) Zulueta re-filmed a television broadcast of the original, and through creative subtraction and manipulation of camera speed, condensed the original’s feature length to an intensified seven minutes. The cathode-ray flicker and flattening that results from the re-filming defamiliarises the original, but its classical continuity mode of address continues to operate on the viewer, and the increase in velocity makes mesmerisingly urgent the dramatic plot of the original.
Zulueta refined Kinkón’s technique with Frank Stein (1972), this time on leftover pieces of 35mm film from El Imán, the production company for which he had made Un, dos, tres…. It distills the original 1931 James Whale feature down to three minutes, mixing fast-motion with freeze-frames on moments of high emotion, often close-ups of agitated faces. Unlike Kinkón, Frank Stein has a soundtrack, on which bleakly intense music is mixed with quasi-diegetic sounds (such as fire or crowd noises heard over corresponding sequences) and tormented voices add to the intensity of this cinematic roller coaster ride that builds screechingly to an abrupt climax.
For Zulueta’s next found footage film, the 1972 Masaje (“Massage”), he re-filmed more heterogeneous original materials—a day’s programming on TVE—again on 35 mm, but here narrative continuity gives way to a vertiginous montage of jumbled imagery. Cultural icons of Francoist Spain flash by in fast motion—bullfights, religious scenes, and even a glimpse of the Generalíssimo himself in the annual Civil War victory parade—along with a surging landslide of pop culture and advertising schlock. An abrasive musique concrète soundtrack consisting mostly of percussive noises and voices played backwards throws a tone of critical irony over the undefinable, but perceptively propagandistic logic behind a day’s television programming under Franco. In this powerful détournement of official spectacle, the solemnity the regime imposed on representations of all things official is deflated both by the avalanche of associations generated by the montage and the comical deformations produced by the alterations to the velocity and the soundtrack. The televised-image contract is reformulated from one of passive consumption on the part of the spectator to one in which the immutably iconic images of the regime are released from their official frames and put into free-floating play where new, often-corrosive meanings can be formed.
Soon after making these three films, Zulueta took to more personal, subjective experimentation through travel (to Morocco and around the Mediterranean) and psychedelics, filming all the while with a Super 8 camera. Most of the films of this period were confiscated by the police in a raid on a cinema club and subsequent searches of Zulueta’s apartment, but one is available. Roma-Brescia-Cannes, made in 1974, could be called a lyrical home movie. P. Adams Sitney defines the lyrical film as one that “postulates the film-maker behind the camera as the first-person protagonist of the film. The images of the film are what he sees filmed in such a way that we never forget his presence and we know how he is reacting to his vision” (7). Zulueta’s lyrical home movie has a narrative if one looks hard enough, a diary of a camera-consciousness adrift, desiring and searching for something to film. Nearly a half hour long, silent and shot on Super 8, it starts anti-narratively, with touristic shots of famous sites in Rome crowded with visitors that impose an anti-aura of banality on the city-museum. After an eventual fade to black, an initial narrative pulsion is produced by way of shots of the landscape filmed from a train, and we arrive at a sort of hippy idyll in the mountains above what must be Brescia. In and around a rustic stone house several young people pass the time baking bread, playing the sitar and yawning contentedly, surrounded by nature, children, dogs and farm animals. But the flight from touristic banality to sleepy domestic stasis provides only temporary relief, and the filmmaking “conscience” eventually sets out, by train and sea this time, to forward the sputtering narrative. After this transition the camera arrives in Cannes, where it encounters an object to desire in a tall, willowy black man of indefinite gender performance. This man dresses in a vaguely Hindu-hippy fashion, and carries with him an aged thick book that seems to contain sacred text. The camera trails him through the streets of Cannes, films him lovingly in springtime parks and more intimately in his budget hotel room. The season being spring, the film festival is underway, but the now-fixated camera only breaks away long enough to capture glimpses of the festivities, where for a brief moment we see Luis Buñuel in the crowd. But the quest is over, the camera has found an object to love and the film can and does end.
The 1975 Super-8 short Aquarium is Zulueta’s first available incursion into the psychodrama—in which the filmmaker dramatises a disturbed state of consciousness—in which appear lyrical passages of the kind that will be made by the fictional experimental filmmaker played by Will More in Zulueta’s 1980 feature Arrebato. (8) Aquarium features the use of a timer to film vertiginous fast-motion shots of clouds passing over the cityscape, which alters the perception of the change-movement relationship: instead of seeing stably-shaped clouds that apparently move across the sky, the clouds’ shape can be seen to change as their position remains the same. After several of these exercises in perceptual alteration, the film settles in to focus on its protagonist, also played by Will More. By way of eye-line matches the distorted images are made to express the agitated interiority of More’s character. He is alone in his room in the Aquarium hotel (really Zulueta’s Madrid apartment overlooking the Plaza de España), making explicit the theme of agoraphobic isolation and anguish that one could imagine to be the conditions of production of most of Zulueta’s short films. More’s character is apparently overwhelmed by ennui and seeking escape through sources of stimulation. He eventually plugs into the television by placing his hand on the screen, which transports him into a rapturous state as he watches what looks a lot like Zulueta’s own Frank Stein. He later finds stimulation at the window of his room, discovering to his surprise that the city’s inhabitants are also speeding by in fast motion, before his agitation is further reflected in a fast montage of repeated zooms and views of the urban landscape from above. The penultimate sequence is a remake of part of Un chien andalou (1929), as a woman appears and the two characters act out the street sequence from Buñuel’s film. This apparently throws causality out the metaphoric window, and for the last minute of the film we see what looks like re-filmed footage of the final section of Roma-Brescia-Cannes.
With the thirty-three minute A MAL GAM A he made in 1976, Zulueta brings the lyrical film into the territory of mystico-psychedelia. The cinema as drug, as vehicle for rapture—as will later be seen in Arrebato—is a theme of this most autobiographical of Zulueta’s experimental films (which could also be seen as a documentary of an agoraphobic mode of artistic production), the protagonist is played by the filmmaker himself (“Jim Self” is the trans-linguistic homophone that appears in the credits) and shot mostly in the family villa in San Sebastián. The subjectivity of an enraptured Zulueta is linked through eyeline-matches to images defamiliarised by alterations in speed, repeated zooms and other manipulations, images that often oscillate between the scatological and the sacred: images of toilets and flowing silly putty are juxtaposed with decayed religious iconography. With the effects produced by the looping psychedelic noisetrack, associative montage with visual rhymes and matches, vertiginous fast zooms through images of pop culture icons, and, of course, the ever-flowing silly putty, this is the closest Zulueta comes to creating a filmic vehicle of rapture.
Zulueta had his first, limited commercial success in 1976, with the 16 mm short Leo es pardo (“Leo is Brown”), which was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and received limited distribution in Spain. (9) Another psychodrama, it has a much more linear narrative than Zulueta’s previous shorts as it experiments with a variety of camera tricks to create a space—the interior of a flat—that reflects the agitation of its female protagonist (played by Maribel Ferrero). According to Zulueta, Leo es pardo was conceived of as a test to see how cheaply a ten-minute film could be made, with the idea of producing a commercial-length film on a similar minute-for-minute budget, and it led directly to Zulueta’s second feature.
Unlike Un, dos, tres…, Zulueta had complete authorial control over this project, and the result was the extraordinary event within Spanish cinema that is Arrebato (Rapture, 1980). Since the 1975 death of Franco, which spelled the end for both the regime and its rigid censorship laws, Spanish cinema had vented much of the pent-up energy against the conservative sectors in whose interest the regime ruled for more than three decades. Arrebato avoids this kind of direct political critique to instead explore themes of addiction—to drugs, sex, cinema…rapture in all its forms—and the underappreciated powers of the filmic medium.
Arrebato’s central character is Pedro (Will More), a Zulueta alter-ego and maker of homemade films that not uncoincidentally resemble many of Zulueta’s shorts. A brilliant caricature of the experimental filmmaker, Pedro is enraptured by films—in a mystic version of Dziga Vertov’s kino-eye he awards film primacy over the human eye—that produce only aggravation in others, a condition that results in his alienation from society. The two other principal characters are José (Eusebio Poncela), a burnt-out director of low-budget horror films and Ana (Cecilia Roth), an Argentine actress who appears in his films. They share a bed occasionally, and heroin more frequently, which dulls their sex life and sours their relationship. What all three have in common is a desire for ecstasy, which they satisfy through, in addition to heroin, objects selected by Pedro that carry a Proustian involuntary memory charge, mysteriously amplified to a sublime degree. Ironically, Pedro, the sinister vampire figure who makes the decadents of the movida seem like playful innocents, is a product of the rural space exalted in Francoist discourse as the authentic Spain, repository of all that is pure and good. This master manipulator of vehicles of rapture, among them sex, drugs, films, comic books and a Betty Boop doll, first wins over José and Ana, then finds success as a mystic medium of the Madrid counterculture. By virtue of this talent, the apparently child-like, naïve provincial who makes Super-8 home movies becomes a Warhol-like figure in the underground, furnishing objects of fascination that promise a return to a state of innocence and wonder but which eventually destroy those who give in to the temptation. The film’s ending, a final submission to annihilation through cinephilic rapture on the part of the two male protagonists, may appear a throwback to a naïve, juvenile romanticism, but the film’s anti-commercial sincerity in dealing with its very problematic themes keep it far from falling into the occasional puerilities that did Zulueta’s only other feature, Un, dos, tres….
Due to its chaotic production, Arrebato’s budget went far beyond projections. Between this overrun and a hard drug habit, Zulueta earned a reputation that would make future funding unlikely. The film was rejected by the Quinzaine des realisateurs at Cannes, and opened with little promotion and less public notice in Madrid in 1980, a complete failure. But a year later it was rescued by a few critics and good word of mouth. Re-screened in Madrid’s Alphaville Cinema, where it remained for a year, it ended up becoming the first, and still most legendary, Spanish cult movie, and as a film without imitators its reputation today is of an absolutely unique moment of honesty, free from the compromises with cultural conservatism and the phobias that have dragged much of Spain’s cinema into mediocrity.
After Arrebato, the heroin habit that had both fueled and complicated work on the film intensified and Zulueta underwent a long unproductive period. (10) Unable to return to direction, he turned his creative impulses to poster designs, many of which, especially those for the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, are widely-recognisable, and later to the instantaneous artistic possibilities of material manipulation of the polaroid photo. After seven years of isolation in San Sebastián, Zulueta moved back to Madrid, and eventually returned to filmmaking on two more occasions, both times contracted for television episodes.
Párpados (the literal translation, “Eyelids”, misses the homophonic “par pa’ dos,” or “a couple for two”) is a 1989 television episode with an intricate script involving a delirious array of doubles, mirrors and word-play revolving around the central theme of amorous obsession. Another half-hour episode, Ritesti, was made in 1992 for the Spanish television series Crónicas del mal (“Chronicles of Evil”). A single night’s action bounces back and forth between a small-town train station and a nearby bakery, where an innocent young military recruit goes to pass the time after he misses the last train. The bakery is operated by a gorgeously sinister and slightly older woman, and seduction, of him by her in her appropriately lugubrious basement, predictably ensues. As in Párpados, the potential diegetic vehicle for rapture is sexual, but here the inclusion of vertiginous montage sequences suggests that Zulueta had not renounced using experimental technique to alter the relationship with the viewer. These two television episodes were Zulueta’s last moving-image work. During the dark period that followed, heroin dominated him to the point that, as he recounts, during the 1990s he went eight years without leaving the family villa. (11) Toward the end of the decade he successfully took up his graphic work again, producing posters for revivals of many classic and newer films.
On the last day of 2009 Zulueta passed away, leaving images well-known—Último grito, Un, dos, tres… and especially Arrebato—and others almost unseen—his many short films—that delve into the lesser-explored possibilities of the filmic medium, forming a body of work fiercely resistant to the retrograde cultural conformism out of which Spain emerged, but at the same time wary of the alienating effects of consumer-ready pop commodities that were to soon dominate.
This article has been peer reviewed
- Alberto Mira. “The Dark Heart of the Movida: Vampire Fantasies in Iván Zulueta’s Arrebato.” Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies. Vol. 13, 2009. p. 156.
- Relatively little has been published in Spain on Zulueta’s work, and even less is available in English. The most extensive analysis of his work is Carlos F. Heredero’s Iván Zulueta: La vanguardia frente al espejo. Alcalá de Henares: Festival de Cine de Alcalá de Henares, 1989. Two valuable audiovisual sources are the documentary film Iván Z., a 2004 documentary on the filmmaker made by Andrés Duque, and Iván Zulueta: en memoria, a half-hour tribute to the artist produced by his late-1960s employer, Televisión Española. The biographical information here comes from these two documentaries and Heredero.
- In Iván Zulueta: en memoria the filmmaker specifically recalls his encounter with works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann in New York galleries.
- My translation of the original quote from Heredero, p. 51.
- The allegations were laid out in the 2008 documentary 1968, yo viví el mayo español, by Montse Fernández Villa, in which appeared, among others, the well-known Último grito presenter and Un, dos, tres, al escondite inglés actor José María Íñigo.
- This is what P. Adams Sitney might call a collage film, a category he exemplifies with Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, a 1936 re-editing of the found footage of East of Borneo (George Melford, 1931) in which Cornell’s primary manipulations are subtraction and reordering. See, P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Sitney, p. 160
- The psychodrama, “modelled on dream, lyric verse and contemporary dance,” typically “enacts the personal conflicts of a central subject or protagonist. A scenario of desire and loss, seen from the point of view of a single guiding consciousness, ends either in redemption or death. Against the grain of realism, montage-editing evokes swift transitions of space and time. The subjective, fluid camera is more often a participant in the action than its neutral recording agent”. See, A.L. Rees A History of Experimental Film and Video. London: BFI, 1999. p.58).
- The Spanish title contains a play on words around the substantive “leopard,” which is lost in the literal English translation.
- Zulueta discusses this period in Iván Zulueta: en memoria and Iván Z.
- From an interview in Iván Z.
Ritesti (29 mins, colour, 35 mm, 1992)
Párpados (29 mins, colour, 16 mm, 1989)
Arrebato (105 mins, colour, 35 mm, 1980)
Tea for Two (9 mins, colour, Super 8, 1978)
Leo es pardo (12 mins, colour, 16 mm, 1976)
El mensaje es facial (20 mins, colour, Super 8, 1976)
A MAL GAM A (33 mins, colour, Super 8, 1976)
Fiesta (12 mins, colour, Super 8, 1976)
Complementos (19 mins, colour, Super 8, 1976)
Aquarium (14 mins, colour, Super 8, 1975)
Mi ego está en Babia (40 mins, colour, Super 8, 1975)
Roma-Brescia-Cannes (24 mins, colour, Super 8, 1974)
Masaje (3 mins, black & white, 35 mm, 1972)
Frank Stein (3 mins, black & white, 35 mm, 1972)
Kinkón (6 mins., black & white, Super 8, 1971)
Un, dos, tres, al escondite ingles (105 mins, colour, 35 mm, 1969)
Último grito (television program, 1968-1970)
Ida y vuelta (41 mins, black & white, 35 mm, 1967)
Agata (18 mins, black & white, 35 mm, 1966)
La fortuna de los Irureta (20 mins, Super 8, 1964)