DIRECTED BY: Carlos Atanes
FEATURING: Carlos Atanes, Arantxa Peña, Diana de Guzman, Antonio Vladimir Fuenzalida, Manuel Solas, Scott Fitzpatrick
PLOT: Three short films: a man seeks to collect a debt in a bar with strong S&M overtones;
the director struggles to complete the film we’re watching while a fawning actress tries to keep him from hanging himself in despair; and a man returns to Spain from the U.S., only to find himself trapped in an orgy/melee on a staircase.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s weirdness is unquestionable; in these perverse short films, Carlos Atanes illustrates a profound understanding of the theory of surrealism—including its ability to piss off not only the average audience member, but the average critic as well. But, although the various casts and crews appear enthusiastic, the technical constraints of low-budget filmmaking hold these three pieces back from cinematic magnificence. It’s probably a matter of individual taste as to whether the rough edges should rule Codex off of the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made, or whether the unpolished underground grit adds a charm that works in the compilation’s favor.
COMMENTS: Though born in Paris, Surrealist cinema was conceived in Spain, the love-child of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. If either patriarch had lived to see the mirror succubi, the crab-armed women and the staircase orgies of Codex Atanicus, they’d be proud to claim Carlos Atanes as their offspring. Today, when pure surrealism has been almost abandoned in movies, it’s refreshing to see someone who remains dedicated to probing the mysterious subconscious and carrying on the tradition of Continental Surrealism, despite lack of funding and public indifference. The three films that comprise Codex Atanicus showa a passion for the irrational and a knack for nailing down the way dream concepts follow their own logic, morphing into new entities and images. Like his spiritual grandfather Dalí, Atanes is unabashedly egotistical to the point of self-parody, coining the adjective “Atanic” to describe his own movies; he’s also unafraid to tap into his own erotic impulses for material. The resulting films are intensely personal, and the effects uneven; but when viewing them, it’s impossible to complain that you’ve been exposed to something ordinary and expected. We’ll briefly describe the offerings in this compilation in chronological order.
“Metaminds and Metabodies” [“Metamentes & Metacuerpos”] (1995) begins with a woman in black (Jesusita), her hair tied to dingy walls by barbed wire, singing an invitation for us to “lull ourselves in her wounds”; a bare chested man (Wicked Ua) objects to the lyrics and threatens to tear up her “contract.” The camera pulls back to reveal bar patrons watching the performance on stage, and eventually we focus on one drunk who’s waiting to meet a man who owes him money, but whose name he can’t remember and whom he can barely describe. As the performance onstage continues—accumulating a body count that may be real or staged—the protagonist learns from the bartender about the invasion of this world by creatures from the other side of the mirror, meets a succubus, and eventually finds the man who owes him money snorting cocaine and having sex with a woman in a closet. The two plotlines converge as a flayed Jesusita and the patron both end up threatened by a gang that has invaded the bar. “Metaminds and Metabodies” is the most confusing (which is saying something) and dreamlike of the three featurettes, and appears to be the only movie shot on film. Although its very grainy and dark, the “Metabodies” print transfers to video much better than the two later movies do. Many of the film’s shots are seen in the barroom mirror, and other multifaceted mirrors feature through the film. “Metabodies” gives off a nightmarish vibe of unhealthy debauchery and sexual humiliation that’s exacerbated by the anxious avant-garde musical score full of atonal strings and electronic blips.
“Morfing” (1996), a sort of underground variation on 8 1/2, is the most comprehensible of the three films and probably rates as the most successful effort. An actress, Dianam is enamored at being cast in Carlos Atanes’ latest film, “Morfing,” but when she meets the director (playing himself) he’s distant and uninvolved, and even tries to hang himself in the bathroom. She drags him off to see a financier, who complains about the economy and not having enough money to buy toilet paper. He nonetheless tells them everything will be okay and sends them off through a tunnel. Atanes remembers a traumatic love affair with a girlfriend with a crab claw for an arm, and Diana meets an ex-boyfriend involved in a shootout in the passageway (the meeting is awkward for all involved, but the director does lend the ex a much needed a bullet). The pair emerges from the tunnel onto a film set where Diana interviews actresses who have previously worked with Atanes, who accuse him of being a pervert mostly interested in getting them topless. Atanes tries to kill himself again and has to be talked down by other underground filmmakers (including Nacho Cerdà, who delivers a inside joke for the benefit of those familiar with his notorious Aftermath). “Morfing” ends with Atanes actually making the film, which involves a woman’s face being doused in a sperm-like cream. “Morfing” is a much funnier effort than the previous entry, and Atanes, in pretending to be a great, tormented Fellini-esque director, effectively mocks his own affected egocentricity and emerges as a likable character.
“Welcome to Spain” (1999) is a strange case indeed; the finale is more than a little over-the-top, but it impresses itself on the memory. The first half of the film involves a frustrated expatriate who decides to return to his native Spain. He’s met at the airport by his dead father (who’s holding up a sign reading “protagonista” to catch his son’s attention). Our protagonista soon finds himself deserted by dear old dead dad, however, and climbing up a staircase with a banner at the top that reads, “Welcome to Spain.” As he’s climbing, he’s tackled from behind by a passerby, who’s then joined in the assault by two female antagonists (one with her hair piled high and shaped into two massive horns). Plates of food appear on the stairs. Loud instrumental rock plays as the foursome struggle and grapple with each other, with no one making any progress up the stairs, as the camera weaves drunkenly. The scrum takes on a sexual tone before its all over, but disturbing images of nails, syringes, chickens and sundry bodily fluids cut the eroticism. Will el protagonista ever make it up the stairs and be welcomed to Spain? Can you go home again? The final climb/battle/orgy takes up the film’s final ten minutes, and while it’s impossible to deny it makes an impression, it goes on for far too long for most people’s patience.
Despite nudity, sex and blood, Codex Atanicus pays little heed or attention to modern sensibilities: it’s more of a revival of classical European arthouse surrealism than it is a continuation of newer, punkier trends in underground film. It’s weird enough to alienate your hippest indie-cinema touting friends, but its ambitions often outreach its budget.
One big strike against Codex, at least in the current form, is that its only available in the US on DVD-R, and the transfer is poor. There are continual horizontal glitches in the two shot-on-video segments, the images are far from crisp, and the action sequences are blurry. Even the subtitle translations are subpar, with a few obvious spelling errors and many more times when the translator chooses the wrong English preposition (“for” when it should be “to,” for example). Whether these flaws detract from the experience or add to the films’ underground charm is for the individual viewer to determine.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DISCLOSURE: Screener copy provided for review by Carlos Atanes.