Arrabal Panik Cineast, Borges: A Life In Poetry, Farewell Babylon (1992, 1998, 2007)
Directed by: Fernando Arrabal
Written by: Fernando Arrabal
Starring: Fernando Arrabal, Jorge Luis Borges, Lelia Fischer, Spike Lee, Tom Bishop, Tom O' Horgan
Coming to the end of our exploration of Fernando Arrabal’s work, we look at the final disc in Cult Epics’s second Arrabel box set which comprises three documentaries, but, this being Arrabal, these are not your normal type of documentary….
HCF REWIND NO.73. FAREWELL BABYLON / BORGES: A LIFE IN POETRY / ARRABAL, PANIK CINEASTE [THREE DOCUMENTARIES] Available on DVD from Cult Epics
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
FAREWELL, BABYLON AKA ADIEU, BABYLONE Adieu, Babylone! [France, 1992]
RUNNING TIME: 55 mins
Lelia’s father has been executed and she starts to wonder around New York City, trying to find retain the memory of her father through the people…….
I initially thought that Farewell, Babylon was a final feature film from Fernando Arrabal, and that the other two items on this last Arrabal disc are documentaries. It turns out that Farewell, Babylon is a kind of documentary too, and a very peculiar beast indeed. While someone narrates passages from his 1969 novel of the same name, we see our heroine meandering through the streets of New York, encountering a variety of strange folk including many street performers. The film seems to be blurring the line between reality and staged incident; it all looks ‘real’, but typically surreal bits of business like Leila and a man kissing with bandages on their mouths jump out every now and again. The film seems to be evoking days gone by when, several decades before, Arrabal was a member of the Panic Movement, a performance art group whose aim was to shock people out of their complacency by pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable. Leila commits some increasingly odd acts which climax with something very extreme indeed. We never stop rather liking Leila though, another clear surrogate for Arrabal himself.
Farewell, Babylon is certainly a strange watch, and its overall point remained obscure for me, but it has an almost dreamy feel to it which is rather pleasant. Clips from Viva La Muerte, I Will Walk Like A Crazy Horse, The Guernica Tree and The Emperor Of Peru are cut in to represent flashbacks, and it’s really odd seeing this footage in a different context. Previously heard music is also used, with the main theme being the sweet children’s song from Viva La Muerte, but you also get to hear Little Richard, Puccini and a variety of world music sounds. Set against this is the fact we hear no dialogue, with even some well known personalities of the time appearing briefly but not actually being heard. What does it all mean? I am still scratching my head a day later as I write this review, and I really don’t think it matters too much. Farewell Babylon might be a little frustrating, but it casts a strange spell which I found quite infectious.
BORGES, A LIFE IN POETRY AKA JORGE LUIS BORGES, UNA VIDA DE POESIA [France, 1998]
RUNNING TIME: 65 mins
Highlights from the last interview given by the writer Jorge Luis Borges, weeks before he died of a heart attack aged 86 years old, interspersed with clips from Arrabal’s movies…….
You may not have heard of Borges, and, while I have certainly heard of him myself, I cannot name anything he has written. A quick bit of reading told me that this Argentinian writer of short stories, poems and essays had a fascinating output of weird and wonderful literature. It’s easy to see why Arrabal mentions him as a big influence on his work [which of course was not at all confined to films; he seems to have done everything] and also why he wanted to make a film about him. I think that Borges: A Life In Poetry will be appreciated more by those who have some knowledge of its subject’s work, as it doesn’t really tell you anything about it. Despite that, many will find watching this old man talk about things such as war, the future and art as it relates to life quite intriguing and even touching. It’s always somewhat inspiring to listen to elderly people who know they don’t have long on this earth but face the future with confidence.
This was made six years after Farewell, Babylon but almost feels like the two films were made together, because Borges also has lots of short clips and music from earlier Arrabal efforts, and not only that, they are often the same short clips and music! Once again the song from Viva La Muerte is the main theme. We do get to see bits from Car Cemetery this time, and some new ‘flashback’ footage of, presumably, Borges as a young boy, but the overall effect is very odd indeed, like watching Farewell Babylon again but with some notable differences. Watching both documentaries in the same sitting really is a bizarre experience, but certainly not redundant. Even if you’re not into literature, Borges does have interest and you get to see lots of Arrabal’s paintings too! I just wish that Arrabal had given us more background on this fascinating character and important figure in 20th century literature.
ARRABAL, PANIK CINEAST AKA ARRABAL, CINEASTE PANIQUE [France, 2007]
RUNNING TIME: 50 mins
A documentary about Fernando Arrabal himself, trying to convey his adventurous spirit and surreal brilliance…….
Amazingly, the third documentary on the DVD opens with that Viva La Muerte song yet again, but, even th0ugh it has copious clips from Arrabal’s films [many of a greater length], it is otherwise a very different kettle of fish. It’s about Arrabal himself and, rather than laboriously going through his life story and films, it has a more scattershot approach, something which is entirely in keeping with its subject matter. After all, you wouldn’t want to know too much would you? I don’t really want to hear Arrabal explaining why he included this or that, or what do things mean. This is why, even though he is one of my favourite filmmakers, I have not heard Alexandro Jodorowksy’s DVD audio commentaries, and I doubt I ever will. It would weaken the effect and probably ruin my own interpretations. Talking of Jodorowsky, Arrabal’s contemporary, collaborator and friend appears quite a bit on this documentary, offering his own views on Arrabal’s work and actually adroitly summing it up. Various other folk, from collaborators to critics, also have things to say, and it’s all a pleasure to hear, be it about the crazy environment in which Arrabal’s films were made or the impact of a first viewing of Viva La Muerte during its cinema release. Much is made of Arrabal’s troubled childhood, and rightly so, since it seems to have informed all his films to a greater or lesser degree.
The great man himself is present, gradually getting through a bottle of red wine, and if you were put off by the crazy character in some of the Cult Epics DVD’s supplements, let me tell you that he is quite different here; still eccentric, but honest and thoughful as he tries to convey the thought process [or lack thereof] which goes into his work, and what he is trying to achieve. He’s also very charismatic, and even touching when he says that he should have made a film depicting his mother in a better light. At the end he says how he wants to make another film, and sadly this is something which had not come to pass [his film-related activities since are as an ‘additional dialogue’ writer for a science-fiction film called Possibility Of An Island and some guest appearances in a few programmes as himself] and probably won’t happen at all. What a shame. The cinema needs artists like Arrabal more than ever to shake up a storm, to expand the possibilities of cinema, to just happen.
FAREWELL, BABYLON / BORGES, A LIFE IN POETRY / ARRABAL, PANIK CINEAST are all available in the third disc of the set on the right.
I hope you have enjoyed my journey into the work of Fernando Arrabal, a filmmaker I knew little of initially but have become a fan. You can purchase all the films from Cult Epics I have been reviewing over the last couple of months from their site www.cultepics.com