Cult Epics here presents us with their second box set of films by ex-pat Spanish surrealist/’pataphysician/provocateur Fernando Arrabal. These are more recent works, and are, arguably, even more of an acquired taste than the earlier set, though not necessarily for the reasons one might think.
Car Cemetery is the 1983 TV version of his 1958 play. In a dystopian future, the punk/S&M/whatnot inhabitants of the titular setting live through a rock-n-roll version of the Passion. What would have been a hell of a taboo-buster in 1958 hasn’t aged well. Quite apart from the very 1980s costume design of the film (in the most unfortunate ways), the religio-political points, clearly aimed at Franco’s Spain, no longer have the same bite when re-staged in the post-Franco era, and today seem altogether precious and rather twee.
And speaking of precious, on Disc 2 there’s The Emperor of Peru (1982). Produced in Canada on an visibly restricted budget, this is a family movie about three children whose imaginations are fired up by their encounter with hermit/train engineer Mickey Rooney. Both the English and French language tracks sound flatly dubbed, and while the committed Arrabal fan will find charm here, what surrealism there is, is pretty bargain-basement, and, it seems to me, reduced to the very thing Arrabal and co-horts Jodorowsky and Topor were reacting against in the Panic movement, even granting the tough aspects of the story (one of the children is a Cambodian refugee).
Disc 3 has three pieces, all about an hour long. Farewell, Babylon! is a 1992 piece that defies description. Lelia Fischer wanders through New York as some sort of artistic outlaw, accompanied by a poetic and opaque narration. Borges, A Life in Poetry (1998) features Jorge Luis Borges’ last interview before his death, irritatingly intercut with self-indulgent visual meanderings and cut-ups by Arrabal. Less tiresome is Arrabal, Panik Cineast (2007), a more straightforward documentary about the man himself, who does, it must be said, come across as rather self-regarding in his interviews.
All told, this is a valuable window onto Arrabal’s later work, but is strictly for the converted. Those approaching him for the first time would do better to look at the first set.
The transfers are excellent, but they’re dealing with variable source material. Car Cemetery and The Emperor of Peru are probably the best-looking pieces here. The former has minimal grain, while the latter, some dirt notwithstanding, has the stronger colours. The two documentaries look fine, though some of the footage they dig us is pretty rough around the edges, and Babylon comes to us via the magic of videotape, and shows it. Again, though, the discs themselves handle the prints as well as can be expected.
The sound is mono, and is clear enough, but the volume level fluctuates. That on the French dub of Emperor is much weaker than that of the English one, for example, not that either one works very well. But in general, everything works well enough to get the job done and get out of the way.
Some trailers, but that’s it, unless you count the documentaries as extras instead of main features in and of themselves.
Very mixed feelings, as should be obvious. The director is a figure of some importance. This is far from being his best work, though it will certainly spark some arguments over the differences between provocative surrealism and inane pretension. If you are reading this because you already know who Arrabal is, pick it up. If you don’t know, then walk on by.