Sunday, November 07, 2004

Jorge Luis Borges On Film

In 1998, I traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to attend CINEFESTIVAL, the largest and oldest international Latino film and video exhibition program in the nation. One night they screened a new Argentinean film called MOEBIUS, a fantastical tale of a subway track designed in the shape of an infinity loop, and when the subway hit a certain high speed, it was transported into a parallel dimension. This was my first encounter with the work of the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges (1899-1986) has often been referred to as a master miniaturist, weaving dense and complex worlds filled with musings on time, space, history, and dualities into short stories and poems. While known mainly for his fiction writings, Borges was a prolific author of essays, reviews and magazine articles. Interestingly, Borges was, for many years, a film critic. The 1999 book JORGE LUIS BORGES: SELECTED NON-FICTIONS (ed. Eliot Weinberger) contains a small yet intriguing sampling of Borges film writing.

The collected reviews cover a few years in the 1930s and early 1940s. While some refer to South American and European films, several reviews offer a uniquely Borgesian take on Hollywood cinema. He was a passionate admirer of Charlie Chaplin. In a wonderful sentence that typifies his writing style, Borges writes, “Would anyone dare ignore that Charlie Chaplin is one of the established gods in the mythology of our time, a cohort of de Chirico’s motionless nightmares, of Scarface Al’s ardent machine guns, of the finite yet unlimited universe of Greta Garbo’s lofty shoulders, of the goggled eyes of Gandhi?” Borges film reviews were often quite humorous. When discussing Josef von Sternberg’s version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1935), he writes, “Indoctrinated by the populous memory of THE SCARLET EMPRESS, I was expecting a vast flood of false beards, miters, samovars, masks, surly faces, wrought-iron gates, vineyards, chess pieces, balalaikas, prominent cheekbones, and horses. In short, I was expecting the usual von Sternberg nightmare, the suffocation and the madness.” Borges had little patience for films he did not like. He writes off KING KONG (1933) with a short, dismissive paragraph-long review:

A monkey, forty feet tall (some fans say forty-five) may have obvious charms, bust those charms have not convinced this viewer. King Kong is no full-blooded ape but rather a rusty, desiccated machine whose movements are downright clumsy. His only virtue, his height, did not impress the cinematographer, who persisted in photographing him form above rather than from below—the wrong angle, as it neutralizes and even diminishes the ape’s overpraised stature. He is actually hunchbacked and bowlegged, attributes that serve only to reduce him in the spectator’s eye. To keep him from looking the least bit extraordinary, they make him do battle with far more unusual monsters and have him reside in caves of false cathedral splendor, where his infamous size again loses all proportion. But what finally demolishes both the gorilla and the film is his romantic love—or lust—for Fay Wray.

The collection also contains an essay championing the humanity of film stories vs. empty cinematography, as well as a piece railing against film dubbing.

Borges, who suffered from a degenerative eye disease, went completely blind by 1955, thus ending his film reviews and other essay work. He instead devoted himself to poetry (which he could compose in his head), lectures and literature surveys, remaining quite productive until his death in 1986.

After viewing MOEBIUS at the film festival, I began reading Borges work in earnest, even taking a continuing education course on the author. I’ve often thought of that film. I was under the impression that its director (who was in attendance) was looking for a distributor. Who knows if he ever found one? I have the feeling, however, that MOEBIUS, was one of those films that makes a few brief appearances before sinking into the depths of obscurity, leaving only trace memories in those it affected.

If you would like to read more about Jorge Luis Borges, check out the New York Times Book Review of Edwin Williamson's new biography BORGES: A LIFE.

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