Sunday 28 May 2017

On DVD (and recently screened at the Golden Age Cinema) - Michael Campi discovers Miguel Gomes' ARABIAN NIGHTS

Jacques Rivette is reported to have said Scheherazade is the patron saint for all storytellers. The survival narrative tactic of the cliffhanger runs through much of cinema history as well as exotic centuries-old literature.

Halfway through watching the home video version of Rivette's twelve hour OUT ONE provides such a moment of suspense when Jean-Pierre Léaud escapes from a claustrophobic interior to a noisy Parisian street and gazes in apparent astonishment at something we can't see until we pick up the story a few minutes later after inserting the next DVD.

ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS is the collection of those Middle Eastern and Indian tales which first appeared in Arabic around a thousand years ago. ARABIAN NIGHTS is the title given to the first English edition of the stories in the early 18th Century. These fantastic intertwining and exotic tales have influenced English and European literature over the centuries while Townsend's edition of ARABIAN NIGHTS was the first example of western literature to appear translated into Japanese in 1875. 

In western classical music, several 19th and 20th century operas and orchestral works were inspired by the tales and the character of Scheherazade. In more recent decades, the influence of the stories has infused popular music as well. 

Cinema history also provides so many adaptations of these themes from those silent and sound versions of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD to THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED, various animations involving Popeye, Mr. Magoo and Bugs Bunny while exotic and colourful fantasies featuring Maria Montez, Sabu, Jon Hall, Cornel Wilde, Rock Hudson were matinee staples through the 1940s and 50s. Ray Harryhausen found an affinity with some of these fantastic adventures while Disney's ALADDIN proved to be one of the studios' more enduring films with many spinoffs.

Say ARABIAN NIGHTS to film buffs and Pasolini's own interpretation will be brought to mind quickly, his own final part of another kind of trilogy. There have been other influences of the tales in Turkish, Indian and French cinema.  Agnes Varda in her always unique way elaborated on the notion of this kind of story-telling in her own ONE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS variation in 1995 with Michel Piccoli as an ageing Monsieur Cinema who hires a young woman to narrate to him the stories that made the history of the movies. 

Behind all these inspirations, capitulations and elaborations of the many tales themselves, there is a recurring element, the framework device that began with the story of the ruler Shahryar, aggrieved that his wife has been unfaithful and who decides that all women must be as untrustworthy. He embarks on a course of marrying successive virgins who will be executed after the first night of marriage before they can deceive their husband. The Vizier who facilitates this plan is left finally with only his daughter Scheherazade as the last known virgin. To save herself, the resourceful young lady spins her husband a captivating and exciting yarn which she will not finish till the next night but after which she will begin another tale which won't be concluded until the following night and so on ... for a thousand and one nights. Cliffhangers proved to be more important than climaxes.

Miguel Gomes
Miguel Gomes is far from a maker of regular narrative cinema. His second feature OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST (2008) is part actuality reportage of provincial Portuguese customs until these elements merge into another kind of fiction.  TABU, much loved when it followed in 2012, mixes contemporary drama with a flashback to Portuguese colonial history in Africa. When ARABIAN NIGHTS first appeared in Directors' Fortnight in Cannes 2015, no one should have expected a straightforward six hour version of familiar exotic tales and legends even if the publicity artwork suggests otherwise.

Gomes and colleagues spent over a year traversing Portugal researching vital contemporary reports of the country's economic plight. It was suggested Gomes had no clear vision for his film but had hired the cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, highly regarded for his work on some films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for an extended period.  Over nine hours of film were reduced to the final trilogy of three works lasting around two hours each.  In the age of binge-watched long-form narratives, Gomes is again operating on another level.

Gomes' major concerns, along with the reflexive kind of narrative structure, are the economy and ecology. What was happening to people in various walks of life during the critical financial downturn in Portugal in the 2013/4 year when the Viana Do Castelo shipyards closed tragically while simultaneously a plague of wasps were decimating the local bee population with attendant ecological consequences. 

ARABIAN NIGHTS: Volume 1 - The Restless One is itself in three sections. 'The Men with Hard-Ons" features capitalists unable to achieve erections, behaving mercilessly in their dealings with the insolvent population of the country. The second part, "The Cockerel and the Fire" features the trial of a cockerel which creates a noisy nocturnal disturbance when unhappy young people start a fire. "The Swim of the Magnificents", the final section of Volume 1, follows a swimming teacher who attempts to provide an aquatic festival to heal those who are disadvantaged by the harsh economic downturn. 

ARABIAN NIGHTS: Volume 2 - The Desolate One is not unlike the slow movement of a classical music composition with its darker and more serious feelings.  Its first section, "The Chronicle of the Escape of Simao 'Without Bowels'", deals with the law:  a serial killer is hunted to the point he becomes a folk hero. How the law once again attempts to untangle interwoven crimes is studied in the following section, "The Tears of the Judge" while the final focus of Volume 2 is "The Owners of Dixie" in which a homeless dog is given to a poor young couple reliant on welfare.

ARABIAN NIGHTS: Volume 3 - The Enchanted One is again in three sections. Scheherazade herself has the focus first of all followed by a tale concerning chaffinches which was originally a much longer contribution, almost a film in its own right. In his final sequences Gomes shows a young Chinese woman whose life in Portugal is intercut with scenes of great protest. 

Gomes is one of contemporary cinema's most unique, unpredictable and unclassifiable filmmakers and perceptive observers of human behaviour through history and today. This ARABIAN NIGHTS trilogy is endlessly inventive, interspersing modern fantasy yet inspired by the rhythm of story-telling of long ago. It repays many viewings.

Even how we should watch the complete six hours is subject for discussion.  There are those who find each two hour work is intense and satisfying enough to be a complete experience for one day leaving time for reflection before continuing with the stories on subsequent days.  Others would prefer to complete the six hours of finished film in one session.  Is this one film or three? That in itself is a question.

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