Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Secret History of Movies #13

(Burning Down the House, 1983, d. Byrne)
(The Exorcist, 1973, d. Friedkin)


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Capsule Reviews, Meta-Hollywood-Style, or "What's the Matter With Right Here?"

Quite coincidentally, I recently watched three films that in their own way, and with varying levels of success, deal with the, as they say, Classic Hollywood Style. Below, you will find capsulized reviews of that shit.


In a Lonely Place (d. Nicholas Ray) - Early on in this noir classic, Humphrey Bogart, as the embittered and potentially violent screewriter Dixon Steele, twice asks the question "Whats the matter with right here?" In both cases, there's some aggression behind the words -- in one case, Steele is literally looking to get into a fight -- because Dixon wants things to remain as they are. Not professionally, because he's treading water, and not in his relationships with women, because he doesn't have any, but in order to fix either problem he'd have to not merely change, but become a better person, and he's too busy feeling superior to every living creature that crosses his path. So what's the matter with right here?

Nicholas Ray's 1950 masterpiece, which has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion, is one of the most psychologically devastating noirs ever made, and because of that, in its own way, one of the most narratively unconventional crime films I've seen. It's based on a novel by Dorothy Hughes, a major cult writer who I'm afraid I've never read, but Ray's film resembles more than anything a cross between James M. Cain and Charles Willeford. Both writers (Willeford began writing after In a Lonely Place was released) specialized in creating characters who find themselves thrust into intense situations, but discover that on some level that they sort of don't care. In In a Lonely Place, Bogart's Steele meets a coat-check girl (Martha Stewart) who's read the novel he needs to adapt, and he asks her back to his place to tell him the story, thereby cutting out the middle man. When, the next morning, the girl turns up murdered, Steele is at most bemused to find himself in a police station. There he meets his neighbor Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) who witnessed Steele and the victim together (and saw the girl leave without him), with whom he eventually falls in love.

What's rarely acknowledged is that Gray gives even less of a shit about the dead girl than Steele does ("Gray" and "Steele" may be names that weren't chosen at random). In fact, Gray is drawn to Steele precisely because of his associations with a murder case. She's not presented, and Grahame doesn't play her, as a ghoul, but it's not hard to connect the dots. It's only when the couple draws further into domesticity that Gray begins to listen to the warnings from the cops who still suspect that Steele is a killer.

The answer to the question "whodunnit?" isn't hard to land on, but it's also sort of irrelevant, for reasons I'll leave for those who've haven't yet seen In a Lonely Place to discover. But it's not irrelevant in a cold way -- it's somehow irrelevant in a way that specifically remembers that dead coat-check girl. Because you never know.


Gardens of Stone (d. Francis Ford Coppola) - When his 1981 film One From the Heart flopped so notoriously (that it's a great film is, of course, immaterial) that it not only contributed to the death of Hollywood's auteurist phase of the previous decade, but also bankrupted him and put the breaks on his juggernaut of a career, Francis Ford Coppola did what any desperate artist would have done: he politely said "Fuck it" and doubled down on One From the Heart's radical style. This took many forms, and one form, the one I find the strangest and most surprising, involved unironically employing classic Hollywood aesthetics in the aid of new films of the exact type that led to the development of those aesthetics in the first place. See Tucker: The Man and His Dream, his take on the biopic, and, more to the current point, 1987's Gardens of Stone, his mostly forgotten entry into the "war at home" melodrama.

Starring James Caan as Sgt. Clell Hazard, stationed in Fort Meyer in Arlington, VA during the Vietnam War, Gardens of Stone is essentially an anti-war film, but not of the puling sort that by then had become the norm (Clell insists, convincingly, that he's not a pacifist). Instead, it's a sad, funny, weird, inspired, honest, and honorable look at the world of U.S. Army as it functions at home while the war these characters were trained to wage is happening on the other side of the world. And while Clell and his best friend Sgt. Major "Goody" Nelson (James Earl Jones, and the pairing of Caan and Jones is sort of brilliant) seem to be the smartest guys on base, that's not because they, or the film, views the military as corrupt. Though Wyler's film is post-war, Gardens of Stone most resembles The Best Years of Our Lives in its depiction of military life as something only those actually living it can understand, or appreciate.

And Coppola does all this while having his actors pitch their performances at a level that would have been immediately understood and appreciated by the original audience for The Best Years of Our Lives, but less so by audiences who'd just seen Lethal Weapon. But Coppola doesn't believe that cinematic styles "evolve"; to him, the aesthetics of every era exists in the same era, which is to say, the present. It's not a matter of paying homage to what came before -- it's a matter of using whatever tools most inspire him.

On a side note, even though he's one of the most adventurous of all American filmmakers, when you read about Coppola online these days, you're more likely than not going to find some bullshit snark along the lines of "How could the guy who made The Conversation have made Jack???" Never mind how far in the past Jack is now, people still won't shut up about it. In any event, my response to such comments is "How many films as good as The Conversation have you made? Actually, scratch that: how many films as good as The Conversation have you seen?"


Joy (d. David O. Russell) - So, one way to do classic Hollywood is to actually be classic Hollywood. Another way is embrace the style on your own terms, several decades removed. And yet another way is to do it while pretending you're doing something else. Which brings us to David O. Russell, a filmmaker who's been an uninteresting traditionalist since Flirting With Disaster, his second film, and who made his best film (in my view, anyway) with The Fighter, which is the one time he shed any pretensions of "edginess." Since then, it's all been downhill (again), and while his latest, last year's Joy, must count as an improvement over his previous American Hustle, when this film opens with a title card that reads "Inspired By True Stories of Daring Women," you can practically see Russell waiting for the applause.

Based on the true story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), the woman who invented the Miracle Mop -- and I sort of got the feeling that being able to call this movie Joy because in this case that word is multi-layered was the main reason for making it in the first place -- Russell's film turns what could have been unique source material into boilerplate inspiration. Joy struggles, and is beset on all sides, but finally succeeds, don't you know. As usual, Russell is relentless in his use of popular songs, presumably because deep down he knows that he's Martin Scorsese, and, as usual, he's no damn good at it (further proof, if any was needed, that David O. Russell is in fact not Martin Scorsese), playing songs just to play them, or because the brutal obviousness of using "I Feel Free" just appeals to him on some level. Later, when Joy gets a shot at promoting her invention on QVC, Russell wants to convince the audience that QVC is somehow this invigorating environment pulsing with the very juice of life, like an ER or an old-time newsroom. The idea isn't to bring out what's special about Joy Mangano's story, but rather to reduce it down to the kind of film we're comfortable watching.

But Jennifer Lawrence sure is good. Her talents as an actress are as natural and seemingly effortless as any I can think of in modern American films. The suspicion I have that Russell is, at this point, clinging to her desperately is one that persists.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Night is a Place for Gun Killings: A New Detective Mystery

Chapter 1

Dennis the hero detective got on a plane to go to Los Angeles California. He hated it. "What a bad city," he goes in his mind. "It is all full of Whore-ly-weird stars and terrible tales! It is a place where the innocent go to eat a pound of sin, an act which they die from!" But Dennis went anyway because the other day, like a day or two ago, like Wednesday or Thursday, he was in his office, sitting there at a desk with a newspaper. He read the paper thinking "Oh jeez. A baby got killed by a criminal. Why is this in the WORLD???" He screamed that last word. What a good point, too.

Then a guy came into the office. He had a great jacket, it was gray. His whole deal was like a car made it. What a situation this guy was. Dennis was all "The bank is downstairs, buddy." But the rich "bub" answered back, check this out: "No this is where I'd like to be."

Dennis spit out his apple juice. What?? "Okay sire," he goes. "Tell me what you need."

The guy says "My name is Hertford Longk." Dennis sniffed with derision. He knew all about the Longks. "And I am so rich I could buy eight sandwiches and twelve music records and I wouldn't even know it. How much would that cost? No money. It's just records and sandwiches. Listen to me, Mr. Detective" Hertford Longk sneered, "I have all the sandwiches and music records I need."

Dennis in his brain thought 'That's true. Hertford Longk has so many boats. When I got to the docks to drink my special hard booze, which is first you get a glass and you fill it half with milks, then you put a bunch of cinnamon in there, and then boy when you add that hot apple liqueur, it certainly becomes Christmas in my mind, it's my favorite time of year, no question, although I also like Halloween, and when it's Halloween you can actually do the same drink, you don't have to change it, but if you go to the Dollar Store they have plastic cups with spiders and things on them, and you can put the drink in those, and that makes it even tougher because you're drinking a booze in a glass about death. So when I'm at the boats drinking my Spooky Apple Cider, I sometimes see Herford Longk and he's just lookin at boats, like 'I love my boats.' I always knew he was a corrupt official."

Then in Dennis's office Hertford Longk says "My daughter, she is a missing person. Here is a picture of her."

Dennis took the picture. The girl in the picture looked as though her hair was made of not just any butter, but specifically yellow sunshine butter, and her lips were all red like sex organs. Additionally, the picture included information pertaining to her boobs, and Dennis thought "Oh brother, here we go."

Hertford Longk say "She is my daughter Petulia. She has gone missing. We are in New York City right now but Petulia has gone to California, in my opinion."

"How old is she?" Dennis went.

"She is only nineteen years old," said Hertford, "And I th--"

"Hoo buddy, nineteen?" screamed Dennis. "Boy oh boy. Nineteen. Yee-hee-eesh."

"And I think sire," Hertford kept going, "that she has been taken over by a 'movie man.'"

Dennis suddenly spit out his Sprite from 1940.

"Wait..." he said. "Do you mean a Hollywood movie man???" He was so curious about this.

"Yes," said Longk. "A movie man. You will need to go to get on a plane to a Hollywood place in L.A, California. It is not Manhattan, Queens, NY." Hertford Longk looked at Dennis with the eye of a piece of shit bunny rabbit: "Can you do that sire??"

Dennis said "Oh ha ha I sure can, let's shake on it!" It was the toughest thing he'd ever done.

Chapter 2

When Dennis landed in his plane on the ground of "L. Angelo, CalifornStar," as they call it there, even the plane people were like "Do you have a movie, do you have a movie, do you have a movie?" Dennis couldn't believe it! These people only cared about if if you have a movie! It reminded him of drugs.

He got in cab and said to the guy "Take me to movies" but the guy goes "Ha ha you are a tourist!" and drove him not to movies, only near them. Dennis punched the man to death. Then he went to a bar and said "I need to relax. Give me a whole bottle of coffee." A whole bottle of coffee was given to him, "California style". Dennis looked at a newspaper while thinking "Where is she where is she where is she." Then a guy at the bar goes "Who are you lookin for, funbuddy?"

Dennis grinned. The guy had said the best friend word which was "funbuddy." Even if he didn't know about crime, he would be a nice man to talk to!

Dennis went "What is your name funbuddy?"

The guy's like "Gene."

Dennis is all "Can I buy you some sherbet?"

This is Gene about sherbet: "Oh yum yum yum! Gimme all that sherbet!"

Dennis ordered delicious sweet sherbet for Gene and another bottle of coffee but this time with wine, beer, sherbet, and watermelon vodka in it for himself. This drink is called a "Morning Rendezvous" and Dennis pretty much made it up himself. You can find it in booze bars if you ask.

Then Dennis showed Gene the picture of Petulia and says "Have you seen this?" but Gene says "Oh no, oh no, I ain't seen that girl, oh heck no, I don't even know what a lady is! I am lonely!"

Dennis smashed the guy with his half-a-pineapple. "YOU KNOW WHERE SHE GOES AT!" Dennis roared. "SHE IS A LADY IN MOVIES! BAD MOVIES!"

Gene said "Hey wow woops sheesh, owch" that's how hard that pineapple was hitting him. Then he goes "What kind of bad movies?"

Dennis went "You know what kind...the bad kind." Then Dennis's voice was low and hoarse and gravelly and knowing and sad. He's like "You know there are girls. Girls from a farm. In the farm is a cow and a horse and the girl I'm referring to pets a horse and pets a cow. It is innocence. And the girl take her biscuit and her corn and she go into a pond of not just anything, but a pond of water. And she eat her biscuit in the sunshine. The sunshine is like a heaven of god. The corn is also like a heaven of god. Then her brother Goofbo bring her a skillet of beans. Those skillet of beans are like a biscuit of sunshine."

Gene was totally crying.

Dennis said "Are you her brother?"

Gene said "No. Goofbo has died in a log accident. But I know where Petulia is."

"WHERE??????????" Dennis thundered.

Gene was like a little ball of shit, or not, like a kitten, or no...he was like, I guess he was in a chair. Gene was in a chair and he said "Genesis Pictures! She's under contract!"

Then Dennis began to laugh.

"Genesis Pictures?" goes Dennis. "I guess everything bad will happen!"

And with that terrifying premonition, Dennis went to a famous burger place, the kind of burger place you can only find in Lots Angular, and he bought like literally eighteen "cheese"burgers. A "cheese" burger is a kind of sandwich you can only find in "El Lay" and what you do is, okay, listen: you take a meat. You make sure the meat is okay. Then you put the meat on a pan. Good. Then you take a bun and on that bun you put a walnut "ketchup." There are many kinds of ketchup. Now that your burgered meat is ready is it pink enough? Great. Put it on the walnut ketchup. The only thing now to do is dump a bunch of dry macaroni onto whatever you are eating. Put it on your meated burger. Put it on your plate of sauce. Do you have a sweat poatot pastat? That is good now. Put it on a plate.

Dennis punched Gene's teeth.

Chapter 3

Dennis went to Genesis Pictures. It was a big studio and he knew all about it. They had made No More Please and Down a Street is a Whole Dame and The World of a Christ: Bible and Herntf Blerntf and The Floating Cavalcade of DinoCars. All the best movies. So much art  Too many Oscar times to even count. How Could Petulia be caught up with these great artistic total weirdos?

He went to the guard and said "Take me to Randy Genesis, I am a private detective."

The guy went "We don't got nothin about you here tonight you piece of garbage monster."

Dennis goes "Tell him Hertford Longk sent me."

Then the guard's like "Wooooweeewoooo!" and he danced around like a cute baby. Then he let Dennis in.

The main guy at Genesis Pictures was a guy called Rorstein O'Genesisberg. Everybody knew that. He was a big fat guy who had a big glass of apple juice in his hand and a plate full of pizza. Oh God, thought Dennis, I will never be so "rich" as they say!

"What can I do for you!" yelled Rorstein.

Dennis took out his picture of Petulia.

"Her!" he shrieked! "Where is her!"

Rorstein took the picture. He stared all at it.

"I have seen her," he said with so much sadness. "She was going to be in our movies." His eyes became like apple juice. "Can't you see her? She would be a star! She would be in all our star movies. She would be in Look Out, Town! and Panther on the Balcony and Newspapers for Sure! and Boat into the Mouth of Hell and Jungle Cindy: Leave Me Be and Jungle Cindy: Appalachian Roundabout. She could have been the star of forever!!!"

Dennis choked on his glass of water with a splash of beer that the lady who worked there brought him.

"Then what happened?" he asked.

"Then???" yelped Rorstein. "Then she got taken up...she got taken up bad..."

"By whom???" Dennis had never been more angry.

Rorstein sipped his whiskey which also had in it chocolate syrup and cloves and it was mostly ice. "By Yantlo Romblo...:

Dennis spit out his water and beer and threw the glass on the ground. "Tell me about him you jerk!!!"

Rorstein flinched like a cat when you, well, not when you light a match, because if you have cats yourself you'll know that sometimes it's hard to get close enough to them to light a match if you want to scare them that way (which I would never do!) but if you want to startle them up close, I mean...I don't know, it seems mean, but if they trust you enough to get close to your face, you could...no, you know what? This is mean. I'm not going to do this.

So Rorstein said "I once saw him eat a dog. He was like 'I like the taste.'"

Dennis couldn't believe the kind of evil he was facing. He went "Jeez louise! This fellow sounds like a total human prince!"

He punched his fist into Rorstein. Rorstein said "If you want to find him you should go to the Turtle Club. They have pizza there."

Dennis gasped. Pizza???

Chapter 4

Dennis went to the Turtle Club. All the stars where at that place: Johnny Jones, Lady Lornams, Glenton Cardborax, Flennison Von Shorntown. All the best stars! Including Pulix Montsammory, Billing Tershtorion, Mandice Lassintrolph...the best of all acting celebrities. Even directors such as Farpchance Merchporliance and Wanfgown Sorkblownce. What a magnificent parade of the stars.

But Dennis only wanted one of the celebrity guys. He only wanted Yantlo Romblo.

So he goes into the place and there's so much rich people eating their "chicken" and their "salad." Dennis screamed "I am coming for you, Yantlo Romblo!"

All the stars in the Turtle Club dropped their pizza. It had pepperonis on it. They all looked at Dennis.

Yantlo Romblo had a lady and he was going to do things to her that is like if you were you, okay, but, listen, the kind of thing YOU would do isn't good. You should not. But here is Dennis. Now Dennis turned to Billing Tershtorion. "Are you married?"

Billing Tershtorion said "Yes I am. I am married to Wanfgown Sorkblownce."

"Okay," said Dennis. "What if you were eating some great delicious pizza but then that pizza turned out to be Wanfgown Sorkblownce??"

"Sire!" cried Billing Tershtorion, "this is the Turtle Club! You have no place to talk to me about things in the realm of this! Police! Police! Arrest the shirted man!"

But Dennis was already running. None of the "rich-o's" would help him. But there were stairs that went up so he just kept going up them and then there was a door and then he opened it and there was Yantlo Romblo, and Petulia was there, too!

Dennis point his gun at Yantlo.

"WHY YANTLO???" he shrieked

Yantlo was all twitchy.

"Because mother and father," he went, "and soft blankets and spiders in my hair and I just want to touch a soft blanky movies movies movies, my mother and father put cracked mirrors in my room and they drank and--"

Dennis shot him through one of his eyes. Petulia, who was pretty much naked, ran to him. Dennis put his hand on her butt.

"Ssh, quiet," he said. because she was crying a lot. "Seriously shut up."

Chapter 5

Dennis took Petulia back to her dad, Hertford Longk. Her dad got out of the car at the street next to the poor building where Dennis lived.

Her dad said "Thank you Dennis. You saved my daughter from a movie."

Dennis said "Did I?"

Hertford Longk said "Yes."

Then Dennis is like "Keep your money!" and he tore up the check!

The rich dad spit out his apple juice in a rage and drove away with his daughter. What a world of sadness.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Foam of Days


In 2012, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes released his third, superb, and breakthrough, film. Called Tabu, the title intentionally evokes F. W. Murnau's 1931 Tabu, a Tale of the South Seas (also superb) . Outside of that direct reference, the other parallels between the Gomes and the Murnau Tabus are somewhat under the surface. The primary inspiration Gomes seemed to draw from Murnau had to do with storytelling, certain themes, and exoticism. Had he never told anyone, it's doubtful anyone would have watched his film and thought "Oh he's just riffing on Murnau." It's perhaps a new kind of homage: you wear it on your sleeve, but it's barely in your movie.

Then, as a follow-up, Gomes took a similar, though rather different all the same, approach to another classic, this time a classic of literature. His Arabian Nights is a 6-hour flood of story, but as each roughly-two-hour volume (though make no mistake: this is a 6-hour film that has been chopped into thirds) reminds us, none of the stories Gomes is telling have been adapted from the ancient collection of Arabic folk tales known One Thousand and One Nights. What Gomes is adapting, according to the one-screen text disclaimer found in each volume, is the structure, though that structure is also one of the stories. Though Gomes doesn't linger on it very much (which is relative, given the length of the thing), we still have Scheherazade (Crista Alfaiate), still staving off horror night after night by telling stories to her violent royal husband Shahryar. But for the most part, Gomes takes the opportunity provided by the structure of an essentially massive one-filmmaker anthology film to not only dive into the current political and, especially, economic turmoil which is devastating modern Portugal, but to also explore the fantastical that is inherent to One Thousand and One Nights. Because, I mean, why not?

The whole megillah has now been released on Blu-ray, courtesy of Kino Lorber, so that now you, as well as many others, including myself, can be entranced and/or perplexed and/or frustrated and/or moved by this monumental project the goal of which -- to be a kind of angry political entreaty as well as a kind of fanciful carnival of stories -- near the beginning Gomes, playing himself, insists is pretty much impossible to achieve. Having seen the damn thing now, I'm not sure if I agree with him or not. Or rather, yes, it's impossible to achieve as he no doubt conceived it as a perfect thing, which his Arabian Nights certainly isn't. That it may not have been worth taking a swing at, that I can't entirely get behind.


Not entirely. But Jesus, what a confounding heffalump of a film. And how to summarize it? Some acknowledgment must be made of the political/economic crisis in Portugal that led to Arabian Nights being made in the first place. In Portugal as in other countries during the global financial recession, taxes soared and social programs were severely cut, so that poor people became poorer, and middle class people also became poorer, and so on. In this sense, Arabian Nights is an old story. The stories Gomes chose to tell, so goes the copious on-screen text, were all pulled from Portuguese news stories spanning from 2011 to 2014. And in terms of style and, for lack of a better word, genre, those stories run the gamut, at least as Gomes tells them: in the dozen or so stories and sub-stories Gomes adapts, stark realism stands side-by-side with fantasy and absurdity, sometimes within the same story. Sometimes within the same minute.

Although from what I've seen most critics seem to be on board with Gomes's approach here, I have seen a number of dissenting opinions and one of the criticisms that caught my eye is that some of the stories told here -- and in total there are about ten or so -- are simply sketched out fictional versions of the true ones. For example, the second film, called Arabian Nights Vol. II: The Desolate One, opens with a story called "Chronicle of the Escape of Simao 'Without Bowels,'" which is basically about an old man who is on the run from the police through the hills of Portugal, because he has murdered his wife and daughter. This was a real news story in Portugal at the time, mainly because when the man was caught and brought back to his town for trial, he was greeted by his community as a hero. And it's true that Gomes doesn't "explore" this, as they say, nay demand, but rather simply tells it. Similarly, in the first film, Arabian Nights Vol. I: The Restless One, in a story called "The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire," which is in fact two stories, in the second of those, the one about the fire, which is based on a true event involving a teenager starting a forest fire in a fit of heartbreak, Gomes again just dramatizes this, with the only blatant bit of innovation, something not so innovative at this point, being the texts that the three teenagers send to each other being splashed in all their gibberishy abbreviations across the middle of the screen. What, specifically, the criticism goes, does Gomes think these have to do with the Portuguese economic crisis?

Well, and pardon me for skipping around so much but what can you do, at the end of the third and last film, called Arabian Nights Vol. III: The Enchanted One, Gomes, in a sudden burst of nearly sentimental optimism that is mostly at odds with the six hours that has come before, puts yet another paragraph of text on the screen which reads:

To Carolina Gomes who was 8 years old when we filmed the Arabian Nights and may she watch the film when she's old enough and may she derive from it what she well pleases. And may she be happy. The end!

I must assume that Carolina Gomes is his daughter but either way, the relevant phrase here is "may she derive from it what she well pleases." Which is to say, this is a massive and expansive 382-minute film. Must every varied piece of it conform directly to the theme that, admittedly, at times it seems to insist you notice? I'd say no, and as insistent as each volume is, beginning as they all do with that goddamn text saying basically "This is about the economic crisis, the Portuguese government is shitty and because of that Portugal is poor, all of these stories are from a very specific time period etc." Gomes himself, during his cameo in The Restless One, points out the impossibility of marrying his ambition to make a film about that economic crisis with his ambition to structure it around the fancifulness of One Thousand and One Nights. The Restless One begins with what I took to be documentary footage of a shipyard that was about to be closed down, and documentary audio of shipyard audio of the workers who would soon be jobless talking about their work. Gomes says in this section that he sees a metaphorical link between this and another crisis having to do with wasps overwhelming the bee population. But he admits that he doesn't know what it is. But he goes ahead with it anyway. Now I'll grant you, when Gomes begins to set these things side-by-side, the metaphorical link is far less mind-boggling than he lets on, but I do believe it sets up the viewer to understand that, when dealing with all the stories we will see/hear/read over the next several hours, narrative and theme needn't be so ruthlessly paired. Not to mention, the wasp/bee material is also built from documentary material, and when Gomes cuts from it, we're cutting to him, Gomes, actually Gomes, and two of his crew (probably actors) buried up to their necks in sand, about to be executed. Sort of. Anyway, the point is, fancifully-speaking, we're off.


None of which is to say that anything goes, or that everything works. I am, in fact, pretty thoroughly conflicted in my opinion of The Arabian Nights as an overall film. There's a blurb on the Blu-ray from critic Nick Pinkerton which says in part that The Arabian Nights is "the work of a free man," and this is hard to deny. But there are stretches of the film, sometimes long stretches, where one might be tempted to think "So he's a free man. So what?" For the most part, the sections that blended fantasy and economic politics worked the least well. In The Restless One there's a story called "The Men With Hard-Ons," which is a satire about men and power and erections and which might as well have been written by the staff of Jezebel. In The Desolate One, there's a story called "The Tears of the Judge" which has the amusingly sharp structure of a trial in which the accused has culturally or economically-based reason for doing what they did, which inevitably blames someone else, who is also in the courtroom (and open-air courtroom that resembles a kind of Greek theater), who he or she has their own culturally or economically-based reason for and so on. This perhaps shouldn't go on for forty minutes, however. Once again, there's one joke, and it is repeated. Nothing much is gained by doing so. The most interesting thing about "The Tears of the Judge" is the odd framing device, oblique and rich in nudity, having to do with the loss of the judge's daughter's virginity. This may or may not have anything to do with economics. May the viewer derive from it what they well please.

The strangest and at times most infuriating thing about the style Gomes employs in the making of Arabian Nights is the way he relies -- not as a crutch, but as a style -- on both narration and, more particularly, on-screen text. He used narration to great effect in Tabu, and frankly I admire anyone who so viciously attacks any sort of narrative convention that so many people buy without question, in this case "show don't tell," which is nice, but has never been the only game in town. At times, however, in doing so in Arabian Nights, Gomes disappears up his own ass. He does so most notably in The Enchanted One, in a long story -- one that actually interrupts and stomps on a story called "Hot Forest" which seems like it's going to be the next story we're going to hear, but, kind of, no -- called "The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches." This is about what is not but eventually feels like an endless procession of lower-class Portuguese men who raise chaffinches, a breed of finch, so that these birds can compete in an annual singing-chaffinches competition. What's interesting, though only in a sort of cold, disinterested way, is that Gomes is entirely aware of what he's putting his audience through. The copious on-screen text, which after a while you kind of wish could hear you when you tell it to fuck off, alternates between information about the characters and chaffinches and the competition, and lines about Scheherazade -- who you must remember is telling these stories every night to her murderous royal husband in order to stave off disaster -- stopping when morning comes, and starting again when night falls. At one point, unless I missed something, a line about stopping when morning breaks and beginning again at nightfall is followed up immediately with a line about stopping when morning breaks and beginning again at nightfall. So on some level, or many levels, Gomes is fucking around, and fucking with us. So he's a free man, and so what? The only moment in the "Chaffinches" chapter that struck me as particularly good in any way was the detail that one character, who'd lived with his family long into adulthood and then lost them either through death or simply moving out, now lives alone and each night chooses which room he will sleep in.


Speaking of which, well no, first of all: it's either curious or telling or both that my favorite volume of Arabian Nights is the second one, The Desolate One, about which more in a minute. But what's curious about that preference is that it's the one that, as The Hollywood Reporter noted, could not stand on its own. It was never meant to, and nobody would ever watch it in isolation, so there's that bullet dodged. Yet the context of the Scheherazade story hangs over it less than the other two (twice Gomes makes Scheherazade's situation a story in itself, and neither time does it particularly engage) which frees each story to be whatever it is. Sometimes that includes the politics that partly inspired this whole crazy project, and sometimes it includes great footage of a wonderful dog, as well as the ghost of a dog. The longest chunk of The Desolate One deals with this dog, the living one, named Dixie, and how Dixie shifts from owner to owner in this community of poor residents of an a pair of apartment complexes. So much about everyday human life -- and yes, specifically lower-class life, which fits neatly into the politics of it all -- is covered in this section. I feel like what the film is about, and the way its politics are best communicated, or not as the case may be, is found in moments like the middle-aged couple getting into bed together to watch TV, and each lights a cigarette, and they snuggle together, smoking. Or in the aforementioned "Chronicle of the Escape of Simao 'Without Bowels,'" when the murderer hitchhikes a ride from the guy driving the snack-supply van and keeps asking for bottles of juice.

But the most emotionally striking moment in the whole six hours comes in that section about Dixie, called "The Owners of Dixie" (and there are sub-chapters), when an impoverished young couple, now in possession of the dog, goes to pick up their weekly supply of government-supplied canned food, and they ask, quietly and politely but somewhat insistently, for a little bit more variety in the food they're given. The woman in charge tells them they've already been given a variety of food, but the couple says it's all the same. They just want a little change. They want only the most meager of things to look forward to, but they're told over and over again that they're already getting that. It reminded me of a moment in that last scene in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis when the almost comically poor (I think that there is a comic aspect intended by both Cronenberg and Don DeLillo, author of the original novel) character played by Paul Giamatti is telling the certainly comically rich (see above) character played by Robert Pattinson that he walks by a cafe with outdoor tables, and sees groups of friends sitting there, having drink, and he knows he can't do that simple thing. He has no money. He can't do it.

There are other moments like that in Arabian Nights, but it's not full of them. Parts of it are filled with nonsense and tedium, and other parts are filled with moments that may or may not have anything to do with the rest of it. You may do with it as you please.

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