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 drinks, 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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