© 2014 by James Clark
Jep, the erratic protagonist and man-about-town of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013), could be described as a man who has experienced a thousand and one Arabian nights. His embrace of “vibrations” does, very markedly, include a rich sense of irony and a strong sense of self-criticism. Not for him an educated playboy’s satisfaction in soaking up the fruits of a liberal historical momentum. During a lull in one of his parties, he sits with his rather glum and confused housekeeper and pronounces, “This wildlife I’m surrounded by…they’re my people…” [I’m stuck with them; and they keep me away from serious literature].
Nuredin, one of the two main protagonists of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights (1974) [actually, The Flower of One Thousand and One Nights], is an impoverished illiterate boy who harbors no literary ambitions and gives us in action his definition of “wildlife,” namely, being favored by women, like the slave, Zumurrud, for his “smooth cheeks” and “beauty.” More specifically and compellingly, he gives us a rendition of a bird having won over a mate by seemingly the most reflexive telepathy, only to have her stolen from him by more alert and shrewd members of an aviary strung across the whole expanse of this “Arabia.” His go-getter of a lady-love chooses him for her master in a raucous outdoor marketplace. That the transaction comprises her promptly producing the money for his purchase of her and their rental of “a house [nest] in the district” introduces the arresting stylization of such no-fuss-no-muss breeding exigency into a pulse of human interaction that very definitely poses the issue of one’s having much more to do than breed.
Pasolini, an inveterate theoretician (not to mention his being a novelist and poet of some renown), feels compelled to engage in polemic (against the approach to dynamics chosen by the likes of Sorrentino and a whole battery of modernist auteurs), over and above absorption with a cinematic exploration of sensual phenomena, a hostile stance that in fact can be used here to make headway into the strange brew he was cooking up.
“In neorealism, things are described with a certain detachment, with human warmth, mixed with
irony—characteristics which I do not have. Compared with neorealism, I think I have introduced
a certain realism, but it would be hard to define it exactly…”
What that mission statement hands over to us, with its slight regarding “detachment,” is an abhorrence of the witty as well as intense phenomenon of disinterestedness. Pasolini will, it seems, attempt in his films to disclose a species of sensual wildlife (“a certain realism”) in its candidacy for tipping those scales felt to be in need of realignment. What particularly leaves this such a long shot is an academic, traditionally rationalist stuffiness—which he goes some way, in that passage, toward acknowledging—that cleaves not only to Scholastic Catholicism and Marxism, in a confiningly pedagogical, classical rational format (Pasolini having had a checkered teaching career in the field of linguistics), but a practice of poetry devoted to revival of the obscure and obscurantist Friuli dialect. His being gay might speak to offsetting such orthodoxy. And it might not. But clearly we’re faced with an operative on behalf of precious exclusivity and adamant hostility toward that historical thrust more or less confusedly taking leave of long-standing rationality and its clannish predilection toward dominance, having prevailed since the time of Plato.
Pasolini, then, has a lot to say (in text and film) about the skeptical evils of a market economy. That leaves his position unintentionally under fire by a recent filmic figure who of necessity turns to pseudonym, specifically the moniker, “Heisenberg.” In the course of devising and putting in motion a means of financial stability for his family after his imminent demise from terminal cancer, the protagonist of Vince Gilligan’s version of a thousand and one peculiar nights, namely, the TV series, Breaking Bad (2008-2013), finds himself so accelerated by a career of producing and marketing methamphetamine that he not only becomes an alien within his own family but an alien to himself (his former self as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher; and his more recent self as a desperately daring family man). He, in fact, having long ago fumbled an opportunity to become an affluent inventor, becomes, willy-nilly, a researcher into disinterested dynamics, like, presumably a hero or at least a notable irritant to him (a travesty to his rather prissy habits, like intently cutting the crusts [the rough parts] off of his sandwiches], namely, quantum physicist, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976). (That he’s as handicapped reflectively as he is medically is capsulized by—over and above a rampage of mayhem and murder—his inattentively insisting that that the chemical element, carbon, is the quintessence of primordiality.)
Not to seem to be ganging up on our auteur of the moment (who, were he still alive, would surely find things even less promising, for his “certain realism,” than the prospect he faced years ago while still getting off a sort of Demar Derozan impossible 3-pointer while falling flat on his face), there is a recent film that ranges rather close to the zoological overtures of Arabian Nights, namely, Denis Côté’s Bestiaire (2011); and it comes away far closer to Heisenberg than carbon. Set in a for-profit zoo, Cote’s work captures humans in close-up—for instance, a drawing class, intent on capturing a deer produced by the concern’s taxidermy department—where the intentness and move from stillness to productive motion give them a wildlife (bird-like) aura. We see the animals in winter quarters, for the most part as physically self-controlled and mysteriously possessed as the artists. After more than an hour of this largely silent interplay we’ve learned something about a kinship between the two orders of sentience. This cinematic gift comes wrapped in the grasp of present-day entertainment and gainful employment, installing into the proceedings an easily-ignored creative suspense.
Cutting marvellously across the grain of a presumably (for all of the on-location Horn of Africa/ Middle East sands, villages, fortresses and palaces) distant antiquity engulfing us in Pasolini’s seeming perversity, we have a couple of motifs to consider at the outset of dealing with a film sorely tempting the innovative instincts of its audience to bid it good riddance. Nuredin having produced a living space as quickly, say, as a nest gets built, it’s time for filling it up; and Zumurrud (his senior by several years) steers him to bed and removes his underpants. This latter phenomenon is more than a bit of an eye-catcher to us. First of all, the undergarment consists of two parts. The first is a diaper-like (he’s not that young!) wrap. The second is a sort of athletic support, and the waist band of the jockstrap resembles long, slender ears, with the pouch a donkey’s head. Like Bresson’s Marie bedecking her sweet young pet with floral favors, Zumurrud introduces the confused child to intimate ways of affection (“Not there, Silly!”) which he will never forget. Before the interactive naïveté of the Silly causes them to be torn away from one another, he returns from a botched errand to find her perched on the top of a bunk bed, reading, bringing to mind a mother bird warming up some eggs. Soon we are, by this action, brought into the second incongruous (?) bolt from another galaxy. “What are you reading?” the boy asks. As she proceeds to satisfy the youngster’s curiosity, by revealing to him (and us) a tale that—after the dusty streets and shadowy nest—pops with the crisp freshness of its oasis setting, we are doubly transported inasmuch as we know ourselves to be also immersed in Giuliana’s story (“The Girl on the Beach”) to her wayward son, in Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964). In line with the rejoinder to subtle feelings represented by Nuredin’s amateur but Pasolini-protégé penis, the Antonioni template of an elusive tall ship and a beautiful voice whose singing is “Everybody… everything…” becomes polluted by a gorgeous woman—far more attractive than the angular and masculine Zumurrud—flirting with a randy little senior who resembles a monkey and sighs, “My eyes saw her, to my misfortune.” Being a power-figure at the oasis, he goes on to commission the local poets to prove that “poets can speak of things they have not seen” [not, then, about Antonioni’s uncanny but about not being at the scene of the crime]. For good measure, he discharges a load of possessive energy—“What agony it was to leave you there… The gazelle who held me captive…”
On one hand we have what looks like the birth pangs of Bollywood by someone born to be obsolete. On the other hand, we have a thin thread of cognizance that “wildlife” and “realism” has been elicited from out of a sophisticated (and quite widely shared) passion for the problematical. As we go forward with our probe of this exceedingly odd effort, it is the overweening crudity being spilled against those film treasures—which have only gained in urgency as the twentieth century has run out –which becomes the site to be closely monitored. Though anchoring the narrative, the affairs of Nuredin and Zumurrud do not occupy the lion’s share of the chaos. On the female protagonist’s being plucked out of her nest by a wily, blue-eyed Christian hawk and deposited in the large nest of a persistent breeder whom she had spurned at the auction in the market, the juvenile (formerly lucky) beloved races about the dusty streets, repeatedly braying, “Zumurrud!” He’s trailed and mocked, as Balthazar was, by a gang of sadistic boys—their violence here reduced to routine thrill-seeking from out of an impoverishment of stimulation (no mopeds and no cool black leather for these ragamuffins). He ends up bawling his eyes out and being assisted in his search by a plump hen. “What’s your name, handsome lad and why are you crying?” With no self-control at all here, he blurts out, “I’ve lost my slave!” (But resolved, hard-won poise was the heart of those other films.) The lady, with both ulterior motives and a domicile within a territory of affection, promises, “I’ll find your Zumurrud [and she does], and the family man blubbers, “Thank you!” After servicing the hen, he falls asleep in the process of Zumurrud’s escape, once again losing her to a kind of vulture, and once again he tearfully flaps about the alleyways and outskirts (post-War Rome and its waifs coming to mind) where another mob of urchins gleefully pelts him with stones. The confrontation, thus framed, between this perpetually stunned weakling (with the lively vibrations) and the stoic donkey exerting a force here that is difficult to fathom (Pasolini did say, “it would be hard to define it exactly…”) is discreetly maintained within the film’s opening passage, by flashes (within the vicinity of their romantic crisis that threatens to bore us to death): of the donkey configuration of a greyish tent housing a randy devotee of young men; the migration of a tribe of nomads the possessions of which of which include many donkeys; and a boy with a donkey enticed by the leader of the convoy to join them and unwittingly participate in a bet between him and a lady (who has similarly rounded up a girl) as to proving that “the one who falls in love is the less beautiful, for the plain love the beautiful.” This sense of “love,” provocative to the point of impudence—in conjunction with the compellingly comprehensive situation of Balthazar—guides us, I think, toward the reflective drive of a movie that appears to equate reflection with the crudest zone of appetite.
Zumurrud tricks her way out of that second imprisonment and, riding from out of the desert on a white charger, enters an aerie-like, dazzlingly decorated fortress, where she is immediately proclaimed to be the new king/eagle (her camouflage coverings complementing her already mannish flintiness). There she is able to pick off her two assailants happening by, one by one. And there we’ll leave her, to take up the hour-long, central, episodic kaleidoscope which telescopes a concern that hinges upon Giuliana’s reverie in (futile) hopes of rendering her son less vicious than he is. The crude but not particularly vicious Nuredin, while begging on a dusty street, is picked up and taken home by a woman who proceeds to read to him a tale about an oasis where a pigeon has been caught in a hunter’s trap. A white dove frees him, but she’s captured in doing so. The pigeon flies away, leaving her to die. This scene is arresting for its incisive cinematography and pacing within a general hail of deadened, cluttered composition, dispiriting clouds of dust and atrophied camera deployment. It is, correspondingly, arresting for circulating a conundrum of courage and its concomitants of love and loyalty. I think most of us will have been ready to conclude that the ill-mannered giggle-and-sob-fest would never relent. But here we have something to go on. Cogent courage and love having been expunged from human action by this semiotic intervention, there emerges here a tempering of its vandalism, its pollution (Salo is far from Pasolini’s only sickening movie), which becomes the subject of any analysis wanting to measure and engage the work’s contribution.
From here on in we are given leave to regard the narrative’s naive exotica as something less than a multicultural goldmine (quite a step for invention involving more anal, orthodox confinement than Houdini ever had to squirm out of). From the portal of the most recent story teller’s painting of deer and a hunter in a forest (Pasolini heavily counts upon the constrictedness of painting and literature to move his screenplay along, as against kinetic possibilities of the players’ sensibility and the camera), we encounter a deer hunter who interrupts his pursuit in order to get to the bottom of a young man sitting in unfertile terrain, bawling his eyes out, and complaining to be “a person who is separated from his loved ones…” The story he tells closely mirrors that of Nuredin and Zumurrud, but now we are able to bring to bear the perfidy of the pigeon, in order to zero in on the cowardice of the lusty beast. Aziz, the now no longer acceptable cry-baby, tells of getting distracted by a pretty girl other than his bride-to-be on their wedding day (he was a bird just passing by her lonely nest on a balcony). He had been trailed by one of those ubiquitous gangs of brats looking for diversion; but now the taunt speaks straight to his sissiness—“You smell like a flower, Aziz!” The near-bride, who puts aside her own priorities to facilitate his sudden change of plans, dies of a broken heart (something the first look at the zoo would not have anticipated happening); and the new hot chick, suddenly becoming a feminist avenging angel (perhaps not so suddenly, as she had had to put up with his less than couth friskiness, brought to a head by an episode of his amusedly reaming her with an arrow involving an arrowhead in the form of a penis), takes umbrage with his cavalier mistreatment of his former squeeze. “I don’t see you mourning seriously.” It dawning upon her that there was another woman, she becomes a vehicle of pristine rectitude, a sort of pan-human force of equilibrium as meting out tough love toward laggards. She is, after “waiting a year without moving” (motion, in fact, checkmated at every turn by our calculating guide), ready to kill him (in the meantime he finds another mate and they have a child, of course); but the victim/bride’s words of (disinterested) wisdom, “Fidelity is good. So is infidelity,” softens the resentment of the voice of justice, so far as to result in her merely rounding up a gang of minions and having him castrated (that little couplet being a meditative plus, but not sufficiently efficacious on the front lines). The assertive arbiter of grace proves not to be significantly more moved by love than he is—“I don’t want you, but I won’t let her [the mother bird] have you either.” (The grave of the first bride, in its raw, rocky finality, punctuates the brutal materiality being heaped upon us here.) Thus the castration scene is a reprise of Nuredin and his hood. “Come, women,” the oracular harridan commands, and a large flock of shrieking birds of prey descend on him, first beating him and then pulling off his penis at the end of a rope. Aziz bawls, “What could I do now? I have become like a girl!” a bit of inference now within range of being challenged for an overly narrow sense of sufficiency.
Emphasizing the strictures this once-seeming free-for-all has chosen to put to its primitives (the ambitious designs of its venerable palaces and the landscape-painting delicacy and dazzlement of its natural locales also coming into critical play now), we are carried, from the tribulations of Aziz, to his conducting the hunter/listener to a princess who has been so moved by the betrayal of the dove that she will have nothing to do with men. Within that cinematic progression we have a sidebar (more literary-conceptual, in its convolutions, than cinematically mobile) of the hunter/suitor’s hireling spelling out his tale of cowardice. To the sharp peal of a Bach organ fugue (one of many incongruities cueing up the pressure cooker of fidelity/infidelity), a caravan is ambushed and all of the travellers are killed, all but one, actually, the storyteller, who plays dead (a bird’s trick) and smears a colleague’s blood over his face to make his ruse more convincing. He makes his way to a city built into the side of a mountain (an image evoking steadfastness) and finds employment as a wood cutter. (“I can write, do sums. I know science and literature.”/ “That’s not worth anything here. Money is all people understand.”) At an oasis he comes across a panel in the sand, pulls it open, goes down the cavity and finds a beautiful girl (another king’s daughter) trapped there by “a demon.” The woodsman and she soon set about to mating and he declares, like a plucky bird, “You must be mine alone. I’ll take you away from here.” He summons the red-topped bounder (perhaps a woodpecker at heart, being fluent with hidden pockets driven into matter); but, on beholding the in fact rather sad-sack spook (perhaps a factor of the [difficult] rally of love), the (over-) cautious survivor chooses flight over fight, is pursued by that nemesis of failings in integrity (which he supposes to be “fate”) and is faced with the girl as well. The voice of fate asks her, “Here’s your lover. Kill him and spare yourself.” She refuses to kill him. When given the same choice, the coward pulls himself together, in light of her bountiful equilibrium (consider, in light of this formulaic cookery, the ebb and flow of cogent tang, in Breaking Bad). He refuses to escape under those conditions, and this solidarity plunges the now-diminished source of savagery to chop off her limbs (consider the knife and axe-wielding Mexican nemeses being laid low by a flawed cop recovering a baseline of courage in that surprisingly edifying small-screen trip through panoramic American car-country), while the escape-artist feebly watches. “You’ve made love with your eyes,” the predator reminds them, and in so doing keeps us up to speed with the status of love being displayed. The amputee continues to look in an affectionate way toward the failure. In a repeat of the reasoning of the low-blow feminist, the demon pronounces a sentence upon the runaway—“I won’t kill you. But you won’t go unpunished… Become what your nature craves to be.” That is to say, he takes on the form of a monkey, nearly, but yet so far from, a real human.
Such eventuation tears into the candidacy of the sensual impulses so firmly established at the outset. The monkey (not very unlike Nuredin) is treated like a brilliant eccentric by the locals; he’s promoted, by the king, to be granted transformative love by his men-hating daughter (who obeys and then self-immolates), and, now a shaken misadventurer in fancy clothes, he trades his silks for a peasant’s robes and leaves town. Details of this turnaround importantly inject into the denouement of this strategic retreat the kind of cultivation of sensuous integrity seen to be essential. On the way back to the base where he has taken up wood chopping, the weak literate hidden within a monkey’s body commits some high-sounding sentiments to paper—“Let destiny take its course. Be not happy or sad about anything. But, if you open the inkwell of power and grace, ensure that your ink flows with liberality and generosity.” This stage of the problematical vein hits the film’s giddy momentum like a fire roaring through a circus tent during a children’s matinee. The king asks the former monkey, “Why are you determined to relinquish all for wisdom?” He receives the reply as if it were a foreign language. “Because of destiny which governs all of human life.” (The task of the viewer here is to factor in all that has transpired in order to comprehend that this type of “destiny” is about courage and a very strange creative grace, as distinct from a predestined puppet show.)
The concluding movement demonstrates that the integrity in the air now is a dismayingly elusive but not impossible matter. “The truth lies in many dreams,” was another king’s head’s up to a daughter confronted by the steadfast hunter, and determined to burn rather than bend. She, remarkably, relents and a poised and warm union is accomplished. Before this singularity, there is the now familiar treadmill. The scene shifts to the “India” [Nepal, actually] to which the massacred caravan was heading,; to another ambush (this time at sea); to another trap door in the sands (this time a sparkling beach); to another vow of freeing and protecting a regal prisoner (this time a prince); and to the hunter’s murdering the boy, en route to the (too-good-to-be-true?) happy wedding. Then it is time for Nuredin to romp with some young chicks in a bath (they calling his penis a pigeon and he calling himself, “… the donkey that grazes in perfumed meadow grasses, eats peeled, sweet pomegranates and spends the night in the Inn of Good Food.” Crying, “Zumurrud!” the donkey gets back to acting like a jackass, gets conducted to her by a lion (a vehicle of boldness far beyond his own capacities); and a life of clandestine (furtively birdlike) love begins, in the sanctuary of yet another “king.” The quality of this love is now heavily clouded, as captured by the irony of Nuredin’s final declaration: “What a night! God has made no other like this. It’s beginning was bitter, but how sweet is the end!”
Pasolini turned to filmmaking during the era of initial cinematic exploration of “wildlife” far beyond the wildest dreams of reflection hitherto, by explorers like Bresson and Antonioni. The practitioners of this art have, since then, been numerous and varied. But the distinguishing quality of such projects as The Great Beauty has remained, through the decades of our contemporary era, a close assimilation of the complex nuances of dynamics (a dilemmatic subject wonderfully apt for disclosure in movies). More specifically, the sophistication of the incisiveness at issue pertains to sensual/physical energies entailing the mobilization of that disinterestedness having exposed itself to such a wallop of death-dealing spaciousness as to render action going forward to be aptly self-effacing.
There is, I believe, about Pasolini’s saturating his sagas with reckless, desperate naifs, an assumption that those attending to cognitive skills on behalf of material well-being (skills implying global interaction) could never effectively manage the sensual exigencies (including apt modesty, disinterestedness, all the time in the world) essential for countering a planet of apes. He would come by this oversight along lines of ideological prejudice and first-hand experience of the malignancy of urban intellectuals. Arabian Nights presumes, if not to trump two of the great filmic sophisticates, namely, Bresson and Antonioni, to expose, in light of their tortured creations, a way toward historical integrity more commensurate to the reality (that “certain realism”) of the population. The thrust of film art has found its way to a full deck by which to generate changes irrespective of the lowest common denominator. Pasolini fascinatingly moots an imperative of the reprehensible (an original sin?), the failure to thrive, and a civilization based upon miracles, sentimental melodrama, and elitist coercion.