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381 Minutes in 3,387 Words: Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights

Crista Alfaiate in Arabian Nights

I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that there’s no way for me personally to really break down Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy without going through it segment by segment — “reluctant” because this could be too long, for both me and you, the reader, but it must be done. Gomes’ previous two features Our Beloved Month of August and Tabu are vital, terrific, and whatever other approbatory adjectives you want to throw at them; he is, no doubt, a major director, and will be so again. Arabian Nights is not a major movie, but rather a messy sketchbook stuffing disparate short- and medium-length films into an unwieldily bulging casing. The conceit — Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights rejiggered as stories about austerity-oppressed Portugal — effectively allows Gomes to do anything he wants, and unfettered, rule-less freedom is not necessarily a good thing. He tries on, with varying degrees of success, a number of varying modes: expansions of recurring motifs, stylistic pastiches, several brand new formats culminating in a feature-length documentary. Do we value a filmmaker pushing himself to be relentlessly creative in and of itself, enough to override any concerns about moment-to-moment execution? Put simply, if I’d invested somewhere around $40 and six and a half hours of my free time, I might not be entirely satisfied with my return on investment. This is going to be long enough as is: let’s go.

Arabian Nights, Volume 1 — The Restless One

Arabian Nights is being shown/sold as three separate films coalescing into a unitary whole. Per Gomes, “It’s one and it’s three. You know about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? This is one film and three films at the same time.” The three installments share the same premise and feature both professional and amateur performers in multiple roles; it’s arguable whether the trinity in fact builds to a sum equal or greater than their parts. As with Nymphomaniac‘s two-part theatrical release, I suspect Arabian Nights‘ division has much to do with the practical advantages of having people paying for admission on multiple occasions. 

The Wes Anderson-aping opening credits — yellow Futura titles against a bright-red backdrop — already tell us quite a bit. Gomes is on the record about his admiration for Anderson, whose direct influence will again become apparent in volume three; for now, we can think about what this means besides an affectionate hat-tip. Anderson’s films have created a sort of shared universe, united not by carryover characters but by immediately recognizable, hyper-stylized traits and tropes, both visual and thematic. This, then, is an indication that four features into his career, there is a recognizable Gomes Universe that will be revisited, maximalized and literally indexed.

The Work of the Film Director, of the Shipyard Workers and of the Wasp Exterminator — Minute 1

Arabian Nights’ end credits come with a complete index to the film, each chapter title listed with the corresponding starting minute within the entirety of all three volumes — a fussy, dare I say Andersonian, touch. This introductory segment starts with observational footage of out-of-work/striking shipyard workers, then segues into a 8 1/2-ish self-reflexive passage about the anxiety of the director. In voiceover, Gomes outlines the project — to gather news stories from poor, austerity-starved Portugal, then transmute them into fantasy — and mock-berates himself for taking it on. “Any muttonhead,” he says, could tell that it’s “impossible to make a militant film that wants to forget it’s militant.” This is a little cloying in the way that all sorry-not-sorry declarations are, basically accurate, and highlights another regular project of the Gomes Universe: to reconcile the irreconcilable. His basically unwatchable first feature The Face You Deserve is one narrative for the first 15 minutes, then abruptly morphs into an entirely different story for the rest of its interminable bulk. Our Beloved Month of August ostensibly begins as rural portraiture documentary, but increasingly erupts into, and is finally overtaken by, unambiguously fictional passages. Tabu is the most evenly diptych-ish of the lot: its first half is more-or-less austere arthouse drama about present-day Lisbon, its second a “silent” (lots of music, intertitles, no audible dialogue) fantasia of romance in colonial Africa, juxtaposing the ultra-formalist festival film present with some of its most potent sources of classical inspiration.

Arabian Nights is another example of trying to square the circle, and in its first 23 minutes it’s immediately torn and frayed between Gomes’ mock moment of panic (he runs away from the crew) and two incomplete documentaries. One is about the shipyard workers, the other about a man obsessed with eradicating wasps from the countryside by killing them with fire. As in Our Beloved Month of August, this gives Gomes an excuse to set rural areas aflame, a preoccupation which will occur again later. Conclusion: Miguel Gomes is the reigning pyromaniac of Portuguese arthouse cinema.

The Island of the Young Virgins of Bagdad — Minute 24

Nice little digression here, with a lot of beautiful women sitting in “Bagdad” (actually Marseilles), eating grapes, drinking wine and so on in long lateral pans. The ostensible story here is that they’re being kept safely from the clutches of the homicidal Sultan who’s killed all his wives up to Scheherazade. The voiceover gets that across, but the segment functions equally well as an unmotivated idyll.

The Men with Hard-Ons — Minute 29

A very long one-note joke. Short version: those imposing austerity on Portugal, both from within and without, suffer from impotence. One banker, it’s observed repeatedly, is “melancholy”: the word, along with its more specific Portuguese relative saudade, is another integral tic of the Gomes Universe. After a fraught lunch meeting, the government representatives and foreign bankers go for a camel ride and are approached by a French-speaking African, who offers them a guaranteed spray-on remedy for permanent flacidity. With raging boners, the happy men decide to reverse austerity; when the erections won’t go away, they are forced to hand over $9 billion to the African to be restored to a less distracting state of being. Gomes notes that the book is “very scatalogical, sometimes very violent,” so fair enough, but there’s only so many shots of stiff ones (prop dildos, natch) poking through pants needed before you get the idea.

The Story of the Cockerel and the Fire — Minute 50

We’re back in Our Beloved Month of August terrain: people playing “themselves” in the countryside to retell two stories against a landscape on fire. Gomes ignores the old canard that one should never work with children and animals, doing both in this segment. There’s a flipside to that warning: directors who know exactly what they want and despise uncontrollable obstacles shouldn’t work with these least directable of performers, but directors who want to set up potentially unsolvable challenges and introduce surprises for themselves should be all for it. Gomes is definitely in the latter camp. There’s a long (both distance and duration) shot of people sitting and bitching about an election underneath an outdoor patio area. A kid on a bicycle weaves in and out of the frame, seemingly at his own discretion, animating an otherwise static foreground by creating diagonal disruptions.

The “satirical” component of this story is, again, not much. A cockerel (he speaks in voiceover, upping the magical-realism ante) whose suppression is legally pursued by a neighbor agitated by its loud crowing becomes popular enough to win a local election thanks to the discontented masses. That’s a joke roughly on par with briefly popular 2016 candidate Deez Nuts, articulating a baseline shared anger without getting much further. Meanwhile, a love triangle between adults is enacted by stand-in children, additionally fleshed-out in on-screen text messages of the tween-text-speak English variety. This is conceptually interesting, acknowledging a new kind of lingua franca beyond local language norms, and also a little tedious when continued at length.

The Swim of the Magnificents — Minute 81

Which, please note, is subdivided as the stories of the first, second and third Magnificents (at minutes 87, 101 and 109, respectively), but by this point I was pretty worn down and in no condition to take fine enough notes to distinguish the three. First we see a man getting a medical examination in the belly of a whale, and then he hears the three monologues of three different unemployed workers. Here we have the “It is important to let those marginalized and unprivileged speak and represent themselves through oral testimony” portion of proceedings, laudable for reasons for solidarity but which I personally found borderline unwatchable — some trained speakers would have been welcome, and I’m sorry if that sounds unduly callous. Also, a whale explodes, a sonic jolt that got my displeased attention. I wasn’t entirely surprised to read that the whale’s construction was, in part, a stalling tactic for Gomes to give himself time to figure out what to do next. Let’s just move on to part two, shall we?

Arabian Nights, Volume 2 — The Desolate One

Chronicle of the Escape of Simão ‘Without Bowels’ — Minute 124

Do I sound unduly testy? It’s true that as I returned for part two, I wasn’t psyched for another 4.5 hours, but things got a little better. Volume 2 begins with an ingenious misdirection: over the opening titles, we hear rustling wind, chirping, etc., and assume we’re in for a standard, near-played-out landscape shot. But a slowly rising drone isn’t that of insects, but of a helicam — not the crew’s, but belonging to police searching for a fugitive, a neat sonic bait-and-switch.

In this segment, Gomes grapples with Lisandro Alonso’s immensely influential portraits of men walking through landscapes towards goals or homes they may never reach. The camera pans from a distance alongside with them — whether it’s the camera or the walker who’s setting the pace is always a little unclear — and Gomes attempts to implant his own spin on this (not least by, unlike Alonso, shooting widescreen). There are a few such successfully executed shots, but also a lot of texturally uncharged pastoral reveries; I started (guiltily) longing for a fancier/shinier sound mix. The polemic is, again, firmly anti-authoritarian, and righteously so — an outlaw cheered by the populace solely for evading the police, regardless of his petty feud-sparked murders — and again, you get the idea after a while.

The Tears of the Judge — Minute 161

I think Gomes is fudging a bit in labeling this one discrete segment. Effectively, it begins with a short film/music video, set to some breezy Mancini-esque male vocal lounge music. We get an Anger-esque, red-lit shot of a hand resting over a blood-covered crotch, gender unknown, in post-coital stillness; the hand is removed to show the character’s male genitalia, then the camera is planted in the middle of a hallway as a woman with blood-smeared legs walks up to the tripod. The music soothes the imagery, and a phone call from the lady to her mother reassures us she’s very happy with how her loss of virginity went. Full-frontal is as valid a way to immediately get viewer attention as any, and the super-saturated colors and cool tunes make for an unexpectedly dreamy/romantic bridge to another on-message segment.

The mother is the judge; she hangs up her cell and makes her way to the podium, where she can compel all those seated outdoors to answer her questions as she investigates and adjudicates local crimes. What follows could, minus a few cutaways, be presented on-stage with no modification. An inquiry re: a stolen cow proceeds with endless logical links from one culprit and crime to another, staged as an exercise in semi-circle outdoor amphitheater blocking and camera placement. Each crime was committed because of some external pressure from another malefactor themselves being pressured, all repeatedly connected by the economic crisis, and the judge slumps lower and lower at her lectern as the petty iniquities pile up with no end in sight. This is funny, in a bleak shaggy-dog kind of way, and staged with 12 Angry Men-esque crafty flair, keeping your eye busy as the new culprits standing up to testify redirect the camera to new parts of the crowd to survey.

The Owners of Dixie, Parts One (Minute 202), Two (Minute 222) and Three (Minute 234)

A strong finish to volume two — not going to type out all three sub-sections’ titles, but it’s simpler than it sounds. Part one’s story about a stray dog adopted by an elderly couple is interrupted by part two’s anthology of super-short vignettes about life in other apartments in a public housing complex, then the canine thread is resumed and completed in the third segment. Part two’s volly of quick sketches — on a parrot who grew ill, peculiarities in the building’s problems with droughts and so on — is the second most successful segment in the entire film, briskly developing ideas then discarding them as they’re tapped out. Parts one and three also have their pleasures, bringing together an older and younger couple; the latter honestly, mesmerizingly detail the roots of their relationship (he was a heroin addict, she was his dealer) while nonchalantly washing dinner party dishes. Later, the men in each relationship bond over their shared love of Lionel Richie’s recording techniques and throw on “Say You, Say Me,” The camera’s gaze drifts out the window as smoke from cooking flows out — a nice, unusually conceived moment of music appreciation/visualization.

Arabian Nights: Volume 3 — The Enchanted One

Late into Volume 2, I realized anytime Gomes was going to deploy a soundtrack cue, he was probably going to let it stretch out for a few unhurried minutes at a time. At that point, I started doing something I’ve never done before: I Shazam’d every song I liked, which was most of them. I wouldn’t recommend doing this at a crowded public screening, but seeing as I was one of three or two people all three days, I figured it was OK. I’m not sure this is a great movie, but it’s an excellent mixtape.

Scheherazade (on the 515th day of narrating stories to the King) — Minute 256

In the single most sustained 31 minutes of Arabian Nights, Gomes gets a lot done. The opening monologue from the Grand Vizier is a bit of a stiff, but then Scheherazade finally takes center stage for the first time since Volume 1, and the narrator becomes the narrated. She takes a day off from the palace grind to spend some time at the beach. First she performs one of the film’s four renditions of the deathless standard “Perfidia” (this one’s my favorite) accompanied by a prancing acoustic guitarist; as in Gomes’ last two features, all narrative ceases for a live performance. There’s some actionless scenes of pretty people relaxing by the sea, intercut and overlaid with this terrific song/clip. Here, Gomes both showcases a tune he likes and connects one failed utopian political/musical movement to a similar present-day moment of promise/impotence in an exceedingly pleasant, blissed-out way, a not inconsiderable achievement. Later, Scheherazade’s not unpleasantly propositioned by a stunningly good-looking blond bombshell. He ruins the mood by saying he’d like to have a child by her as a way of cementing their bond. “What you just said is stupid, and the way in which you presented it was even more stupid,” Scherehezade correctly responds, but says it’s OK because he’s so much fun to look at. He’ll make many people happy, and “that happiness will be even greater if you can remain silent,” a unintentional and much-needed parodic corrective to the perpetually wrongheaded idea of impregnation as the way of fixing an otherwise shaky relationship.

After the beach, Scheherazade goes and meets the Grand Vizier for a ride in the ferris wheel. In Tabu, Gomes charged a potentially deadly conversation by setting it at a slowly revolving table, providing a constantly shifting background to look at. Here, he tops that by having the duo converse in a ferris wheel car that goes up and down while repeatedly spinning a slow 360 degrees for two full up-and-down turns, providing a casually super-Manakamana background landscape to gaze at. After this full, rich day, Scheherazade is borne back to the palace on a palanquin, carried against the deep blue sky to the tune of Secos E Molhados’ “Fala.” It’s the second time Gomes uses the song in the segment, and both times he lets it play out in full while slowly increasing the master volume. This ratchets up “Fala” from merely assertive and gorgeous to almost painfully overwhelming. Combined with our sudden realization that Scheherazade is being born back to a sooner-or-later death, the vigorous pace of the right-to-left tracking shot that keeps up with the procession, and the general valedictory tone, it’s a surprisingly emotional and successful Big Gesture. It’s also, I suspect, constructed with the memory of  the similar final walk that closes off The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but makes the gesture entirely Gomes’ all.

The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches — Minute 297

Here we finally have an answer to the question, “What would happen if Miguel Gomes actually made a straightforward, no-ambiguity observational documentary?” It’s probably better that he find out the answer as part of an experimental-laboratory-jumble rather than in a stand-alone feature (which, granted, this effectively is). The appeal of the chaffinch-keeping community we get to learn all about is immediately perceptible: in some ways analogous to major American cities’ disparate pigeon-keeping communities (or do people just do this in New York?), this group of birdcall/bird-capture enthusiasts is a hermetic sect. Many of these men are ex-cons or have similarly bruised pasts, and their total immersion into a very disciplined world of caring after delicate-ish birds is obviously therapeutic and sustaining. But staring at silent men in the middle of birdcall competitions may not be as endlessly absorbing to you as it is to Gomes; for me, this was uncharged experiential immersion. Again, maybe a super-fancy, artificial sound mix would’ve kept my attention better, but this does sound more or less like rough and ready, 16mm sound picked up on location.

Hot Forest — Minute 339

A feint here, and a bit more puckish unreliability on the part of the index, which makes it seem like the final segment of the film: instead, “Hot Forest”, a brief immigrant narrative from a Chinese woman, is overlaid with footage of protests, goes on for a little bit — and then we’re back to the chaffinches for another forty minutes or so.

Arabian Nights concludes with a revision of a shot from Our Beloved Month of August, in which a long, from-the-window pan of a plain went on for so long that the moving vehicle turns a corner, allowing for an extended view of two sides of a rectangular plot of land and mapping out its contours. Here, the subject is Chico Chapas (who played Simão back in volume two and is IRL a leading chaffinch trappers), who walks vigorously down a road. Again he walks for so long that he rounds the entire curve of a hill, once again helping establish the land’s topography and lines while, symbolically, Still Moving Forward to the encouraging strains of the Langley Schools Music Project’s Carpenters cover “Calling Voyagers of Interplanatary Craft.”

This film frustrates me immensely. I’ve tried to unpack, at least in brief, why each segment does or doesn’t “work,” a point of view at odds with many respected colleagues’ admiring write-ups. The general party line seems to be that “success” is less important than simply being adventurous — any amount of tedium or the half-baked is worth it if we finally arrive someplace genuinely aesthetically new. This is a point of view taken by i.e. Albert Serra, as when he declared his work to be “unfuckable,” i.e. to be accepted or rejected in its entirety, with no middle ground — you’re either with him or against him. And I can’t go there.

Arguing with myself over this (Will I Be On The Wrong Side Of History?), here’s the best I can do for a counter-argument. For the last three weeks, I’ve been repeatedly/non-stop playing certain songs introduced to me by the movie (seriously, check out “Fala” above, it’s awesome), so it’s not like the film didn’t leave a lasting mark. Given the opportunity, I could hack it down to a pretty delightful two hours, and the climax of the first part of Volume 3 is definitely one of the best shots of the year, a sublime moment out of time. So…it’s not nothing, but is it enough/too much? That’s a near-philosophical dispute I can’t resolve.

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