I've got such a backlog of films I've been meaning to see, it makes a pleasant change to watch a film that I never knew existed. Pasolini's Arabian Nights (1974) is one such. It's the final part in his loose trilogy of literary adaptations, the earlier (and much better known) films being The Decameron (1971) and The Canterbury Tales (1972).
Sadly, it's not much cop. It looks great, but the acting is pretty ropy, and the whole project feels like an excuse for PPP to go out to exciting places (Yemen, Ethiopia, Tibet) and get nice young men to drop their drawers. But it did get me thinking about the idea of linked narratives. Not just the obvious literary tradition to which Pasolini was paying arch homage, but the tradition of portmanteau films, movies that contained a number of discrete narratives, usually linked by some sort of 'stortytelling' framework. The first of these was probably DW Griffith's Intolerance (1916), which tied together four tales of bigotry, from ancient Babylon to contemporary America. But the genre really came into its own after World War II, with Dead of Night (1945), which set the precedent for horror portmanteaus, continued in efforts such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and From Beyond the Grave (1973), both starring Peter Cushing. The big-screen versions of US TV shows such as The Twilight Zone (1983) followed this tradition.
All these films stuck to a fairly rigid format, with little or no overlap between the narratives; in this instance, they were sticking fairly faithfully to the guidelines laid down by the likes of Chaucer and Boccaccio. But by this stage, literary fiction had moved on. Novels such as Ulysses and John Dos Passos's U.S.A. contained multiple plot lines that looped around each other to create a whole considerably bigger than the sum of its parts. It probably wasn't until Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) that a mainstream moviemaker tried something like this: Tampopo, 10 years later, is another example. And it was only with Pulp Fiction that the multiplex generation was permitted to dip a toe into the narrative rule-breaking that novelists had been toying with for over seven decades. Think Crash; think Babel. It's almost as if a film that starts at A and ends at Z, with no diversions, isn't even trying (although, as Mrs Peel points out, non-linear narrative is still too confusing for some people).
It's something that's affected my reading as well. Recently, I was flicking through a collection of short stories by Matthew Kneale*, and it felt slightly odd that that's just what it was: a collection of short stories. One finished, then another one started. There was no leaking of characters or situations, no metafictional winks to the reader to remind you that the author sits astride the whole thing like a modern Boccaccio. No hint of what David Mitchell has done, blurring the distinction between the novel and the short story, having characters wander from one narrative to the next, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern coming in before their cue.
If Pasolini made a version of the Arabian Nights today, he'd probably play Scheherezade himself. But he'd still make the Yemeni guys take their pants off.
* A writer I admired even before I discovered he was the offspring of Quatermass and The Tiger Who Came To Tea.