Saturday, March 01, 2008

Tale spin

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.

11 comments:

patroclus said...

I think my favourite film of that sort is 'Go', featuring a cute, post-Dawson's Creek, pre-Scientology Katie Holmes, and directed by Doug Liman before he abased himself with the OC. Favourite book of the genre is Cryptonomicon, of course, because that's my favourite book full stop. The Alexandria Quartet is another good one; the first three novels all recounting the same events but from a different person's perspective, so there's no sense of what 'really' happened.

One of the things I learned in my gender studies course for my MA was that women are (generally speaking) a lot more comfortable with non-linear narratives than men. Of course blogworld and its endless hyperlinking hither and thither can be seen as a non-linear 'narrative' of sorts, or at least it can provide lots of different perspectives on the same event or topic.

Ooh, wait, and Memento! Non-linear narrative rocks.

Tim Footman said...

Memento is fantastic, but it's essentially a single narrative chopped up and rearranged. Although, as I type this, I've completely changed my mind, because it has the imagined/misremembered narratives in there as well, so, yes, fair point.

A relevant book that I forgot to mention is the fabulous Life: A User's Manual, by Georges Perec.

dh said...

I'm a big David Mitchell fan. But, but, and this is not to denigrate his writing, I suspect he just writes short stories and does the interconnectedness of everything stuff later.

M.A.Peel said...

I've got my own nonlinear Dr. Who thing going here. Never saw the show, then got curious. Between BBC America and Sci Fi channel, I see Rose/Eccleston, then Martha/Tennant, then Rose/Tennant in wildly random order, even as the rest of the world is moving on to Donna.

Interesting way to see the series. LOVE the Dalek voices.

Mangonel said...

I wouldn't describe it as 'moving on to' Donna, so much as burying our head in our hands, groaning 'But WHY Donna?'

Try Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost. Four narratives, one truth, and an ending that left me gasping.

Also, remember 'Betrayal'? The Pinter play written backwards?

Tim Footman said...

Interesting point, Dick. Maybe he'll do a 'naked' version of Cloud Atlas (cf Let It Be) with the links stripped out.

Very true, Mrs Peel. I've been reading old Tom Baker stories from TV Comic (circa 1975) in a rundown to the new series. Although, as Mangonel and others suggest, maybe sticking razorblades under my toenails would be more appropriate preparation.

Betrayal is good, Mangonel. The Pears is, I'll admit, one of those books I've had hanging around for about a decade without ever getting round to reading it.

Mangonel said...

Just read the damn book will you. It's fab.

amyonymous said...

LOVE David Mitchell's work. Taught his Number 9 Dream to 11th and 12th graders last year, and nearly everyone of them said it was their favorite book that they ever read in high school.

and i too have the Pears book sitting and waiting for me to read it.

Tim Footman said...

Mangonel: Yes, Miss.

Amy: I liked N9D (more than most things I read in high school) but it did feel a bit like a Murakami tribute. Whereas Cloud Atlas is (going out on a limb maybe) my favourite book of the century so far...

amyonymous said...

Tim, Cloud Atlas is in my list of top 10 books ever. i am trying to convince my book group to read it, but alas they keep choosing other books.

Tim Footman said...

Force them, Amy, at the point of a bayonet if necessary.