New York Film Festival 2015 Part One: Schrodinger’s Cinema

September 29, 2015
By | Comments Off on New York Film Festival 2015 Part One: Schrodinger’s Cinema


Post by Martha P. Nochimson

The New York Film Festival 2015 began with offerings that included two compelling, challenging films. Like the famous thought experiment by physicist Erwin Schrodinger that proposed a cat in a box that is both dead and alive because observers cannot know the totality of its situation, the films I will discuss in this first posting dissolve the boundaries between life and death, then and now, and here and there. Fittingly, what follows here today concerns either two or four films, depending, as I shall discuss both Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, in three parts, each over two hours long, which might be programmed as one or three films, and Journey to the Shore, the single two hour work of cinema to which we are more accustomed.


In Journey to the Shore (127 mins.), director Kyoshi Kurosawa enigmatically portrays the grieving period of widow Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu), who, while cooking, discovers her dead husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), in the living room hoping to sample his favorite dish. It’s not a ghost story. K. Kurosawa is following in the footsteps of his great namesake’s Rashomon, in using metaphors from cutting edge physics to craft narrative about the human condition. We can never know enough about either Mizuki or Yusuke to make any of the usual decisions about characters. What are their goals? Their purposes? Their intentions? Indeterminable in a quantum universe of infinite numbers of randomly moving particles. K. Kurosawa points us toward this kind of universe through Yusuke, a dentist who died at sea, but whose body was never recovered, who takes Mizuki on a journey of shoreline places he had been, and in one location gives a lecture on the mysteries of particle physics. His expertise–the physics is accurately formulated–would not seem to have been acquired during his lifetime, suggesting that death is an expansive process. Since Mizuki’s horizons are literally and figuratively broadened as she moves through life with new eyes, this would seem to be true even if the death is not your own. There is nothing but the surprising, confusing, exhilarating journey for her and us to any number of literal and figurative shorelines. The liminality of this lovely film is multiplied by 10 in Miguel Gomes’ trilogy.


The three parts of Arabian Nights are Volume 1: The Restless One (125 mins.); Volume 2: The Desolate One (131 mins.); and Volume 3: The Enchanted One (125 mins.). It is a Portuguese production of breathtaking scope. The frame that encompasses the three films is the legend of Scheherazade, a quasi-historical/quasi-mythical ancient queen, who has offered herself to Shahryar, the King of Persia, to save the lives of her country women. In a monumental rage caused by the infidelity of his first wife, Shahryar had taken to relentlessly marrying the virgin of his choice, and killing her after the wedding night. Scheherazade schemes to postpone her execution (and many subsequent deaths) by telling Shahryar a story on their wedding night but refusing to finish it once dawn arrives, causing Shahryar to spare her in order to her the end of the story. She continues to regale him with unfinished stories for 1,001 nights, by which time he loves her too much to kill her. Appearing in Volume 1, Gomes reveals that he has chosen this frame because he is struggling to make a film that will encompass the great sources of narrative: history and myth. None of the trilogy’s many intertwining stories has been adopted from the old Arabian Nights; rather Gomes has adapted the spirit of the multitude of tales offered in the face of death.

In Gomes’ Arabian Nights, the misanthropic Portuguese austerity government takes the place of the misogynist Shahryar. The many stories reflect the suffering inflicted on people, animals, and the planet by modern day economics, interspersed with fables and fantasies that transpose the pain into imaginative terms. So, while Volume I contains a scenario adapted from the news story of the shutdown of the Viana do Castelo shipyards, causing thousands of workers to lose their jobs, and the ecological disaster of a plague of Asian wasps killing off bees, it also contains a fanciful village story of the trial of a handsome cockerel who is facing a death sentence for waking up the villagers too early. Volume 2 traces the path of a sinewy, old survivor who is tracked by government drones through the high grasses of rural Portugal, and also tells a fantastic tale of what at first seems to be a cut and dried trial of a woman and her son for stealing furniture from their landlord. As ordinary people, strange creatures in costume, and puppets testify, the judge, who has taken the bench immediately after successfully coaching her daughter in how to secure a husband, is confronted with an impossible tangle of causes and effects in which the theft is embedded that reduces the judge to frustration and tears. “This grotesque chain of stupidity, evilness and despair,” as she calls the mass of desperate testimonies, leads her to curse those assembled in her court, and by extension the human race. Volume 3 includes scenes of Scheherazade flirting with a beautiful but stupid man who is already the father of 200 children, and speaking of her desperate, growing fear that her husband will kill her. It also follows the progress of a competition among men who train chaffinches for a singing contest.

Time in this trilogy flows both backwards and forwards, untrammeled by linearity. There are moments when there appear together on the screen printed words, a voiceover, and images that seem to have no rational connection, but are parts of a whole united beyond the logic we usually apply. Songs from the United States and Europe, modern and ancient, sung in numerous languages appear in all the Volumes, all of which are threaded by English and Spanish version “Perfidia,” (“For I have seen the love of my life in somebody else’s arms”) to remind us of King Shahryar’s rage. What is Gomes telling us of value to us in his densely and gorgeously interwoven poetic epic?

Gomes’ masterwork demands many screenings. But we can make a start at interpretation through the clues in the Arabian Nights frame. First, we should note that none of the stories in the film concludes, not even the story of Scheherazade, since we never reach the 1,001st story. Then, most seemed headed for unhappy endings, including that of Scheherazade, who is sure her death is imminent. And that that is the most important clue. After all, we know that the king ultimately does not kill her. Gomes would seem to be putting us through a complex experience to suggest that the process of narrative itself is the healing experience of the human race. All stories intersect and interconnect no matter how disparate they may seem, and through the humanizing process of telling tales we get through our pain and fear, always headed toward a distant, imagined moment, that we may never personally see, of restorative conclusion. A marvel of human cinematic art!

AntennaCinemaJournalJune-300x103NEXT WEEK: “The Banality of…..”

This post is part of an ongoing partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and the Society for Cinema & Media Studies’ Cinema Journal.

Martha P. Nochimson is a film and media critic, and the author of David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire (University of Texas Press, 2013). More about her work can be found here.


Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.