Saturday, August 27, 2022

Three Thousand Years of Longing

Today I took myself all the way to Bemidji (about an hour north of where I live), mooched around the downtown district, bought a book (Poached by Stuart Gibbs), ate a Two Little Pigs sandwich at Fozzie's Smokin Bar-B-Q, and sat down to watch the movie Three Thousand Years of Longing. It's directed by George Miller of Mad Max: Fury Road and based on a short story by A.S. Byatt, features Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, and doesn't suck.

The story follows Alithea, a self-described narratologist – a scholar who travels around the world, collecting stories and telling stories about story. One day, during a lecture in Turkey, she is in the midst of rationalizing away the purpose of deities when one of them kind of jumps her. Her local colleague, concerned about her, offers to buy her a parting gift and she chooses a somewhat damaged bottle made of glass in an unusual pattern, takes it back to her hotel room and is scrubbing it with her electric toothbrush when a Djinn pops out. Naturally, the djinn is desperate to grant Alithea the statutory three wishes, but she hesitates. She knows all about wishes and how they tend to be booby-trapped. She's rather content with her lot in life, though it is perhaps a bit lonely; she's more than halfway determined not to make any wishes. So, the Djinn tells her a series of stories about his previous escapes from the bottle and why it is crucial to him that he grant Alithea her heart's desire.

These stories, dramatized in flashbacks rich in exotic imagery, are the sauce on the movie, so to speak, while the meat is Alithea's and the Djinn's dilemma. They feature a Queen of Sheba to whom King Solomon comes (not the other way around), the tragic story of a Sultan whose uppity favorite concubine turns him against his loyal son, a chapter about two brothers (heirs to the same sultanate) who are both mentally cracked but in different ways, and another vignette about a brilliant but angry young woman trapped in the role of a rich Turk's third wife. Almost all of them are heartbreaking in their own way.

But between and after all these stories, there's a linking and framing drama between Alithea and her Djinn, where the unifying theme proves to be the unquenchable desire to be loved, set at odds with the peril of trying to possess and control the other party. You might come to the movie hoping to see more spectacular magic take place once Alithea starts making wishes. You might even think, as I do, that the love scene between her and the Djinn fails to deliver even a mote of eroticism. But as far as entertaining the brain goes, it's an outstanding picture.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Solomon makes music for Sheba. His instrument will blow your mind. (2) The heartbreaking fate of Mustafa, which kept replaying in my mind's eye for a while after I left the theater. Incidental to this, the Djinn has an encounter with another type of demon who may remind you of the creature that menaces Kurt Russell & Co. in The Thing. (3) The incident in the auditorium which plants a doubt in Alithea's mind – doubt of her doubt. I got a kick out of it even though the only fruit it bore, later in the movie, was preparing her for the shock of becoming a character in her own Arabian Nights story.

Of course, in these latter days, we're all too knowledgeable to be taken in by tall stories about wish-granting fire spirits. Instead, we put our heart's desire into playing the PowerBall. Progress, eh?

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