The Thief of Baghdad and the Coen Brothers

The Thief of Bagdad 1940 film produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Michael Powell ends with Abu flying on his flying carpet into the rest of his life.  When I saw that scene my thoughts returned to The Big Lebowski.  The way the carpet was framed suggested the Dude’s rug to me, the one that tied the whole room together and eventually connects him to the other Lebowski’s estate.  I think the fringes are different and also the pattern, but the frame indicates that the Coen brothers quoted the passage.

I googled “Coen Brothers Thief of Bagdad” and found that the Coen brothers acknowledge their debt to the 1940 Thief of Bagdad film in the following excerpt from the 1998 book, The Making of the Big Lebowski by Tricia Cooke and William Preston Robertson:

‘But it’s also very fun to do. Again, it’s dovetailing things,’ he says, harking back to their technique of juxtaposing interesting but disparate elements. ‘You know, the character’s a pothead. He’s flying. The rug tying the room together The whole flying carpet, Thief of Baghdad thing.’

I’ve been thinking that the character development echoes archetypes inherent in the tales as well. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is the quintessential vizier to Jeffrey Lebowski, doubled by John Goodman’s character as the Dude’s (Jeff Bridges)  vizier. Julianne Moore’s character, Jeff Lebowski’s daughter, suggests a supernatural ifrit, as she makes her entrance flying through the air as a nude goddess and artist in her unique sphere of existence. John Tuturro’s character has a bullying stature that evokes Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar from the Thief of Bagdad. The Russian group may be right out of the 40 thieves tale.  Of course, this line of thought is speculative.  Still, without the opportunity to study with this class, I could not continue to pursue this kind of reasoning, and look forward to studying with you tomorrow and in our few remaining classes.

Wishing everyone a Thanksgiving (or Thanksgivikkah) of abundance, gratitude, inspiration and light! B!







A “Good” Story

Before I start my actual post, I just want to note that while I was as my conference this week, someone asked me if the origin of the 1001 Nights was known or not, and I was pretty psyched that I could actually answer their question in detail.  Go class! 🙂

On to the actual post – last week’s class, when we were discussing Damascus Nights, we started trying to get at the question of what makes a good story.  I remember when I was younger, there used to be a device we would use if the story we were telling ended up not being very exciting – we would just tack on “And then I found five dollars” at the end of whatever we were saying, as an apology for being boring.  If somebody told a story and you thought it was kind of dull, you’d add on “And then I found five dollars” for them, almost a kind of good-natured teasing for making you sit through whatever they were saying.   Originally that made me think that good stories need to exciting in some way, but I after considering it more, I think exciting is the wrong word.  Good stories need to have some kind of pull on the listener/reader, which is precisely why sometimes the same story can be loved and hated by two different people – different things pull on people in different ways, and stories can achieve that pull in many different ways; it doesn’t just have to be excitement.  Sometimes I’m pulled by an exciting story, but sometimes it’s just because the topic of the story is relevant to me, or because I care about the teller, or because the language is enchanting. 

We also asked whether good stories need to be believable.  I don’t think so – otherwise why would there be such huge communities of fantasy and science fictions lovers out there, investing so much of our time and energy in loving completely unrealistic worlds.  Or take the comic book industry – even though they are often completely absurd (for instance, I once read a golden age Justice League comic where the villain shot lightning bolts out his nose), every Wednesday people still flood their local comic shops to pick up the latest issues, absurdity and all.  

Even the most unbelievable stories (see: almost any superhero comic ever) say something about ourselves and our conditions, so we still see something real there, even when the tale itself might be ridiculous.  The same seems true of the stories in 1001 Nights, or in Damascus Nights – even when the tales themselves stretch the boundaries of credulity, there are still elements of reality there that keep us entertained.

The Play’s the Thing

The play Thursday evening was really entertaining. It was an interesting adaptation told through a variety of different theatre/storytelling modalities, which I thought was very fitting, given the variety of storytelling methods that exist across time and space, and given that the Arabian Nights is much a collection about storytelling and stories. The players incorporated song, dance, musical elements/instruments, puppetry, costuming, and narration as they told the story. In order to keep the frame story element, which is an essential aspect in the Arabian Nights tradition, the players would narrate their own feelings and exclamations before actually making those exclamations in the play, which I thought was an interesting way to integrate the frame. Because of this, it was also a play that didn’t follow the quintessential aspects of plays in general. For example, not only did the players refer to themselves in third person, but also they often broke through the fourth wall.

The adaptation chose a wide variety of tales to tell, including the little hunchback (which was changed to the little beggar), Sindbad, and Ali Baba. I recognized most tales except one, the story of the three siblings who were taken away from the queen by her evil sisters and were raised by the garden steward.

The essential question behind this adaptation was: can the power of storytelling really save Shahrazad’s life? And I feel like this adaptation answered that question really well because in the end, she tells her and the king’s story (where she incorporates her pregnancy) and her “final” tale beforehand was a test to see if the king had changed at all over the course of her storytelling for the past 1001 nights. It was a “neat” ending, in which all the characters live happily together. It definitely gave into the fairytale paradigm, which we’ve discussed in class.

Afterlife and Soul Language in the Nights

The end of our discussion on Thursday led me to reflect upon other instances of the afterlife and the soul in the Nights. The first instance that came to mind was from the translation by Littmann. In “The Porter and the Three Ladies,” Littmann describes the porter’s delight during the fountain scene and ensuing word game by saying, “as if he were sitting with the black-eyed maidens in Paradise.” That this phrase does not appear in Haddawy makes me wonder whether it is an insertion meant to confirm contemporary Western stereotypes about Islam.
When is the soul invoked or considered in Haddawy? More often in poetry and related to longing, than to express the logistics or a population associated with the afterlife. At the conclusion of the fountain scene, the porter says his soul could more easily leave his body than he himself leave the company of the three ladies (Littmann’s porter says that he could more easily separate his soul from his body than leave their company). The soul leaving the body may be a stock phrase: it occurs again when the doting father of Sinbad the Sailor’s tale dies of grief.
Even when pressed into metaphor’s service, mention of the soul provides useful information. When the princess who dies in the battle with the demon in “The Hunchback’s Tale” explains that she missed the one pomegranate seed housing the demon’s soul, the location of the soul assumes a practical importance, even while battling the supernatural: the demon may be inhuman, but he is not immortal. The businesswoman in “The Porter and the Three Ladies” describes the effect of her future husband upon her by saying that he has “mastered her life and soul.” The practical expression of mastery of another’s life and soul is a more unusual metaphor than the capturing of a heart, and could refer to abdicate her leadership role in her business, family and society to him.

Old Time Radio

I once took a creative writing course centered around old time radio. We studied an assortment of radio shows across many genres (like Superman, Amos and Andy, War of the Worlds, etc.) and I didn’t realize it until I started reading “The Bottle Imp” that I had come across the text before via radio. It appeared in the show Favorite Story, which each week brought classic literature to the air waves. It was a 25 minute production of Stevenson’s tale. I am currently attempting to find you audio because it’s a short listen but the particular version we discussed in in my old time radio class isn’t available online. However, I did find another version of “the Bottle Imp” on the radio. Mystery Playhouse “modernizes” the story and alters the story drastically (i.e. instead of being damned for all eternity, the person who poses the bottle goes mad).

Here’s a link:

The Bottle Imp

I feel like I’ve been thinking a lot about the endings to stories recently…I did my translation paper on various conclusions to the Nights and how they differ, and now I’m thinking about the ending to Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, especially after our discussion of it in class.

The first time I read it, I was completely surprised by the ending.  I certainly didn’t expect the story to end well – I think the minute we were introduced to the “wish that comes with a catch” idea at the beginning of the story, I was expecting something more akin to The Monkey’s Paw.  That expectation was only strengthened after I saw how Keawe’s first wish for a house is fulfilled (through the deaths of his uncle and cousin).  It felt very similar to The Monkey’s Paw, where Mr. White wishes for money to pay off his mortgage, but gets the payment in a twisted way – his son is killed in a workplace accident, and he receives the money as compensation. 

You’d think he would learn from that incident to keep his wishes to himself, but at the request of his wife, he also attempts to wish their son back to life, which, predictably, goes horribly wrong.  I expected the episodes in The Bottle Imp to continue in this vein, but it seems as if the “twisted wish fulfillment” device disappears after Keawe’s first wish, and the tension instead comes from us worrying about how Keawe/Kokua are going to get rid of the bottle, not how they’re going to avoid the unforeseen consequences of their wishes. 

I still expected the ending to be negative, though, and I definitely was not expecting everything to be solved by the boatswain.  It almost felt too easy.  At the same time, though, I am sort of curious about what that means for the moral message of the story.  Keawe, Kokua, and almost everyone else in the story was committed to getting rid of the bottle only through moral means, telling all potential buyers the truth about its powers, and, when selling the bottle temporarily, always staying true to their word and buying it back.  I find it interesting, then, that the conflict is solved by the most immoral character in the story, “an old brutal Haole…one that had been a boatswain of a whaler, a runaway, a digger in gold mines, a convict in prisons.  He had a low mind and a foul mouth; he loved to drink and see others drunken, and he pressed the glass upon Keawe” (19).  Add in one “immoral” character, and suddenly an inescapable problem vanishes with the greatest of ease.  Maybe Kokua and Keawe were being just too good for their own self-interest.

Persian Language and Urban Cultures

Professors Sharma and Micallef’s presentation “Beyond the Silk Road” on Thursday gave me a new perspective on the importance of the Persian language and cosmopolitanism in the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid empires, which supplemented my understanding of some of the background of and themes in the Nights. I learned that Persian was the lingua franca of Ottoman, Mughal, Safavid empires, all of which were  multicultural and urbancentric entities. The overlap of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires in what was then called Constantinople, as well as the Safavid city Esfahan’s popular designation as “half the world” because of its diversity, reminded me of the different cultural groups which interact in “The Hunchback’s Tale.”
The importance of Constantinople to the Ottoman empire also caused me to wonder whether it became a successor to Baghdad, in the sense of becoming a cultural repository. I wondered how Istanbul avoided Bagdad’s destruction, and whether Istanbul’s seven hills were planned or extant.
Continual interaction of all three empires with the French, Spanish and British empires was emphasized in their court paintings, showing the reception of European ambassadors. In the film clip of “Jodhaa Akbar” that we watched, religious orthodoxy was portrayed as much more theoretical, and threatening, to the actual practice of religious tolerance and interfaith marriage.