Narrative Pleasure and the Impossible (h2so4 13)
On The Flirtation of Girls
A 1949 Egyptian musical-comedy
We, the implied audience--this question, that is, the question
that states: is this (the extant statement "we the implied audience")
the tactic of all film production, to produce every possible observer,
from the passive consumer to the most engaged pedant, as an implied
audience?--we see (and thus are we to know?) the folly of a film's
story, its moral motor. This is something that makes us comfortable,
or angry (etc.), depending on the success of its attempt, and
the answer to: Are we within the community of the text? [Here
allude to "interpretive communities" for credence.] So, when we
watch a film, does our delight emanate from the film's self-conception,
or is it our own self-reified agency that produces it? The story?
How about this: an old man, a teenage girl, and the potential
for romantic love. [Anticipate discomfort.] Can the aforementioned
be possible, can it be constructed and presented in a the language
and imagination of the so-called dominant fiction? OK, back up
a step: an old man, a young girl. And love. In late-1940's Egypt.
[Anticipate misunderstanding.] This is still a problem, in such
a time and place-how disturbing is the love of an old man for
a teenage girl! [the punctuation is righteous.] Rewrite: The poor
old man falls for the rich Pasha's daughter: now the problem is
complicated by an internal narrative technique--the class mobility
scheme, so favored in the romantic comedy. Rich girl, poor boy.
These are possibilities we are speaking of, limited in the way
mathematics postulates ranges of possibilities. In a dominant
fictional mode we have a range of possibilities. The possibility
of class mobility is accepted. Sometimes it is poor girl, rich
boy. But age-crossing is not acceptable? In Egypt, circa 1949.
Two or so years before the Young Officer's Revolution, before
Nasser and the socialist dreams that lulled Egypt for years. Rich
young girl, poor old man? Here the discomfort of the generation
gap is overdetermined by the class division; or does it oversimplify
it?--old poor man seeks the good life, doubly: a rich young girl.
The story? How about this: an old Arabic teacher, brought in to
teach the Pasha's daughter (casting coup de grace: Leila Murad, the Arab nation's filmic heartthrob in those years)
how to speak proper classical Arabic. His name? Hammam! [translation
to explain punctuation:] Hammam is colloquial Arabic for "pigeon,"
or "penis," depending on context, naturally. He stands not a chance
in his love for his student, the Pasha's daughter, but her actions
are what will lead to the title of the movie: Ghazl al-Binat, The Flirtation of Girls, also quite similar to the term for cotton candy (Ghazl-Bint, Arabic for flirtation being derived from the same root as entwining,
and thus Ghazl-Bint is literally "the girl's entwining," and this leads us back to
Leila Murad's hair, in braids, entwined in the way cotton candy
Her flirtation with him (and is that, one can ask, what it is?
What is the significance of a smile?) is a beckoning of the inconceivable--the
inconceivability of the crossing of these social boundaries: wealth,
age. And yet, the old man, a teacher nonetheless, can begin to
imagine what we, the implied audience, must leap to assume as
inconceivable, just as any of us may have imagined the impossible
in a moment, and sometimes even acted upon this imagination. We,
the audience, see all of this as patently familiar, however. How
often does the inconceivable beckon to us, with only our fatalism
and an inherent support for the system which has made the inconceivable
what it "is," blinding us to the muted possibility--of Love? And
so, the two "lovers," Hammam and the Pasha-girl, drive, as in
every madcap adventure of that time from Cairo or southern California,
to the cabaret and back to the palace, in a night of anticipation
and miscommunication. The cabaret, a ruse: the girl makes use
of Hammam's desires, and uses him as a cover for her rendezvous
with a lover--the lover, what a cad! Hammam pulls in an Air-Force
pilot, mistaking his outfit for a policeman's, to break up the
farce of an affair. Of course, this leads not to his regaining
the girl, but rather her immediate love for the pilot. In films
like this women like this are just like that. But on the last
breaths of the narrative, and this is some long while into the
film, nearly near the end, we feel, they (Hammam & girl, impossible
couple) make an unintentional stop at a stranger's house. They
ring the doorbell; it must be 4 a.m.
The door opens, and who is there but the director, who is still
a stranger... to them, albeit an identifiable one--the famous
director, who is no stranger to the contemporary audience. The
director of the film as character, playing himself far too smoothly
to be plausible, waxes philosophic about love, natural enough
for the character of director. But it is the director nonetheless,
suffering from insomnia, writer's block what have you--he is working
on a script, he tells them. The story? Of a lover who cannot have
his beloved, and must accept her love for another--deity that
he is, he has drawn them into the fabric of his story, or, rather,
as we know, he has drawn himself into the fabric of their story.
Yet even this fortuitous meeting has little effect on the obstinate
Hammam, who refuses to accept the parallels between the director's
story and his, the story that the director has created around
him.... What will it take?! we ask, frustrated at his pigheadedness....
can't you see, the director has made an admirable exit for you?
Give up your love and you will be exalted! Accept the impossibility
of the impossible, the absurdity of the miscegeny of classes,
ages, etc., and you can be a hero! The director leads them into
a backroom soundstage (yes, this is a director's home, where a
soundstage can be nestled in the back), where at this implausible
hour, the top-billing star of the film makes a late appearance....
Muhammad Abdel-Wahab, the genius of Egyptian twentieth century
popular music, and a formidable film figure as well, is in the
back, rehearsing the songs for this yet-to-be-finished script.
They open the door in time to see the violins play the intro,
and once we are lulled into the orchestration (intrrro-ducing,
for the first time to Arrrabic Meeeuzik, the Russian balalaika!),
Abdel-Wahab soothingly sings a song about finding happiness through
a beloved's love for another. The message is repeated.... As the
camera caresses Abdel-Wahab's beautiful if dispassionate visage,
a filmic pan from singer to Hammam finds the latter crying, for
the knowledge that the song imparts--if love is impossible, accommodations
must be made--has finally been assimilated by him. What has been
a message lost to him through the obvious fact of the social contract,
and lost to him through countless narrative twists, finally is
imparted to him through the seductive missive of song. Happiness
can only be imagined in an acceptance of the possible and impossible,
and what the limits of each is.
In this, the world of the film, the world that by our complicity
involves us, the regulation of these impossible desires is what
gives us our narrative pleasure. Of course, a desire for the impossible
is possible (but within its own limits--desire has its dangers,
clearly), but abandoning it is what is heroic, the films tell us. We still may wish, at
least in the "classics" of our cinematic tradition, for the representation
of our impossible desires, with a knowledge of the fact that they
are just that--impossible.