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 strands are).

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.