Last weekend, two films at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF) blew me away, although they could hardly have been any more different from each other: one was the 1968 Soviet/Armenian classic, The Color of Pomegranates, by Sergei Parajanov; the other, Ana Lily Amirpour’s directorial debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, aptly described in the catalog as ‘the world’s first Iranian vampire Western’. Discovering a surprising link between them felt unfeasibly exciting and pleasantly short-circuited a whole bunch of synapses in my cultural grey matter.
Of course, the Internet teems with frame-by-frame analyses of Easter Eggs, or hidden meanings, in popular films. To be frank, I get sucked into this particular vortex of procrastination on the regular. My ongoing investigation into this field has shown that cultural in-jokes in films come in many different forms, one of the most storied being the cameo. I still remember being pretty pleased with my teenaged self for spotting George Harrison in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and clocking Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas. These days, cameos are ubiquitous, especially in comedies and animation.
Then, there is the creative tribute, such as the mirror scene from Taxi Driver popping up in La Haine and 25 Hours, and the spoof, such as the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey being referenced in Zoolander. Whether it is hidden messages, pop-culture references or continuity errors, we relish the discovery of such obscure details in films. But there are also subtler, more personal versions of this, and it was this category of cultural short circuit I experienced last weekend.
On Friday afternoon, I settled into one of the deluxe leather chairs at the Marina Mall multiplex to watch the lush, haunting work of cinematic art that is The Color of Pomegranates. (BTW, it is on YouTube in its entirety, but if you have to go that route, make sure to to watch it on a decent-sized screen.)
I will not say much here, because this is just a blog and libraries could be (and to some extent already have been) filled with discussions of this film. I'll just say this: not having seen previous versions, I couldn't evaluate the effect of the film’s recent restoration by The Film Foundation, but I assume that it must have something to do with my being immediately besotted with the vivid colours, textures and sounds of each of the meticulously constructed, other-worldly scenes. I walked out of the theatre practically in a trance.
Almost exactly 24 hours later, I watched A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and marvelled at Amirpour’s ability to take a multitude of genres – film noir, spaghetti Western, graphic novel, vampire, romance, gangster, B-movie – and mash them into a coherent narrative voice that is all new, all awesome.
Delightfully, the idiosyncrasy of this voice extends to the soundtrack, which I am now obsessed with (thankfully, it is coming out on Death Waltz Records soon). Music plays more than a supporting role in this film. In a few instances, the plot actually hinges on a record; a narrative device I absolutely adore in films. Remember that scene in Almost Famous, when the main character’s sister memorably says, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess,” before making her mother listen to America, by Simon & Garfunkel? Like that, only in black-and-white and with New Wave, classic Persian pop and contemporary Arab rock.
One of my favourite such scenes in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night features the track Yarom Bia, by Iranian underground rockers Kiosk. So when a friend sent me a link to a video clip that combines the Kiosk song from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night with scenes from The Color of Pomegranates, part of my brain imploded with joy. Here it is:
It's hard to say what is so exhilarating about these very personal and random cultural short circuits. They are utterly insignificant to anyone except the people experiencing them. But the way I see it, serendipitous discoveries of cultural cross-pollination does fulfill an important function: they can be a big part of the reason we feel strong personal connections with certain cultural products. They help us to discover and place deeper meanings in the content we consume, because they charge an experience we may share with uncounted people around the planet with the thrill of a secret handshake.
Update, 18 Nov 2014: Intriguingly, Maria Popova recently wrote about the 'miraculous alchemy of association that is the hallmark of the human mind', highlighting Mary Ruefle's essay Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World, in which Ruefle discusses, much more eloquently, this explosive thrill (although for her, the experience blows up something else than the brain):