Diary: (2) Geoffrey O‘Brien, Arabian Nights, 1934
Illustration from Arabian Nights, 1934. Still from Heat Lightning (1934)
Read Part One of this post here
The movie is beginning. I am elsewhere, I am empty, I am myself. The other world begins here and glides toward distant glimmering cities. Unimaginable outposts, dark wharves, dim glow of lamps in Chinatown alleys, the tinkling of bells at dusk. Vast packed music halls. The images of things imported from far away by rails, by gangplanks, airships, systems of pulleys, cunning strands of cable. A murmuring from across oceans of French accordion songs, bearded Russian philosophers, Spanish dancers in black lace with castanets. And the wild places beyond any city, armed encampments, appalling wonders of glaciers and limestone caverns. Are they looking at these scenes in such places? Do the inhabitants of the rubber plantations and prospectors’ camps look up and see their world on the screen? Do fallen women and gangsters watch movies of fallen women and gangsters, do bankers and countesses see themselves reflected? Everybody can see everything in the dark.
I am already thinking about how it will be to get on the train and go away from where I am, carried toward one of the cities. After the movie ends I want it to be the future already.
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How long ago was that? Last month? A hundred years? They had walked into a darkened palace for a few hours. Luxurious like the depths of a mystic Egyptian tomb. When they emerged everything had changed. Maybe it was more than a few hours. They lost track of time in the endless organ drone. Lost track of themselves, which was the idea in the first place. One picture melted into the next. Petal upon petal floated down into the meandering stream. Chariots swept across wide empty plains. Messages were delivered on scrolls. The crescent moon from out the Syrian hills has flung aloft its livid signal. The day of sacrifice has come. Within the gates of pagan temples unclad maidens bowed down at the place of immolation. By firelight the glittering blades of bronze weaponry cast ominous shadows. Goat-footed idols stooped over the bound bodies of gauzy-robed beauties. It was an opium vision orchestrated by a bearded hypnotist within the stone tower to which he lured unsuspecting debutantes. As they went further into the dream the organ music grew somber. No words were needed for everything they imagined they caught sight of among the folds and flurries. Couples in flowery bowers could not resist each other. Blinking eyelashes beckoned into brocaded interiors. A kiss filled the whole screen. They were transfixed by images of eddying water swirling toward a dark abyss. They bathed in wordless splendors. They were shocked when the music stopped and even more shocked when they stepped outside.
Geoffrey O’Brien is the other of many and varied works of nonfiction, including Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century, Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film, Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, and nine books of poetry. He was for many years editor in chief of The Library of America and his edition of crime novels of the 1960s will appear under their aegis later this year. He recently completed the nineteenth update of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. He has written for Book Post about Raymond Queneau, Marvin Gaye, and Paris bookstores. This diary is adapted from his new book, Arabian Nights of 1934, out this spring, described by its publisher as “a genre-bending novel of 1001 nights of no-holds-barred, pre-code American movies distilled into a single fevered dreamworld.” It is available now for pre-order from publisher Terra Nova Press at a 20 percent discount.
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