The Right to Do Nothing
By Justine Smith
Justine Smith is a critic based in Montreal, QC, who contributes to Hyperallergic, Roger Ebert and Little White Lies. She is also the Vice-President of the Quebec Critic’s Association (AQCC). Justine programs the Underground section at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
The last time I was in Locarno, I couldn't stay awake. The thickness of the air and the cascading light over Lake Maggiore lulled me into a state of deep sleep. Submerged in its depths, for the first time in a year, I was able to dream. I wandered through a world that seemed too big and too beautiful to bear. Like a mortal suddenly plunged into the world of gods, my vulnerability and fragility overwhelmed me. In my fugue state, films blurred into parties that blurred into more dreams. I spent much of my time watching movies by Jacques Tourneur; the paranoid landscapes of his nighttime scenes further lulled me into an endless night.
In my deep sleep, my reality began to expand. Miracles and monsters seemed all the more possible as I navigated a world rich with imagination. The insomniatic life I was living before, working endlessly at a job I hated, was close to eroding all sense of self. For nearly a year at that point, my nights were long and cavernous, and my days joyless and stale. With my worth intimately tied to my productivity, sleep increasingly became a liability. I felt that the more I slept, the less I could work and the less I worked, the less value I had. When I started to sleep again, I felt physically rejuvenated, but I also felt my imagination begin to heal.
In the COVID crisis, my ability to sleep waned once again. Fear and uncertainty kept me awake, but so did a growing pressure to be productive. But I had no work, and all I could do was worry and think. As time passed, the initial concern came to take the form of guilt. Endless mantras cycled through my mind—"I should be more productive, I shouldn't rely on government handouts"—until they collapsed into a kind of persistent bitterness. I needed to be reminded that life didn't have to be busy; I was allowed to do nothing, and I'm allowed to sleep.
In a neoliberal world, sleep becomes a radical act. "24/7 is a time of indifference against which the fragility of human life is increasingly inadequate and within which sleep has no necessity or inevitability," writes Jonatan Crary in his book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Sleep is not just a necessity for survival; the attack on rest increasingly feels like an attack on the imagination. In a world where productivity is king, sleep represents an existential threat to a marketplace that profits off of 24/7 labour. Sleep becomes a place where imagination flourishes, and where we can dare to imagine a better world.
In Miguel Gomes's Arabian Nights trilogy, a loose interpretation of One Thousand and One Nights, stories unfold like dreams. Our narrator, Scheherazade, tells fictionalized stories inspired by facts that occurred in Portugal between August 2013 and July 2014. A period in which, "the country was held hostage to a programme of economic austerity executed by a government apparently devoid of social justice." As in the legend, every night Scheherazade must, instead of sleeping, weave fantastic and endless stories within stories to escape death. However, once her husband grows tired of her, he will have her killed.
On the one hand, a grand celebration of the Portuguese imagination. On the other, a bitter indictment of power. In all, Gomes paints a playful but biting portrait of life under austerity. Scheherazade's stories are playful and crude, and her imagination celebrates art for art's sake. In stories like The Men with Hard-Ons, about the literal impotence of those who have imposed austerity measures, the powerful are humiliated by Scheherazade. Even as they impose strict regulations and limits on Portugal's citizens, they can't squash their dreams. Her storytelling undercuts their power entirely, mythologizing them as idiots rather than leaders of industry.
By the third film, after appearing in the first two films as nothing but a voice, Scheherazade physically appears. At this point, she knows her story is running thin. Trapped inside the fictionalized Baghdad, she spends hours looking out the palace windows, "longing for the untidy world outside." As great as her imagination is, it can't withstand her husband, the King's, demands. No longer a disembodied voice, she's allowed the gift of whims and desires. But, given the conditions of her imprisonment, she doesn't even have power over her dreams. Sleep, perhaps her last refuge, was taken from her.
Writing about Pasolini's version of Arabian Nights, critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky defined Pasolini as a strategist rather than a stylist. "The haphazard camerawork, directed-from-just-off-camera performances, and mismatched editing" contribute to a spontaneous, life-affirming atmosphere. The chaotic filming style and inexpert actors allow, in their own ways, for moments of transcendence. The film's main story is about a young man Nur-e-Din (Franco Merli), who falls in love with a beautiful slave girl, Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini).
In one scene, Zumurrud laughs as she seduces her master. Thematically, the scene celebrates the contradictions inherent to the human experience, toying with the power dynamics of sex and love as a means of expounding on the broader intersections of power in society. However, the miraculousness of the scene emerges not in its subtext but the gestures of Merli and Pellegrini. Their playfulness downplays any attempts to intellectualize their meeting. Ultimately, the images that linger are inconsequential to the story; Pellegrini's laugh, Merli's eyes and a flock of doves. Yet, spiritually, their poetry assures Pasolini's major significance as an artist.
Gomes, not unlike Pasolini, adopts a version of this methodology. Throughout his films, he employs non-actors, documentary flourishes, and broader unconventional structures to make room for miracles. In Our Beloved Month of August, the creative process is in the movie itself. The documentary elements of the film's first half—pimba music, couples dancing, motorcycle reunions, older men singing—inform the fictionalized elements of the second half. Gomes, not unlike Pasolini, does little to differentiate between high and low art. While the fictionalized elements incorporate tropes from so-called serious arthouse cinema (patriarchal incest, coming of age sexual experiences and characters reflecting deeply in long shots) and the film's tone varies from silly to obscene, mainly in the behind-the-scenes. In both narrative and form, he highlights how, through art, music and love, his characters yearn to communicate greater meaning about their lives. As they reach for a paradise that might only exist in memories or dreams, they articulate their relationship to themselves and each other through the creative process.
The best instance of this happens as two non-professional actors discuss working on the movie in Our Beloved Month of August. One complains that it is more work than he expected; the other seems willing to quit his job to act full-time. They negotiate power dynamics and celebrate art. The discussion highlights the capacity we all have to create, but only if given the time and space to do it. This push and pull between high art and low, fiction and non-fiction reach a crescendo during the film's climax. The lead actress is crying, and she suddenly breaks into a smile. Is this a break in character? Has she suddenly become self-aware? Is this the only logical conclusion to a film that blurs the lines between life and art?
In Tabu, Miguel Gomes presents us with “Paradise Lost,” a story of a grey contemporary Lisbon and the story of the elderly Aurora and her neighbour Pilar, and “Paradise,” a silent memory of a forbidden romance set in 1960s colonial Africa. Like many viewers, I connected deeply with the yearning of “Paradise,” falling deeply in love with the film’s textured fantasy romance.
But the powerful impact of the voiceless past finds drama in tension with the present. As a viewer, connecting with a self-annihilating need to be consumed by desire feels like a way of staving off time. The deep melancholia of Aurora and Gian Luca fucking under the veil of a mosquito net resonates because we know time will destroy their youth and beauty. By presenting us with "Paradise Lost," to begin with, Gomes contextualizes the past in a way that discounts the overt romanticism of it. The memories and dreams we are experiencing, almost as if they happened to us, exist in conversation with the dark and solemn present.
In "Paradise Lost," a deep sense of loss permeates the atmosphere. Aurora's well-meaning neighbour, Pilar (Teresa Madruga), becomes a kind of audience surrogate we see as she tries to impose order and justice on the natural world. She goes to the movies to experience the spontaneous wonder of life, with little means to access the deep pleasures of living. It is almost as if Pilar has no access to the world of imagination and is cut off from the full potential of human experience.
Tabu expresses, among other things, the power of the erotic imagination. As much as it is a film about colonialism and loss — it is, after all, a portrait of wealthy white Portuguese people protecting their riches against the true inhabitants of the land—, it is also about bodies and youth. Sex for the sake of pleasure exists beyond the confines of productivity. Rewatching the “Paradise” section of Tabu, it's remarkable how little actually happens. The love and longing that exists between Aurora and Gian Luca evade productivity and action. They look at each other, they make love, and they sleep together. In a voiceless memory (the entire sequence is narrated by Gian Luca and features only diegetic sound effects and music, no dialogue), the impact of the time they spend with each other sustains their imaginations for decades. Even as Aurora fades into death, her dreamworld and erotic imagination sustains her.
Dreams, as Joseph Campbell once said, are "personalized myths." In the landscape of Miguel Gomes's imagination and his fractured, bifurcated films, the neurosis, absurdity and magic of our dreaming life bleed into the mundane of the collective ordinary. Bridging the gap between personalized and depersonalized narratives, the stories he tells reflect the self-satirizing and self-reflexive qualities inherent to the creative process.
As far as nation-myths, Tabu illustrates both the good and the bad of personalized mythologies. Drawing from cinematic depictions of African colonialism from movies like Mogambo and Out of Africa, the film underscores the romanization of white colonizers in how it reframes their suffering in a grander context of people fighting for independence. While not quite as broadly funny as the hard-on sequence from Arabian Nights, Gomes uses irony to expose white colonial narratives as myopic. As the lead characters suffer from heartbreak, on the radio, we hear of people sacrificing their lives for the freedom to dream and suffer on their terms.
In her book Devotion, about the creative process, Patti Smith writes, "Most often the alchemy that produces a poem or a work of fiction is hidden within the work itself." In Miguel Gomes's films, this alchemy is never hidden but is instead woven into the narrative's fabric. The very form of his movies, which often feature cast and crew and often directly satirize the filmmaking process, illuminates a distinct human pleasure in the act of creation.
His movies often subvert the tropes of narrative storytelling while also featuring a contempt for systems of power and oppression. The great threat to his characters and their visions of the world are impositions on people's imaginations. Ideas about productivity or the invocation of the "crisis," end up being ways to stifle all personal growth. Why can't art merely be a process of waiting and discovery?
Like in Our Beloved Month of August, as the fictionalized Gomes puts off starting his film waiting for inspiration, I too am the happiest laying in wait. Writing this essay was less pleasurable than researching it and watching movies new and old. I let my imagination take me down well-worn paths and explore new ones. Through my viewings, I revisited films, beyond just Gomes's filmography, that evoked specific feelings and a more profound sense of space; Mogambo, Stars in my Crown, Genèse, Undisclosed Recipients and Monteiro's As Bodas de Deus. They felt integral to rediscovering a specific moment in time and unlocking the secret conversations between my own experiences, art history and the work of Miguel Gomes. I wish I could capture the joy of that admixture, but I accept that it's not currently possible.
Especially in retrospect, the pleasures of life and cinema so often emerge in these "in-between" moments. At film festivals, I miss times between screenings and writing from the inception of an idea to its execution. In life, my most significant memories are not events as much as they are feelings—passive observations, many of which take place in that magical moment between waking and dreaming.
In a world where everything is rapidly changing, it feels integral to hold onto those private moments. I'm not arguing that we all commit to a year of rest and relaxation, but rather that we recognize the human right to do nothing—that includes fighting for other people's rights to leisure—and the radical pleasure of sleep.
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