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I get a lot of grief from my kid sister when I say I don’t like a film, because when I don’t like a film, I don’t like a film. It’s got to be terrible. I mean, full-out, rollicking, blockbuster stereotypes, bad-acting, bad-casting, bad-everything in it. Twilight, for example. Awful. The entire time I kept asking myself “He glitters in the sunlight?” and noticing the lines of badly applied foundation around the characters’ faces. Oh, and cracking up at every single badly delivered line: e.g., “You’re like a drug to me.”

It takes a lot for me to not like a film because, for the most part, I’m willing to leave my assumptions at the door and engage in what Coleridge called “a willing suspension of disbelief.” Of course, good old Samuel Taylor was describing Shakespeare — how when you go to watch Hamlet you can be moved by this very unnatural style of acting. Who speaks in iambic pentameter? What’s with the funny words and British accents? Why are the lines rhyming? Why are the men dressed as women? This is terrible theater! That’s what you think when you forget that you’re at Shakespearean play. In the same vein, I can pretty much get lost in a movie, no matter how terrible, if it creates the appropriate world — this is probably a symptom of growing up with musicals: if you can get yourself to believe that people sing out their feelings and dance combatively with one another, you can pretty much believe anything. The Mummy, with Brendan Fraser? Terrible film for many reasons, but a fun ride. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Yeah, I loved that. I still pay homage to old Ray Harryhausen epics (stop-action monsters, think the 1980 Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts). But when a movie fails to produce that “world,” I can’t find an excuse to like it.

So, it was with an open mind that I ignored The New Yorker and went to see Prince of Persia.

Expectations: sword-and-sandal epic, awesome scenery, way cool music (think Kingdom of Heaven),  and some seriously beautiful romance. It is Persia, after all — the land of the Nightengale and the Rose, of Shirin and Khosrow. For those of you that don’t know, Iran has some of the most romantic literature in the world.

Alas.

The skinny of the plot: Rebellious adopted son-of-the-king, Dastan (erstwhile ophan) discovers through a series of altogether confusing events that his evil uncle Nizam is plotting to steal his adopted father’s throne using an ancient sect of drug-addicted assassins to acquire a mystical dagger that turns back time. Unbeknownst to Nizam (one of Ben Kingsley’s more disappointing performances, alas), the dagger can only turn back a minute’s worth of time, unless he uses it to pierce the fabled “Sand Glass” beneath the Holy City; also unbeknownst to him, that will cause a Sandocalypse over the whole world and unleash the wrath of the gods, etc.

I’m only slightly exaggerating.

The New Yorker’s (awesome, dead-on, fantastic) review covers this pretty well, I think:

“Prince of Persia” is meant purely as light entertainment, but the way it draws on layers of junk is depressing. It’s based on clichés not only from old paintings but from some of the fruitiest and most swollen nineteen-fifties period spectacles; all this material, after passing through video games, now gets loaded back into a production requiring the wealth of corporate kings. For twenty years, audiences have been noticing the similarity between big action and fantasy movies and video games, but “Prince of Persia” goes beyond similarity; it actually feels like a video game. In order to work the dagger, you press a red jewel on the hilt, which suspiciously resembles a button on a game controller. After a while, backward motion ceases, and life goes forward again. The first time this happens, the effect is rather neat. By the third time, you think that the filmmakers have found a convenient way to avoid the difficulties of constructing a plot that makes emotional sense. Is this the future of screenwriting? The quick reversals that add to the fun of a game make nonsense out of the loyalties and desires of flesh-and-blood characters. At the climax, a good part of the plot is rapidly reversed, and you may find yourself wishing that the filmmakers had wiped out everything after the opening titles.

What’s disturbing to me as an Orientalist is the film’s self-admitted flaws in portrayal. According to the New Yorker, most of the set design is based on 19th century orientalist-school paintings — which is really cool, if you consider the art, but pretty terrible if the movie is going to be the only artistic contact the most people are going to have with anything Persia for the next ten years. Honestly.

We’ve stumbled across the domain of artistic responsibility. The battle-cry of postcolonial studies is generally, “Who has the right?” that question applying, of course, to the act of portrayal. Who has a right to portray another race, another culture, another religion? My answer to that is actually simple — the people who wish to do so responsibly. If you’re going to portray someone, and you’re not one of them, you’d better do some damn good research and err on the side of positive. Kingdom of Heaven, for example, had one hell of a Saladin. I mean, that man was crazy cool in real life, but Ridley Scott sure did an awesome job of making him stellarly cool (I just said that, yes).

But Orientalism is not a source to be raided for movies. Otherwise, you get The Mummy all over again.

I must have got asked about twenty-million times (actual figure) if I was going to live in a pyramid in Egypt — by Americans, of course. If it wasn’t a pyramid, it was a tent — and clearly, I would hitch a ride to work on a camel.

Back when 300 was just exposing its CGI muscles to the world, Iranians  boycotted  the film as slanderous (big surprise there: it was pretty awful and should have been boycotted on its sheer awfulness). But what will they say about this, I wonder?

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