February 19, 2006

Film Review: The Keeper, The Legend of Omar Khayyam (2005)

There is something about this movie, despite its low budget, bad editing, & worse acting - a lost potential, perhaps. The New York Times, along with many of the on-line reviews, primarily focus on how the story about the struggle to make the film was more inspirational than the end product. The writer-director-producer Kavyan Mashayekh quit his job as a Texan lawyer to spend years pursuing his dream, a film about the Persian poet of the Rubaiyat.

A young Iranian-Texan boy listens to his older brother, who is dying of leukemia, tell the story of Omar Khayyam, which it is his hereditary duty to keep & relate. When the brother dies, the boy steals his passport, whisks off to England, finds the granddaughter of an English Rubaiyat scholar (Vanessa Redgrave) who has a collection of versions of the poem (my favorite plot twist). She explains to the boy that poetry is just words that make us feel special. The boy’s mother is alerted that he snuck across the Atlantic, but he manages to make it to Iran before his dad catches up with him. There, he finds his dying grandfather, who can fill in the ending of the biography.

The bulk of the film is the 11th Century flashback, clunkily inlaid with the modern quest. Omar Khayyam is alarmingly handsome, tall & usually beardless (Bruno Lastra). I had always assumed the secularist poet was more controversial in his day, but the movie shows him co-opted by the Seljuq ruler, & becoming a beloved court astronomer (part calander updater, part astrologer). His margins-of-Islam quatrains of sex & wine are a bit of a secret, or at least not often discussed - indeed, the movie all-but-ignores them & their issues. The actor who plays the Sultan looks like a drunk Borscht-belt comedian, ironically smirking to himself about his very presence in this movie.

Omar & his childhood friend Hassan were both in love with the slave Darya, who is sold & lost before either can marry her. During the search, Hassan becomes a religiously-fanatic Assassin, & tells Omar that God willed her missing, altho to what purpose is left unmentioned. Omar’s longing, with its mystic overtones, its language of wine & stars, is probably meant to parallel the kid’s quest to keep the story alive - a better writer could have done beautiful things with that. A rock on a necklace which Omar gave Darya has become the one worn by the Keeper thru the generations, as if the love is a curse which must be sought.

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia has parallel searches going on-stage. The 18th-Century plot has a young girl searching for fractals & chaos theory, the 20th-Century plot has historians searching for clues to the gaps in her life. The two searches interweave, & are eventually confused as the actions begin to occupy the same stage. Meanwhile, the characters cleverly explain some of the concepts of chaos theory, which inform the audience’s appreciation of Stoppard’s plot devices.

Mashayekh makes no attempt to teach us about Omar’s symbolism, or connect the imagery of the poetry to the imagery of the screen, or combine the two plots in any informative way. He could have related the controversies of Omar’s life - religio-political assassins using violence to discuss theosophical debates - to any number of contemporary issues, let alone the struggles of the modern boy’s life & quest. As in most biopics about geniuses (Beethoven, Einstein, count them), the intellectual conversations are stripped & dumbed down beyond plausibility. Omar & Hassan at one point have an angry debate on reason versus faith. The language is two-dimensional enough to leave the youngest or stupidest viewer uninterested. I refuse to accept that films, even with wide audience release, can’t take on even the simplest of intellectual discussions. Film is often consistently revolutionary in other progressive artistic thoughts - cinematography, genre-awareness, special effects, &c. A better writer could have deepened the discussion on secularization (reason verses faith), thoroughly infused it into the modern plot (old world versus Texas), maybe even adding some commentary on hot topics like Religious Terrorism. A great writer could have conflated or confused the quest-plots, pervaded the ideas & language of the old poetry into the script, & educated an audience entertainingly on subjects political, literary, theological, & even romantic.

1 comment:

MrA said...

I've never understood this either.
The forum of film is undeniably powerful and gripping simply in its usage of moving colorful visualizations coupled with ear rattling bass throttled symphonic sound. United with an adequately written screenplay, these films could be third-eye opening. Yet all the fucking movies are either genre films or based on a BOOK, which is the dumbest thing to base a movie on if you are not going to fuck with it substantially. MTV and those courtroom TV series have demonstrated how effective simply shaking the camera around is, simulating some kind of humanity and subjectivity in the midst of the current top emo pop song overlay.
If only one could unite a Hollywood box office hit's budget with somewhat sentient and challenging screenplay writing.
My example of watering down any conversation capable of making even the general populace think slightly deeper is the movie "Contact." Yeah, ok, we get the damn idea of the conflict of science and religion. How about not killing our intelligence with dumbed down, white-and-black contrasted bold-lined ideas?
Instead we are tortured and disrespected rigorously for the money we might have paid if we had not snuck in through the handicapped, wheel-chair accessed elevator entrance.