Prayer Cushions of the Flesh Review
As well as being a scholar of Arabic history and culture, Robert Irwin is also one of Britain’s most original and imaginative writers of fiction. With a body of work that is notable for its diversity, there is perhaps one theme that is constant throughout his work – the power of the mind, imagination and stories to transform reality to the extent that it can entrap the individual. From the suburban housewife battling the forces of the Empire of Decay and Ruin in Limits of Vision, the story-within-a-story madness of The Arabian Nightmare, to drug-tripping hippie occultist of Satan Wants Me and the surrealists of Exquisite Corpse, Irwin himself is a fabulous Scherezade-like spinner of tales of the imagination (and with his last novel appearing back in 1999, a new one is surely long overdue). Adapting Irwin’s 1997 novel Prayer Cushions of the Flesh into a short film, artist Magnus Irvin and Ray McNeill demonstrate a perfect understanding of these themes and strengths in the author’s dark erotic Arabian fantasy and find a number of original and witty ways to draw them out.
On the surface, Prayer Cushions of the Flesh, is indeed little more than a series of erotic fantasies with an Arabian theme. It follows the sexual adventures of Orkhan, a young prince who has been held in The Cage all his life, waiting for the day that he will become sultan. When his time comes, Orkhan, who has never even seen a woman before, is introduced by the Grand Vizier to the exotic ladies of the Harem of the Imperial Palace. Beyond the basic ancient arts of phallomancy and vulvascopy that he is induced into by a washerwoman of the Royal Court, there are other more exotic pleasures to be sampled, but they also hold great dangers for the young man. While supping at the Perfumed Tavern (so to speak), Orkhan witnesses the terrifying sight of a body entombed beneath ice. Rather than being a ruler, Orkhan finds himself in danger of a similar fate, being ruled as a plaything of the women of the Harem, a slave to his own desire for them, a victim of a dangerous cult known as the Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh.
Prayer Cushions of the Flesh is filmed in Guy Maddin fashion - in black-and-white, grainy, scratched low-resolution film stock - almost as a silent film, with only a few words of narration to introduce the story and the use of captions later. It also makes inventive use of puppetry and animation, partly for stylisation, partly to overcome low-budget constraints (the film was made for under £10,000), and partly to illustrate the erotic content without over-explicitness (although the film is quite explicit in terms of full-frontal nudity). In each of these respects, the film works very well – never quite overcoming the short-film’s low-budget origins (there is a judicious use of smoke effects to further disguise the sparse cloth and cardboard sets), but even so, this only serves to all the more effectively remove the film from the bounds of reality and setting it in the realm of fantasy.
And it is indeed the nature of the transforming power of the imagination that Prayer Cushions of the Flesh effectively conveys, playing out this theme on a number of levels. On the one hand, it illustrates the power of eroticism to fire the imagination and elevate from the mundane, but it also warns of the the Arabian Nightmare dangers of being entrapped by those desires. On another level - cleverly staged through a modern-day epilogue – it wraps the whole story up as an imaginative sexual game played out by a young Asian couple in a Dry Cleaning business. That’s not even getting into the meta levels of it being served up as a titillating fantasy for the pleasure of the viewer or, on the other side, of it being an adaptation of Robert Irwin’s work, itself undoubtedly influenced by that most famous work of Arabian literature, The Arabian Nights. But digging too deeply will only take us into Arabian Nightmare story-within-a-story territory, and we really don’t want to go there. Better to just see this for the imaginative, inventive and entertaining little amusement that it is.
Prayer Cushions of the Flesh is available on DVD in the UK and self-distributed by the filmmakers. It can be obtained from their website (warning: there may be some adult images shown on this site). The film is presented on a single-layer barebones disc without menus, is in PAL format and the DVD is not region encoded.
Evidently, as with Guy Maddin films, it’s difficult to assess the actual transfer quality here, since the whole look of the film is deliberately grainy, soft and low-resolution, with some segments even filmed on Super 8. The transfer seems to be progressively encoded, although there appears to be interlacing on the stop-motion animation sequences, so movement is not always completely smooth. Occasionally horizontal lines break up and cause shimmering, but this is not particularly problematic. Overall, there is plenty of detail, tone and contrast, an adequate level of sharpness and the image is pleasantly stable throughout.
The nature of the film’s soundtrack is also minimalistic. There is very little dialogue – only a few lines of narration and one dubbed sequence – the soundtrack being restricted mainly to sound effects and the music score. Both are perfectly clear and adequate for the requirements of the film without being particularly outstanding.
There are no subtitles included for the very few spoken words in the film. Scrolling captions that are part of the film for the separate sections of the story are evidently fixed and in English.
There are no extra features on the disc. Nor menus. The film plays when the disc is loaded and stops when it is finished.
There are certainly a number of challenges in adapting Robert Irwin’s erotic Arabian fantasy to the screen, particularly as a low-budget experimental short-film, but Magnus Irvin and Ray McNeill’s inventive approach is largely successful. Using silent movie and animation techniques, the filmmakers manage to find their own way to illuminate the essential theme of the story, keeping it entertaining, amusing and, perhaps most difficult of all, retaining its dark eroticism without making it appear very silly indeed. The transfer of the film to DVD is excellent – basic certainly, but more than sufficient for the presentation of a short-film.