Prayer Cushions of the Flesh

By Paul Tickell

prayer-cushions-of-the-flesh-magnus-irvin-ray-mcneill-1.jpgPrayer Cushions of the Flesh, 2006

Learned but erotic; in thrall to The Arabian Nights but aware that for the Westerner this also means the silken stranglehold of the exotic (ah, the pleasurable pains of Orientalism); a good yarn but no conventional narrative: Robert Irwin’s novel already has enough going for it to be considered ‘unfilmable’.

Thankfully, writer-producer-directors Magnus Irvin and Ray McNeill have decided to stuff the folk wisdom of the ruling-class of the British film industry and instead have loaded their pipe with something headier, drawing on a mixture of live action, animation, puppetry and graphic captions. It’s all shot in black and white in the studio with no budget and snatches of voice-over in place of dialogue; nevertheless the film does capture the colourfulness of the original prose.

Although 26 minutes (micro-feature or long short?) is a disastrous length in marketing terms, this brevity is in tune with the soul of Irwin’s wit and the intrigue of his tale of Orkhan, released from lifelong imprisonment in a cage to enjoy all the flesh in the Sultan’s harem. Not one to waste time looking a gift-whore in the mouth, Orkhan gets down to the nitty gritty.

prayer-cushions-of-the-flesh-magnus-irvin-ray-mcneill-2.jpgPrayer Cushions of the Flesh, 2006

But of course there’s a price to pay: for every alluring belly-dancer there’s a minx with a strap-on dildo-cum-unicorn’s horn keen to make a sore point of our hero’s arse; for every female who lovingly proffers her buttocks to the sadist’s whip in Orkhan’s hand, there’s another beauty with the kind of cruelty in her eyes which spells his demise. Over every little joy experienced by Orkhan falls the shadow of death and the melancholy of sexual energy spent. This feeling of memento mori is encapsulated in one of the animation sequences when, while our hero sports with a concubine, a chocolate éclair vigorously enters a ringed doughnut; but the bawdy can only end in rancidity, with whipped cream spilling on stony ground.

No wonder David Piper as Orkan plays the trembling hedonist wide-eyed: on the one hand he can’t believe his luck while on the other he’s troubled by the thought of the cosmic fuck which will surely end in his death. But perhaps Piper is a bit too wide-eyed about the harem and its cast of non-actors working themselves up so consummately; and perhaps I’m missing a joke about eyes, as in one-eyed snakes, and cunning puns about eye-holes, arse-holes, and those between the legs. Lie with a woman in this tale and you produce layers of meaning- metaphors which will out and which you can’t always control. Loss of control: it’s as good, or bad, as death, is what the film is saying with some glee.

prayer-cushions-of-the-flesh-magnus-irvin-ray-mcneill-3.jpgPrayer Cushions of the Flesh, 2006

But just like with that éclair, all is going creamily towards death and decay, when victory or rather redemption is snatched not so much from the jaws of death as from the vagina dentata, the sheath with teeth. The terrifying feminine beauty of the ‘jaws of love’ leads not to castration and impotence (as good as death) but to happiness. Love is in the air, as it is in an earlier episode when a zonked-out Orkhan is revived by a woman hitching up her skirts and sitting on his face. Her smelling salts au naturel do the trick, as this film does to its bitter-sweet ending when Orkhan is rescued from the Perfumed Battlefield or Harem of Death by his future wife, captioned as a ‘Phallomancer and Washerwoman’ who does a bit of vulvascopy on the side.

But living happily ever after comes at a price. As at its climax the film moves from a fantastical and folkloric plane to the contemporary reality of a shop in what could be Hounslow, the viewer is literally taken to the cleaners. To have their voyeuristic stains removed? I hope not, because this film’s ‘dirtiness’, its willingness to take chances and be promiscuous with form, is what puts it a scimitar cut above the bipolar disorder of British cinema: at one depressive pole the 1-D cartoon naturalism of Vera Drake, at the manic other the jollified pop-up surrealism of Trainspotting (anyone for meeting in the middle with Cock and Bull?). Prayer Cushions…’ playfulness puts it in a different realm, one already visited by Peter Greenaway. But Irvin and McNeill aren’t prisoners of his doggedly symmetrical framing, even if at times they’re hostages to the kind of humour which too readily descends from wit to mere jokiness.

Paul Tickell is a filmmaker. For information on this film, please visit