Thursday, August 24, 2006

Heading South/Vers le Sud

A stimulating study of who controls desire.

Going alone to the cinema is something of an indulgence, against that dreadful restriction – the social norm. So, it was somewhat surprising to find myself in an urban cinema full of single people, all nicely spread out in their isolation and tucked into their red, plush seats where the only brief topic of conversation was the warmth of the cinema on a wet and cold summer night in the United Kingdom (not at all remarkable and not really worth remarking on except as an excuse to make brief contact and set the limits of inter-action). There was only one couple there that evening, something that became significant at the end. of the evening. The film that we had all come to experience was Heading South/Vers le Sud. Starring Charlotte Rampling and Menothe Cesar, (who won the new actor award at the Venice film festival for his performance in the film) Heading South is about three women, Brenda, Sue and Ellen and their search for inter-racial liaisons in the sinister Haiti of Duvalier. Reviews of the film, in the UK, but not the USA, have been lukewarm. Peter Bradshaw, in The Guardian, has described it as a “softcore piece of provocation” and politically na├»ve and Mark Kermode in the sister-paper, The Observer on Sunday, “cultured and slightly tiresome”. For them, as males, it was a film about sex-tourism, not a particularly wholesome thing to encourage; and here was there first misunderstanding. As they looked at the film through a modern, journalistic lens where the film paralled the current desire of white USA and UK women for inter-racial sexual holidays in Jamaica, they completely missed the real resonances of the film. Haiti is not Jamaica. The Caribbean islands are not one black mass—anymore than every country in Africa is the same—but the Western imagination, as Eshun demonstrates perfectly in Black Gold of the Sun, does not do specifics well. And Heading South is a film all about specifics, as Ellen points out contemptuously to Brenda when she dresses the film’s central beloved like a “black man from Harlem”. Black men are not all the same, though that is one of Brenda’s erotic errors. There is also another problem with Kermode’s and Bradshaw’s approaches: it is so damned male! And Heading South is about women, about their desire for love and sex—an alleged predatory attitude that makes Bradshaw morally indignant and self-righteous. These two film critics, rather than seeing how the film critiques duplicity, only impose their own male double-standards.
At the centre of Heading South is Legba, a beautiful young black male who is as sexual as the god he represents: the orisha Eshu transformed into Voodoo’s god of deception and communication. And self-deception is the central concern of the film, a point made firmly in the opening scene. A mother, at the airport, is trying to give her beautiful daughter away to a patriarchal stranger, for in her eyes a woman needs to be protected: beauty and sexuality are a single curse. She issues a warning: “Beware! Can you tell the Good mask from the Bad mask? We all wear a mask”. And Ellen, Sue, Brenda do indeed wear masks, as does Legba who must be all to all of them. Heading South is much more than a film about inter-racial attraction and crossing the colour line. It is a subtle study of racism and its connection to sexuality. “Why do black men seem different here?” enquires Brenda, at one point, “Is it because they are at home and closer to nature?” She remains unaware of what Fanon would have termed the biological myth and how, for her, the black male is no more than a penis. The script of the film is remarkably tight and structured—as taut as that of a play—and like Legba, the double-dealer, images continually double throughout the film. The film’s ensemble playing is wonderful, especially the relationship between Ellen-Eddy (a teenage male who looks upon Legba as his father) and Brenda-Eddy. Eddy is the innocent fool of Shakespearean tragedy, the childish, comical aspect of Legba/Eshu whose simplicity reveals the border-lines. When Brenda flirts with him in a dance, Ellen responds with a biting “cradle-snatcher”, and Legba, like a humorous father, picks him up and throws him into the sea to cool his sexual heat. But most revealing is the doubling between Ellen-Legba and Brenda-Legba. If Brenda loves Legba because of how he looks at her, so Ellen loves Legba because of how he allows her to look at him. The sexual mirror and its fantasies are intriguingly different. There is one point in the film where Legba dances with Brenda. Ellen observes from the sidelines, watching the stiff Brenda try to dance. Control prevents passion. But then, to the watcher’s surprise, Brenda draws away from Legba and absorbs herself in her own dance. As the Haitian band plays, Brenda’s dancing becomes a voodoo trance, and Legba, embarrassed by her actions, draws away and requests the band leader/priest to play a more civilised, quieter, partner dance, one where the male might take control and lead. Legba senses that Brenda’s sexual fantasy has become fanaticism, it is wilder than his masculinity can control— is self-induced and religiously inspired: her mask of puritanical repression conceals a demonic expressiveness.
Heading South is not (as Kermode states) a “parable of personal and political exploitation” of the male. “Parable” is absolutely the wrong word, as is his patriarchal focus on how women lead men astray. The film is a finely crafted myth that takes apart religious presumptions and looks at the double-nature of desire. Like Haiti, under Duvalier, where politics, sexuality and spirituality mixed oppressively, Heading South is a study of rules, permission and permissiveness: how individuals try to hide control and by their controlling reveal the evil inside Western civilisation and its supposed superior respectability. Civil savages and savage civilians wear masks of death. And, of course, death and sexuality are intimate bedfellows. The art of dying has been a favourite pun for orgasm since the times of Donne and Rochester. The relationship is also deeply situated in mythology. The Renaissance, following its hermetical roots in Greek mythology, saw Eros and Thanatos as dual-forms of one aspect: the unloosening of the body's chains, the freeing of the divine soul. Amor is a god of Death in profane and sacred ways. Following an actual event during filming, the director of Heading South inserts a telling phrase into the film's climax...this is passed almost like a secret hermetic code by Albert (the restaurant owner who feeds the white visitors as they feed their desires) to the inspector of life, Ellen: "The tourist never dies." The phrase's surface message is that the white tourist is always protected, their wealth and power prevents them from becoming the victims of tragedy. The deeper meaning is that those who spectate/tour might die sexually, orgasmically, but they are afraid to enter the fictions that they create fully, for their sexuality, then, would be the death of all they know. Love would kill.
At the close of the film, people left silently, drifting into the night’s darkness, apart from the young couple: sadly, the girl-friend was weeping in the arms of her sheltering boy-friend. The romanticism of the film had been too much. It spread a real unease and showed how badly the film had been mis-understood and placed within a simple, reductive, heterosexual frame. Rampling’s wonderfully portrayed character, the matronly, but not maternal Ellen, would have been scathing about this emotional performance—such a lack of imagination, of intellect, of intelligent emotion—such a fear, as she phrases it in the film, of the “presence of pain” and the real paradoxical dimensions of existence.


Unsane said...

You are right about the nonspecificity of the Western cultural imagination. I have certainly enountered that. There is also (as I think I said to Hattie) a link between a general noncuriosity of others and a sense that one already "knows" about them all one needs to know. One has a label and one deftly applies it to some thing, some person, some object, and by doing so, one believes that one has come to know them via this label. What has been lost is actual exploration, investigation of the thing as yet unknown. In the case of the film, such investigation is slapped with the label "sex tourism" and thereby one presumes that one already "knows" all that there is to know about it. Behold the material world disappears and requires no further investigation: instead, a boring moral lesson. Western culture tends not to need reference to reality in order to continue to function -- most westerners believe they are "above" it.

eshuneutics said...

It is the problem of "critique": the male critics came armed with their moral objections. The film is about the dynamics that make up "tourism"--the experiences that make the women see and be seen: the site-seer is always a site-to-be-seen. Many criticisms of the film invert its so-called plot: if it was about older men having sex with young girls, would we approve?
No, therefore the film is immoral and smutty. But that alters the whole power-structure of the film, which is the intellectual level that makes it a film, not a piece of single-vision pornography. This whole idea of the "culture critic" raises a greater problem: the extent to which civilisation needs to be told what to think and see; and bloggers ape this without realising it--they review, they give stars, they recommend,they rarely say that the film has made them think or feel...see something in a different way...they enter and exit the same person...or as Beckett would put it more astringently: they don't know what they have become because they can't remember what they were.

Unsane said...

This whole idea of the "culture critic" raises a greater problem: the extent to which civilisation needs to be told what to think and see; and bloggers ape this without realising it--they review, they give stars, they recommend,they rarely say that the film has made them think or feel...see something in a different way...they enter and exit the same person...or as Beckett would put it more astringently: they don't know what they have become because they can't remember what they were.

Very good!

I have been thinking of late (especially but not solely due to a certain reaction on my site -- one which is almost...categorisable!) that we love nothing better as humans than to have the patterns of our already existent through processes confirmed. This is not quite the condemnation it might seem. The sense of being in control, of being able to easily know and to a certain degree predict the responses of others gives us a real sense of biological (stress free) security. Too much uncertainty and the human psyche starts to shudder. But if this is so, that makes education a form of violation -- especially of certainty. If one is to leave an art work differently from how one has arrived at it, one has, in a sense, undergone something drastic--something altering. So, the right wing holds tightly, as if with faith, on to the small straws of what it thinks it knows, in order to bolster security. The left-minded permits a certain violation of one's being. Nobody escapes..ah me!

Unsane said...

thought processes

Id it is said...

Haven't seen or heard about this one, but I would definitely like to see it now.