The Attendant: Isaac Julien (3).*The film opens with a view of Biard’s Slaves on the West Coast (1833). In a mid-ground between natural light and darkness, the evils of slavery unfold—it is a scene in which Black slave traders participate in White colonial trade and a laid-back White civilisation controls with active violence.
From here, the film moves to a shot of an art gallery. Not the Wilberforce Museum, but the Tate Gallery, London, whose white classical pillars represent an empire built on slavery and Greek, Platonic thought, the ideal love of White male for White male: Jamaican sugar paid for its creation. The fear that haunted slavery is then transposed into a single image, the Attendant’s black glove, and the connection between Black skin and Black leather, how high art turns Blackness into a fetish.
Inside the hermetic space of an art gallery, visitors come to spectate the pictures. For these observers, they are stable images, but in the mind of The Attendant they take personal resonances, coming into full-colour after the closing of the museum, when The Attendant is left alone with his fantasies.
A visual narrative begins as The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Two angel figures circulate the heads of each figure. White Eros circles the Visitor and Black Eros circles The Attendant. The figures resemble the so-called Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, London—correctly, a version of the Angel of Charity/Love. The charity that The Attendant and The Visitor offer each other is bound up (literally) with sadomasochistic desire.
It was a condition of filming for Time Code—The Attendant was created for a series called Double Lives—that there should be no spoken dialogue in the film. This requirement fits well with the hermetical silence of an art gallery where the world is pursued in muted tones. The silence of the art gallery appears as a conspiratorial silence as the The Attendant and The Visitor meet. Only once is sound heard in the film. Not a conversation, but a series of groans heard through the wall by The Attendant’s wife, The Conservator. The sealed kiss between husband and wife operates, as Julien puts it, as an “alibi”. The Attendant’s world exists because the The Conservator conserves it just as they both exist because the high art world employs them. They exist in a bound relationship (enslaved) to the history of high art and White culture and heterosexism.
The Attendant and The Visitor relate, not through cost (as in Looking for Langston) but through costume. In the film shot where they stand side-by-side, almost as 3D cut-outs from the drawings of Tom of Finland, they stand as the opposite of each other. The White Visitor wears the Black leather uniform of sexual desire. The Black Attendant wears the White Wool Uniform desired by society. If leather suggests the fetishism of Black skin, so wool intimates the heritage of slavery. Both are held, through costume, to a history of bondage.
In “Confessions of a Snow Queen”, Julien problematically attaches a positive reading of this seemingly negative image. He asks if the Black male playing a slave role in an s/m fantasy might not be seen as parody, as a creative act against cultural domination. (This is part of what Mercer asked about Mapplethorpe. Are the Black figures in his photographs creative as well as being created? Do they not create a space for their desires? Interestingly, Doy attempted to answer that question by finding the viewpoints of Mapplethorpe’s models: the result, like the art gallery, was silence. A neat thought, but there is not much evidence that being photographed by Mapplethorpe was a liberating experience). At this point in the film, where the shot is head-on and challenging, Julien is posing questions about inter-racial desire and if it fits in with mainstream culture.
The closing of The Attendant, finally, recedes into black and white and then returns to colour. Two visual narratives are juxtaposed. They seem to be separate, but really flow into one another. To begin this sequence, The Attendant is seen as an opera singer performing Purcell. The image of The Attendant finding a voice concentrates many allusions (high art echoes). The tradition of young men singing female parts in seventeenth century opera is opened out: a deception becomes obvious…in Julien’s film the singer is openly male…and openly Black. There is a kind of transparency. By aligning The Attendant with Dido, however, Julien also brings in two historical echoes: Dido was a traditional name for a female Black slave; Dido’s death—because of Aeneas’ rejection— led to the founding of Rome and empire. Black and white histories collide around the question of imperialism, oppression and silence. Yes, The Attendant finds voice, but only as an attendant who waits upon language and expression. (Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991) pleased few, partly because it relied upon a received narrative film style and the inter-racial element delighted neither Black nor White gay men: the White mainstream did not want a film about a Black gay man and the Black current did not want to see a literally mixed storyline that denied Black containment, what Julien termed the “Black is, Black ain’t” box.
Furthermore, The Attendant sings “Thy hand Belinda”, a prelude to death. This brings to mind the hand of The Attendant which opened the film. And doesn’t an Attendant give a helping-hand? The hand image is also repeated openly in the hand-clapping of The Conservator, whose slow hand beat mimes the deliberate stroke of The Visitor’s whip, who, like a queen herself, is the audience to The Attendant’s performance (just as she was the voyeur to his sexual performance in the art gallery). The Attendant’s “Remember me” is an operatic climax that in the context of the film sounds like a Black lover’s request to his White partner. One doubts, however, that this transaction has much to do with remembering names. In Dido and Aeneas, the queen’s death is followed by the entrance of Cupids. They come to attend and watch over her. In The Attendant, the chorus of Cupids is replaced by a gay Black Queen (Roy Brown) who is surrounded by White angels. The closing of the film is deliberately voyeuristic towards the central Black image, caressing the body’s golden cloth and pectoral jewel as it contrasts the power of the Black male with the obedient white angels. Black Dido turns into Black Eros—whose beauty is attended by white cupids.
The finale of The Attendant does not deny Black beauty (as shown by Beauty in Looking for Langston). It intimates rather that the power of Black Eros is more than closeted dreams. Silencing the dialogue of Black essentialism and White essentialism in the film, allows another thought to emerge. White culture has sought its own narcissistic image and watched it fade away. Black desire has become a loud echo in the mountainous halls of high art. Julien is facing the shadow of the Harlem Renaissance in The Attendant: how White patrons created by manipulating the Black image. In this sense, his short film of 1993 carries on from his position in 1989. But there is a change of approach. The secrecy of Black desire produced an unhealthy state for creativity. By opening Black desire, Julien wants to free creativity from notions of disease, so much so that inter-racial relationships are seen creatively as signs of life. A Black male desiring a White male need not be a surrender to White imperialism, just as a White male desiring a Black male does not have to be an expression of White domination, if the diseased discourse of slave-master is abandoned for something healthier.
The problem here is that Art does not always mirror Life and the idealism of Julien belongs more to the world of high art than life. The Attendant is a thought provoking piece of film making, yet it probably only has a currency in a salacious world that will mis-read it (as with Mapplethorpe) as shock art.