The Attendant: Isaac Julien. (1) *
This short film has just been released on DVD in the USA as an accompaniment to Looking for Langston. The packaging of which is somewhat strange: about 70% of the cover is dominated by an inter-racial couple; 30% is given to one of the most memorable Black-Black relationship scenes from the film. If you knew zero about the film, you would assume (wrongly) that this is some sort of black and white porn film for the White gay market. The Black market is reduced to the black-market. Is this some sort of post-modern joke? I don’t think so. It’s either a piece of crass marketing or a misinterpretation of the film?
Looking for Langston (1989) is a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and the desire and friendship that existed between Black men. It places, in one section, a visual critique and condemnation of Mapplethorpe’s Black Book and his objectification (as a White photographer) of the Black male body. Attaching The Attendant to Looking for Langston is a puzzling move because it represents a shift in Julien’s ideology and feelings. But how? The Attendant—seemingly—upholds the s/m world from which Mapplethorpe’s own desire for the Black male arose. But does it?
One of the most perceptive books on Black art in the UK is Doy’s Black Visual Culture. Significantly, it discusses two films of Julien’s: Fanon (1996) and The Attendant (1993). How strange that a book on Black art should ignore a film focusing exactly on that issue. Why? In many ways, Looking for Langston lies outside the feminist, Marxist aesthetic that Doy is guided by. The Attendant, on the other hand, is open to a dispassionate analysis. It is more polemical, less lyrical than Langston, it does not demand absorption. Langston you embrace. The Attendant you spectate. And that is a better discussion ground for criticism. Doy’s interest in The Attendant easily meets Julien’s focus: the high art world and how it is allied to deep criticism. Doy delights in undermining high art from a Marxist point of view and placing the film in a shady area somewhere between modernism and post-modernism. But what exactly is going on in the film? The cryptogrammic nature of The Attendant is a critic’s dream.