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Stray Dogs

Annette Brauerhoch

Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

At the beginning of Yvonne Rainer's examination of menopause in her film Privilege (1990), text is superimposed over the image of a housewife. The image clearly denotes a manner and style reminiscent of the 1950s. It is immediately associated with a repression of female sexuality, a repression marked by an obsession for order and propriety, a rigidity upheld in moral and physical attitudes. One aspect of this repression was society's assignment of middle age women to a sexually purged, "neutral" realm of sterile domesticity or conventional motherliness, and the relegation of the physical manifestations of menopause to the medical sphere of an illness which remained unspoken. Across this image of the decent, "curbed" housewife, Rainer superimposes an observation which comments in autobiographical terms. "The most remarkable thing was the silence that emanated from my friends and family regarding the details of my middle age. When I was younger, my sex life had been the object of all kinds of questioning, from prurient curiosity to solicitous concern. Now that I did not appear to be looking for a man, the state of my desires seemed of no interest to anyone."

One can regard Birgit Hein's film Baby I Will Make You Sweat as a response to the silence which Yvonne Rainer's film counters with analysis. In contrast to the detached, multi-layered critical discourse of Privilege, Hein deploys a radical subjectivity, intimacy, and emotionality. Baby confronts the audience with a desire which society has made taboo and joins it with two further transgressions: loving another skin colour and loving younger men. There is a concentrated rage in the film as well as energized determination, sad reminiscence and quiet melancholy. A languge which is mercilessly revealing and unsentimental in its exposure of a self suffering from societal mores, is accompanied by images which bear the tenderness contained in the director's words. They also convey a nostalgia, which is her own, and are simultaneous witnesses to and poetic expression of the limitations inherent in the adventure which she seeks and is in any case imposed by external conditions.

The film is defined by a clearly structured narrative. Events are recounted, in the filmmaker's own voice-over, in a chronological sequence of diary entries. The images are alternatively metaphoric, documentary, or associative in character. Often transferred through generations--from video to film--and through intensive treatment at the mixing desk--these pictures impart a grainy poetic of mood and understanding. In some sequences slow motion produces a dream-like feeling, lending weight to its scenes of lovemaking. The spare use of original sound is contrasted with electronic music dominated by a distinct leitmotif of longing.

Bitterness and hurt underlie the first images of her journey from Germany to the Caribbean. The external movement of the train corresponds to an inner sense of leave-taking and turmoil, just as the bleak, snow-covered winter landscape stands for the country from which the filmmaker comes and its way of dealing with emotions. The landscape reflects a frozen inner state, numbed by an external frost. Angled shots in a white-tiled public toilet reveal the filmmaker as chronicler and first person narrator. Her voice-over begins with an imperceptible cut from the white of the winter snow to the white stream of the damp jungle mist. "Alone for ages, no sex for ages, how on earth can this life go on? My body and I no longer fit together. Growing old is like an illness which isolates me from life. A love story in the cinema makes me weep with longing. I read the Lonely Hearts." She flies to Jamaica. The wintry white now changes to the rich, sun-drenched green of a flora that doesn't exist at home. But this landscape is not presented simply as the positive counterpoise, rather a number of quick cuts between "foreign" scenery and German winters situate both as gestures undertaken by the body and its emotional life. A threatening, hovering, synthetic note, which swells and fades, now buzzing sharply, now echoing wistfully, contributes to connecting images originating in different geographies. This note bears the mental state of the filmmaker outwards, giving in turn the impression of a coiling energy in preparation, and again of drawn-out pain. The alternation of snow and sand, both elements which constitute the surrounding world, are not mere metaphors, but become medium and object of a world apprehended in the course of movement. The inner world unfolds in the spoken commentary and a metaphorical nature--in the animal, plant, and object world which insistently reflects emotional states.

The filmmaker's first steps outside the well-guarded hotel complex, in which she doesn't know whether she's in Europe, America, or somewhere else, immediately leads to sexual propositions on the street. She relates an encounter with a young man. She rejects his offer, but quotes him saying, "Here the old women really like to take young men and we are glad to help them." She muses to herself in voice-over, "What have I got to lose . . . Here I can become active and be in charge." As is suggested by an interior shot of a cheap hotel room, in which the filmmaker is shown lying in bed lost in thought, becoming active implies an inner change which sets free the external one. Only then is the gaze drawn outside, to individual black men and fishes underwater, which, gliding gently, move in a dreamlike fashion. Freedom of movement in a strange land which still appears quite unreal. Soon enough she will move through the new medium "like a fish in water." The film's relationship to the feelings of the filmmaker corresponds to the relations of the fish tank and what it contains.

[MFJ ordering] [MFJ Special Ordering] Sexual desire, which in these surroundings is no longer subject to social ostracism and consequently to a sense of humiliation, sets free activity without fear of discrimination. In this section of the film, the new culture confronts secretiveness and silence at home with an open expression. Although she later states that language increasingly declines in importance, it does make the first step possible. It leads to a pleasantly arranged, well-organized one-night stand. "For the first time I'm going to sleep with a man whom I've picked for no other reason and whom I shall not see again. . . We fuck with an incredible physical power and impetuousness. I am drilled, punched, thoroughly kneaded like dough." At this point Hein deliberately refuses the obvious analogy with the male use of brothels. But Hein is not making a self-critical film nor a committed documentary. In discussions about the film, she has been criticized in a fundamentally moralizing and aggressive manner because sociological reflections on economic imbalances, power, and race relations are absent. The accusation prevents a large part of the audience from engaging with the film, even though taking account of it might have produced nothing more than a "balanced" TV feature. Hein's attempt to assert her right to sexuality, a right deemed indecent by many, is not deflected by the indecency of economic conditions. She is not concerned with political correctness, but with something which is extremely incorrect. There is no reflection on the unstable displacements of power which arise from changes of locale in the encounter between affluent white woman and impoverished black man, nor is any attention paid to the feelings of black women. Objects of desire and interest are exclusively black men, rendering the film scandalous. Its refusal of critique is determined by its motifs of breaking through, of a demand for expression, figured here as the consequence of a long period of self-denial and isolation. The cinematic form should be regarded as a celebration of freedom of movement and sensuality regained, rather than as sober analysis. The film has opted for one-sidedness--for radical subjectivity.

After the one-night stand we see a couple--a white woman and a black man--doing push-ups on the beach. He begins, curious, irresolute, and distrustful while she watches. Under his encouraging nod, she joins in. This sequence may be regarded as a metaphor of the previously portrayed situation, friendly, shared "physical exercise." It is not yet about tenderness, but about sex as a show of strength. It leads to shared exhaustion, but not to shared interests. But it does permit a harmonious, smiling leave-taking. Hein's "critical" commentaries are registered in a low-key diary fashion. It becomes clear at many points that pleasure also leads to the humiliating or at least uncomfortable position of being the "appendage" of a man. Although economically dependent, in social intercourse the man remains the man. However, the ease of the brief episode produces both curiosity and a readiness for more. This is represented by the longer episode with Joe, which develops during a second visit to Jamaica.

Upon her return the shooting moves further inside her subject. To the tourist's hedonistic pleasure in light, colors, and bodies, is added the confrontation with everyday life in the hinterland. As the sex becomes deeper, it is accompanied by images suggesting death and mortality: dead fish, a stray dog rooting through garbage and tugging at a rotting carcass, bones, burning grass, crashing aircraft. The story of the first night with Joe, already a kind of reminiscence, is accompanied by the image of heavy rain on thick greenery. The memory bears the traces of an emotion which has developed in spite of all initial functionality (first experienced as a liberation). This feeling is also accompanied by a sense of loss and an awareness of transience. Just sex turns into closeness and intimacy, which, paradoxically, now produces a real sense of alienation and helplessness, motivating a search for representations in the external world. A young dog looks up at the camera, a timid cat crouches on the ground, everyday objects stand forlornly on a table. Now the "simple" existence of "pure" nature becomes the mask and projection surface for deeper meanings--yet just like sex with the stranger, it remains a puzzling, external object, despite an inner feel of closeness. Between slowed down images of tenderness and sexual intercourse, the filmmaker interpolates pictures of blazing fires, empty streets, and the description of a wake, as well as the sinister nocturnal barking of dogs, frogs croaking, the crowing of cocks. Analogous to the sensual body losing its boundaries, nature itself becomes both animate and an expression of a "higher" process. Against the poeticization of nature, Hein sets a very concrete everyday language: "I can hardly believe it, such a great feeling, the two of us alone, naked in the forest." The tender sensuality of gentle skin contact is sometimes interrupted by a grating sound more suggestive of the scratching of a metal surface than the silent caress of skin. The voyeuristic fetishization of individual movements and body parts of anonymous black men are slowly and somewhat shyly extended to the actual partner. To the accompaniment of unsteady pictures of green nature, of birds flying up into the sky, the voice recounts the beauty of her nights with Joe: "It's what I've yearned for, all this time. . . This warm physical contact with a man in bed for hours on end. Waking up together in the morning." Happiness produces an aesthetic view and a symbiotic closeness with the beauties of nature. Social interaction, on the other hand, is more difficult to shape. Buffalo and a shrill, grating soundtrack herald sources of friction. The filmmaker cannot follow Joe's conversations with friends, nor can she share his political views. The sex is ultimately bought, one way or another, symbolized by the room of a convenience hotel, in which the couple spend a whole night having hard, uncommitted sex. In the face of the social realities which surround them, a conflict breaks out, which explodes into irreconcilable violence. The man who has been turned into an object attacks the instrument of his objectification, the filmmaker's camera. The imbalance in power relations and the conflicts inherent in their different worlds refuse to be placated by sexual reconciliation.

Another visit to Jamaica leads to a relationship with Ron. This time conflicts are avoided. Now, familiar with conditions, she immerses herself. The images observe everyday tasks, never straining for symbolic effect but reflecting instead an empathy with her surround. "Simply let things happen, don't force, organize, plan anything anymore. Enjoy your time, don't wait. Waiting causes unhappiness. The other, German world is so far away, as if it didn't exist anymore. I live here, as if everything were going to go on like this forever. The kisses, the gentle embraces, the casual pressure of hip against hip, his cock is already hard, a brief caress--it could fill my whole life--I am addicted to tenderness. I have a new body again, a golden one, one that is looked at with desire. . . Here my age doesn't matter." If her fantasy has been realized, it remains split from her everyday world, creating a chasm of status, education, race, and sexuality. She poses a last question, again formulated in a personal way: "To really live once or twice a year--but at what cost?"

The critical awareness seemingly dismissed from a conscious level nevertheless creates its own coded space in unconscious images. There are repeated shots of stray dogs eating carrion, and vultures at work. The camera maintains its steady glare as they tug and pluck at flesh, as if the censorship of all that must not be thought were registering itself threateningly in these pictures. In this image, in which life and death, eating and being eaten meet, the roles involved--man, woman, and Jamaica--can be deployed and swapped at will. The result is always discomforting. This discomfort is the filmmaker's private expression of disquiet at what has been left unsaid and repressed, whereas the displeasure of a part of the audience was directed precisely at what is expressed--the desire of the older woman--which, in the face of the film, can no longer be ignored. To have shown that desire in all its energy, its potential for pleasure, as well as for conflict, is the poetic and radical merit of this beautiful film.

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Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews

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Last revised on 12-11-97 by Isabel Pipolo

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