Critical Strands: On the Beach with Ulrich Seidl and Martin Parr

Top: Martin Parr, from “Life’s a Beach”. Bottom: Ulrich Seidl, from Paradise: Love.

Some films you watch. Others you live. In Ulrich Seidl's films you suffer. You suffer and laugh, and laugh and suffer, until tears pour from your eyes, until out from laughter arises guilt. Guilt for having suffered. Guilt for having laughed. And only then, when you emerge from the guilt, wipe the film from your eyes, do you realize that the naïve 200-pound quinquagenarian Austrian sex-tourist on holiday in Kenya is none other then yourself, if not your sister or perhaps mother. Only then does the comfort of guilt morph into the vexation of shame as you understand that the buffoon you saw on the screen was wearing what turned out to be your face for a mask.

But don’t say you weren’t forewarned. The ballsy and shameless opening scene of Paradise: Love, should have given notice enough. After all, away from the scrutinizing eyes of society it becomes too easy to indulge in the visual pleasure of watching warped grimaces twisting in glee and shock across the faces of the spasmodic, the abnormal, the mongoloid. Hidden behind the comfort of our  screen (for it is always our screen, and never just yours or mine) it becomes all too simple to relish images of the rejected visages of the mentally retarded contorting themselves in farcical masks as their bumper cars smash into each other, watching Teresa, our fat Austrian heroine, watch them. Our white-winged socially-implanted moral warden hanging over our right shoulder like a wee angel warns us against laughter, but in the liberty and obscurity of the cinematic chamber, we let loose with a laughter poised on the razor's edge between discomfort and hilarity. Paradise: Love’s opening scene is a warning, a provocation, a contract of the film to come, and it reads: “I will force you to laugh at things not only which you do not want to laugh at, but which you know you should not.” But laugh we do, and in so doing become accomplices to the film. Seidl’s humor is not the innocent cathartic guffaw of slapstick, nor the healing chortle of satire. It is a blow aimed to crack open a chink in the armor of our self-righteousness to make way for the stiletto of shame to slide in more easily.

Above: Rectangles in rectangles.

By naming our tender, pale, gullible heroine Teresa after the famed Mother Superior of Christian fame, Seidl sticks a knife in the back of the charitable West’s self-congratulatory sentiments for the aid it provides the (usually somewhat darker-skinned) third-world. (Do we hear the rational arguments of capitalist economics buzzing in the background? Business for the locals? Improvements to infrastructure? Exchange of goods?) The tourist, a missionary of modernity, never meets the third-world inhabitants on equal terms, never enters their world, but rather travels to other lands with the goal of extracting as many resources as possible, be it gold, souls or sex. The images of Teresa’s travels to this land of alterity in Paradise: Love are no reflections of a “mirror being carried along a high road,” but rather visions which barely pierce the thick and muggy waters of the aquarium in which her head is enclosed: Omnia mea mecum porto - when the European travels she takes her whole world with her wrapped around her head, aquarium, water and fish too. Teresa’s ‘omnia’, the civilized rectangular glassed cage is exemplified by the space of the European room (and the cinematic frame?). As Teresa prepares for her trip, she appears in one chamber after another in her Austrian apartment, preparing food, folding laundry, packing bags and the rectangle in which she moves is the one the camera will bring with her (and us) on holiday to Kenya, with its centralized perspective and weight, and its ordered compositions, signs of the European’s efficiency and rationality.

Above: Teresa sanitizes.

But no matter, for the tourist’s mission is not to see unseen landscapes but rather to ignore the distinctiveness of the travel destination so as to better wrench maximum ‘fun’ from the exotic (what else would make tourism the largest industry worldwide?). So, even when Teresa and her Austrian compatriots travel thousands of kilometers to reach a new panorama, the only landscape they can perceive is the one they brought with them, with its ordered lines, sparkling clean toilet bowls, and secure walled-off pleasures.

Above: Martin Parr, New Brighton.

The beaches Teresa visits are divided ones. On one side lays the cordoned-off natural landscape of Kenya’s shoreline beauty, with its dangers of beach boys, slips and falls and bites and sunburns; on the other, protected by the watchful eyes of armed security guards, the sanitized European beaches with rows of matching beach-chairs that so resemble the decadent European beaches from which they left (and one assumes were trying to escape). The Western Tourist voyages in search of new horizons for his own corrupted beaches are too full, too kitschy, too plebeian. The gaudy European beach captured in Martin Parr’s photography is rejected in order to seek out material and spiritual novelty. However, when the tourist arrives in Kenya, India, Cuba, he finds that the beaches are no different for the tawdriness is not a part of the beach itself, but clings to the European’s body like sand on a wet fanny.

Above: Martin Parr, Common Sense.

At home in Europe, the critical position of Martin Parr’s satire of the West lobs its volleys from within the social structure which it observes. Yes, we may be gazing at tackily dressed tourists with a critical eye, but since we are obviously both witness and participant, this critique is always sociological, and always participatory—it is your brother’s pretty pink sunburn, your dad’s hairy beer-gut, your mom’s cottage-cheese thighs which are on display. So different from the provocation of Paradise: Love, the contract Parr’s photography signs with its subjects is that of the well-deserved chummy needling. Although Parr takes a direct swing at the artifice of our existence, it lands on our face with a little pat, reminding us that we are in it together.

Above: Martin Parr, Kleine Scheidegg.

Parr’s critical vantage point from within is the very principle of his photography, and is especially evident in his photo series on tourism: "It’s a Small World.” The perspective of this photo taken in the flats leading to the Kleine Scheidegg in Switzerland is exactly that of one of the tourists waiting in line with its endless row of middle-aged Bergsteiger with fat calves, dorky hats and practical backpacks waiting patiently to climb the mountain like they would on a roped-off queue to withdraw 20 Euros from the bank. The tourists willing placement in the ordered line is a denial of the natural spaces around them open to all sides, a suffocation of the animal instinct that would lead them to seek the freedom of space.

Above: Martin Parr and wife as “bored couple”.

Although the placement of our perspective as the next heroic mountain-conqueror in the line is critical, nonetheless this photograph emphasizes its empathy with the tourists who are brunt of the satire, in fact one of the great strengths of Parr’s photography. Whether we look at Parr’s bored couples, tourists on holiday, socialites at cocktails, or plain regular folk at buffets, picnics, beauty shows or barbeques, we are always looking at ourselves, as Parr is only too aware of (see the tongue-in-cheek inclusion of a photo of Martin and wife sitting bored in a Paris restaurant in his “Bored Couples” series).

Fair and well when the European is at home in his own territory, but once the tourist becomes a sex-tourist, once the packed, gaudy beaches are no longer in Brighton but in Kenya, the distance transforms us from companion traveler to judge, converting the friendly tease into blatant mockery. Although there are many similarities between the beaches of Parr and Seidl, with their brash colors and fat bodies, once the camera leaves Europe the distance allows us to feign total dissimilarity with the figures portrayed. The chummy innocence of Parr’s beaches dissipates and the more toxic layers of meaning peek through the surface of the image. The figure on display in Seidl’s film is no longer the normative everyday next-door neighbor, but the oddball. So, although we would be willing to accept the friendly pot belly and kitschy bathing suit of the Martin Parr photograph as our own (for we have all by now accepted that life isn’t like the TV commercials), we are far less willing to admit similarities with the latent racism, humiliating naïveté, and mortifying insecurity of Teresa. We can’t be anything like that! Or can we?

As we cringe and guffaw our way through Paradise: Love, the stiletto sinks deeper in, and the trap of our complicity opens wider. When Teresa has her first drink at the bar with her Austrian friend (apparently no novice to sex tourism), she is titillated by her friend’s stories “Wait until you smell their skin. It's incredible. You'll never forget it.” Wide-eyed Teresa, still pretending that she hasn’t made the whole trip to pick up a gigolo, coquettishly asks “Whose?” “The negroes' of course. It smells like coconuts. You just want to bite and lick it!” Impossible not to cringe, and impossible not laugh, but anyhow this is most definitely not the sort of thing we would say, right?

Above: Teresa and gigolo number 1.

Spurred by her compatriot’s raunchy stories of naughty nights with large dark men, Teresa’s perceptive world is immersed in the pool of desire, which she insists upon calling love. She is so lost in her dreamy fantasies that she cannot acknowledge the contemptuous looks, the garbage-littered streets, the dilapidated houses that reflect the material conditions of the land she is actually traveling through. Teresa seeks out an African lover, but on her own terms—a gigolo, but who is attracted to her; in Africa, but with the security of Europe; by exploitation through wealth, but to name it love. So when the first beach boy she picks up over-zealously blandishes Teresa as they commence their foreplay, she moans "You don't love me," shirking his overeager advances. Not really surprising, given her size and age (The trap is sprung! We are about to fall in!).

Above: Teresa prepares for love.

As we roll our eyes in disbelief at Teresa’s incredible naïveté, we do not yet realize how much we implicate ourselves by judging her from afar. After all, it is the generic socially-accepted image of beauty which we uncritically reproduce, image which condemns her to solitude in the first place. And the more Teresa embarrasses herself flopping around in bed, the more we laugh at her, until our laughter passes a threshold and the pangs of guilt begin to resonate from within the waves of laughter. For in fact, aren’t we more like Teresa than we would like to admit?

Above: Teresa teaches Munga a lesson in love.

Teresa’s second gigolo, Munga, more intelligent than the first, knows how to ‘play the game.’ Munga pretends to like Teresa, pretends to be awkward (or perhaps he really is? perhaps he has never gotten used to his daily debasements?), pretends that his wife is his sister so that he can get the money he needs to pay for his child while still pretending he is not a prostitute. What choice does he have really, living in this beautiful Kenyan paradise, supported by the wealth of the European tourist? Yet feigning only goes so far, and when it comes to foreplay Munga lacks either the patience or stomach for pretense. “Don’t you kiss in Africa?” asks Teresa, when Munga tries to move on her too quickly. Frustrated by Munga’s clunky advances, Teresa decides it is her obligation to civilize the primitive in the Occidental rituals of love, so that she can continue to believe in the preposterous fantasies of her youth, desire, will, beauty and hope. “Do it like this!” “More slowly!” “Only one hand!”, she commands Munga like an Austrian (Hungaro-Austrian? German-Austiran?) general. With each order she gives him our bodies plunge deeper and deeper into our seats, as we cringe in disbelief, peeking with curiosity from between our fingers to see what new shame she will cause us to feel.

Although Paradise: Love may seem contemptuous of its protagonists, in fact they are treated with great sympathy. No matter how foolish, cowardly, or hypocritical they may be, the scorn is reserved for us alone, the 'hypocrite readers'. "Look into my heart" exhorts Teresa of her gigolo, as brimming with Fremdschämen, we try to decide whether we should turn our eyes away from the screen or burst out with laughter. For what we are seeing on the screen is the tragicomedy of the Europe-Africa relationship. We watch the white sex tourist who insists her gigolo looks her in the eye, although it is she who cannot see—not the poverty around her, not her lover’s lack of love, will or choice, not the Kenyan landscape—her European omni smothers any new perception she might gain.

Above: Teresa teaches Munga another lesson.

Despite Teresa’s almost unbearable naïveté, despite her dishonest self-image, despite her blindness, we sympathize with her. We feel bad when she suffers, when she realizes she is being had, when she feels alone. Laughing at her foolishness, we neglect to realize at first that while her stupidity is her escape route, it is us who are caught in the cul-de-sac of exploitation. In possession of the entire tragedy and the entire comedy of this continued history of blatant exploitation, we can no longer exculpate ourselves.

Above: Venus, classic and modern.

This dual image of Europe, which both sees itself as innocent while blinding itself to the regard of others, finds its metaphor in Seidl’s image of Teresa as our modern Venus, lying upon her the bed awaiting salvation from her imperfect own body by a black knight in less-than-shining armor. Unlike the gaze of Titian’s classic figure of beauty which meets ours head on, Teresa, lost in the egoism of her lust for love buries her head in her underarm, an appropriate gesture for the armpit-gazing egoism of the Westerner. Seidl’s Venus, no longer the evident image of beauty that Venus classically was, portrays both sides of the coin, illustrating the difference between Europe’s internalized image of its own beauty and the outer, less flattering image it projects onto the retinas of others. Teresa’s classic pose refers to a picture of beauty, but her body exhibits the real image of the bloated, aged body of Europe.

Above: Martin Parr, Hotel Bogota.

Is there truly a ‘real’ image to be had in Paradise: Love? Martin Parr’s photography, satirical as it is, presupposes a certain reality, and his imagery is a revelation of that reality even if that reality is one of fakeness (fake plastic, fake smiles, fake food). In Parr’s photography this fakeness is a symptom (the symptom?) of modern Western life seen from the inside, giving an impression of an exaggerated real for the purposes of satire. We are seeing real food, real beaches, real parties all photographed with a real camera. Tawdry, saturated artificial colors fill not only our quotidian, but also our breakfast plates.

Above: Hmm...where is Josphat hiding?

When Parr depicts a black man trying to nonchalantly fit in at a high society cocktail, the real of his camera presents a sociological critique about belonging, in the hopes of laying bare the hypocrisies of society so that they can be corrected. Seidl, more provocative, mischievous, skeptical, uses color to show not how the black man does not fit in, but how he is entirely effaced by the same society.

Parr’s satire emanates from inside the social structure which it critiques, and thus his camera moves in close to examine the every day items of our consumption (breasts, food, toys, etc.) as well as the consumption itself. The mobility of his lens, the vivacity of his colors grants a cinematic quality to his photographs—they seem ‘real,’ ‘alive,’ colorful’. Paradise: Love, devoid of close-ups, leaves us as outside observers, and it is from afar we are to judge. Ironically, it is Seidl’s cinematic vision which imposes the photograph’s stillness and formalism, whereas Parr’s still photography evokes an almost cinematic effervescence of life.

Above: Teresa's third conquest.

The satirical regard which Parr’s photographs impose necessitate a believable real (this is the condition of satire, so that it may lead to action). Seidl’s relationship to the real is more complex, and he uses over-composed frames, frontal dead-pan shots, and series of shot-sequences to undermine the real. His cinema mocks the triteness of today’s practice of "borderline film between fiction and documentary," which turns out to be neither more real nor more critical than anything else filmed. In Seidl’s films the shot and the counter-shot are never joined, the visual slices cannot be linked to create even the illusion of spatial unity. Although one assumes a certain anchorage in reality (as much as any other film) Seidl’s films never emanate the “naturalness” that Parr’s photography does—one gets the feeling (even if it just a feeling) of Parr walking around town capturing what is there. Seidl’s critical beaches are so structured, so formalist, so theoretical and artificial that they denounce the possibility of postulating a position of real.

Above: Paradise: Love, shot and counter-shot. One space?

The frontality of Seidl’s imagery, and his near-exclusive use of the shot sequence takes cross-sections of life and places them under the microscope of the camera-eye, but the two-dimensional cuts at which we gaze are designed to remind us of their artifice. “Our eyes chop up little slices of the world in front of us. Yet, the things are around us and not in front of us. Some, we even have behind us. You look in front of you; on your sides, they change. You turn left, they change behind you, to your right, and all around.”1

The internally-motivated social satire of Parr’s camera has given way to the externally-motivated farce of Seidl’s cinema. The former operates from within the social constructs judging it with a benevolent, if critical eye, the latter from without, with the severe regard of a judge. In Martin Parr’s photography the image plays the fool, mouth full of insult and mockery, but always in the service of improvement; in Seidl it is the scalpel of dissection, when not the acid of disintegration.

Growing up in the 60s, Martin Parr’s satire was born in a time of faith: faith in the critique, faith in the action, faith in the revolution. Yet history has only proven how easily this conviction in progress can be easily subsumed by the power it proposes to critique. Today, we understand that the activist imagery, by wanting to change the system from within, does little more than sustain the existing social order. Parr’s photo of the English socialites is exemplary of this failed inclusionary critique. Despite all the good will and fine laws the black man has not been included in the cocktail party, even if he is invited.2

Above: Martin Parr, Cocktail Party.

Ulrich’s Seidl’s aesthetic is a necessary evolution of the critical eye, which can no longer run on the defunct ideology inherited from the sixties. For that eye went blind when the hippies became yuppies, and when the yuppies had children who saw their parents not as the revolutionaries they had wished to be, but as the reactionaries they had become.

Mean-spirited, unashamed, street-smart, Seidl’s critical outlook is distanced enough from its subject to spare itself the righteousness or pathos of the ideologue. Attacking from the outside rather than inside, destructive in nature rather than constructive, Seidl’s criticism does not and in fact cannot support the society it critiques. In Paradise: Love, there is no exhortation towards a moral position, no hope for improvement, no righteous position from which to stake out a potential positivism.

Capitalism’s all-powerful ability to consistently extend its borders, to assimilate every ideology, even revolt, into its system has lead to the dissolution of all possible ideologies. And so Paradise: Love proposes none; only provocation for the sake of provocation, without the pretense of progress or the illusion of a solution. And that is why all Seidl’s characters consistently need to lie (Teresa about her body, her friend about sex, Munga about his wife), and to lie mostly to themselves, because they like we, are all victims of global capitalism, a game with no winners, and the lie is the only thing which can make existence bearable.

We begin watching Teresa from the vantage point of the judge. She is far too stupid, we think, far too fat, we believe, far too naïve, we know. We are willing to mock her because as an obese, dim-witted sex-tourist she is a borderline-case (remember those retarded adults at the film’s start?), so distant from us. But as we laugh at her, our laughter mines an entryway for Fremdschämen to do its work, to transform Teresa’s shame into our own. This character who we first saw as an edge-case has been revealed to be little different from the most normal of beings. There is no moral discrepancy between the exploitation of sex-tourist and the exploitation of the tourist, other than field upon which they operate. By Paradise: Love’s shockingly humiliating (and hilarious) grand finale, we have laughed so much, and allowed so much shame to enter our bloodstream that we can no longer retreat to our staid moral position with its thoughtless excuses and easy credulity. Capitalism’s ability to assimilate every ideology has left satire impotent, for the economic system regulating the lives of men and women cannot be changed from within, and the last remaining critical operation possible is the negatory act of travesty.
 

Notes

1. Henri Michaux, “Qui je fus”, author’s translation

2. In addition to the generational divide, it would be possible to write an entire essay on the geographical and ideological one separating England and Austria. England emerged from the Second World War victorious and justified, whereas the legacy that Nazism has left on Austria, and all the more so for its refusal to take responsibility for the travesties of WWII (“it was the Germans”), haunts the work of Austrian Writers and cineastes (Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek, Michael Haneke), and is the gangrenous wound festering underneath the apparently smooth surface of Austrian society, and of Seidl’s films as well.


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