Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Dysfunction in and of “The Whale Caller”

“The Whale Caller”

Zola Maseko’s new film is an adaptation of the acclaimed writer Zakes Mda’s novel and is set in Hermanus, the small town on the southern coast of the Western Cape, famous for its whale watching during the winter and spring months. Before its theatrical release this weekend, it played at the Durban International Film Festival in July, and last year’s Joburg Film Festival, where it won the award for Best African Film. Mda’s novel, which Maseko adapted for the screen, centres on the town’s whale crier — Hermanus’s uniquely employed whale watcher, who stands on lookout on the cliffs and blows on a kelp horn to announce sightings of whales — who is played by the South African television star Sello Maake Ka-Ncube (of Generations), and the woman who yokes herself to his orbit, Saluni (Amrain Ismail-Essop).

The film has been billed a romantic comedy, which is categorically untrue — it’s a domestic melodrama — and reviewers have described its dimensions with words like “metaphysical” when really they mean “psychological,” but there is an appreciation for the admirable courage of the filmmakers to take on the risks of this production and to contribute work of particular interest to this year’s South African cinematic output. They display a significant visual consciousness and a commendable degree of visual invention, as well as an obviously earnest involvement in and consideration for the making of the film. The evident hard work and personal dedication of just about everyone working in the South African film industry makes it all the more unfortunate when their production demonstrates, as The Whale Caller does, a weakness in cinematic expression and narrative conception. Having not read the novel, I couldn’t say whether it or Maseko’s adaptation has faltered, though I have read other remarkably rich work by Mda, and I’d be surprised if any of the failures are down to his writing.

Click here to read what other reviewers have written about The Whale Caller.

Some pundits have described a love triangle between characters, but actually there’s no such thing in the film. It’s a story of the deep sexual dysfunction of two people, related in some ways to their tritely drawn emotional damage. Similarly, Saluni has been referred to as a particularly complex presence in the film, when really the character is tiresomely monotonous and thinly conceived. Her alcoholism is almost certainly linked to whatever psychological trauma led to her fear of the dark; I and my friend who saw the film with me also suspect it’s connected to her own particular but minor sexual fetish (which has to do with mothers); she harbours delusions of grandeur and glamour, while others deride her as a loudmouth drunkard; she sings, not out of an enthusiasm or desire for artistic creation or expression, but only a fantasy of stardom; she’s mystifyingly attracted to the whale crier, who initially ignores her advances and scorns her attentions (perhaps she merely wants what she thinks she can’t have, then finds that she enjoys it when she’s got it); she’s sexually jealous of the object of his absurd erotic fixation; she’s shot through with streaks of self-destructive behaviour and a poisonous self-centredness; and she’s realised on the screen with blunt psychological signifiers and little consideration for her subjective experience of life and the world around her, or for the deeper, inner, more surprising, and more unique parts of her being. The whale crier is even more simplistic, with a trite background cause attached to his sexual dysfunction — as per the theory of Freud, he has an erotic attachment to an object that arrested his attention and libido at a church ceremony on the beach during his sexual immaturity, which continues into his adult life (read Peter Shaffer’s play Equus or watch the 1977 film adaptation if this is something you’re interested in seeing properly expounded upon) — and his deep humanity and being are even more obscure or neglected, both in the script and its visual realisation.

The tradition of performance for film and television in this country, as I’ve written before, is dishearteningly flat, with undue emphasis on the literary aspects of script and psychologisation, drawing a stale sketch of a figure of motivations and easily delineated thoughts and emotions. Some academics and journalists take heart in watching, analysing, and writing about these performances, because they’re devised to be instantly analysable and straightforwardly particularised in prose (as I’ve done for the two characters above). They don’t embody the spontaneity, the unpredictable nuances of gesture and speech, the idiosyncratic dynamics of movement and opacity, the physical abstraction of emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual recesses through stylised expression, or the utter danger and risk that all characterise what it means to be a living person. Writers write characters and actors act them so that a viewer can figure out exactly what they aim to do (use children’s talents to propel them towards their goals, attract a buxom sea nymph) and the cause or motivations for doing it (an emotional scar that resulted in a need for a glamorous lifestyle, the loss of parents that resulted in a dependence on the reliable annual return of an infatuation), ready for a written character analysis, rather than to represent a whole world and worldview of conflicts, ecstasies, and furies encapsulated in the physical form of a person, which is, after all, what a human is.

Maseko sticks to this South African tradition of performance, though the outcome isn’t a total loss, simply because of the strong, inherently interesting presences of his two stars. He and Mark Goodall, his director of photography, have clearly put in effort to render a striking series of land- and seascapes, as well as sensational art-conscious shots of the actors, through their arresting photography, highly saturated in colour and sensuous natural detail. But they don’t add a dimension of framing, angle, or shadow to refract an idea or emotional insight through a scene. Their grandiose and picturesque shots are spoiled by poor editing, with trivial and abrupt transitions from one shot to another and no sense of progression, contrast, or apposition of images to enhance expression; and this slipshod method of editing is directly related to the haphazard development of the narrative, from one banal vignette to another.

There’s no evocation of either the characters’ brief erotic fulfillment or enduring erotic frustration. As with all local films I’ve seen, The Whale Caller’s filmmakers display a dismayingly unimaginative and impersonal attitude to the sexual experiences and activities of its characters. Consider the expressive and inspired portrayals of similar matters in international films, such as Angelina Jolie’s By  the Sea, or (don’t smirk) Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which distinctively evoke both the emotions and the ideas of the sexual activities they depict, as well as refreshingly express the personal sexual attitudes of the people who made them. (Note, incidentally, that both these films are the recent works of strong, singular women in Hollywood, a distinction that makes a difference.) Consider other noteworthy works of art, such as Todd Haynes’s Carol and Luca Gaudagnino’s A Bigger Splash, which capture a pervasive erotic atmosphere through their characters’ very surroundings, whether natural or man-made.

But a surprising (and unsurprisingly welcome) and peculiar new element in The Whale Caller is an unusual attention to certain aspects of the character’s inner alives apart from the action, which are represented inventively and engagingly. Saluni’s delusions are given a brief fulfillment, with a fantasy sequence of her performing in a chic nightclub for a glitzy audience, with the camera moving energetically across the room, imparting her own visceral thrill in imagining the scene for herself. We’re shown the reveries of the whale caller as well, though in the most bizarre howler of a CGI-executed wet dream. There is a rare and delightfully humane and innovative moment of class-conscious disparity, when Saluni and the whale caller, who can’t afford to order from the upmarket restaurants in Hermanus, dress up and walk through them, practicing what Saluni calls “window-eating”: watching the well-heeled customers order and eat their food, while they furnish the experience of the tastes and textures in their imaginations (though this isn’t a class-centric film; the hard work and supposed meagre incomes of the characters are never considered, and their social and economic disadvantages never mentioned or shown).

It’s vital that we (by which I mean all South Africans, or, at least, those of us interested in movies) work to support the local film industry and foster its growth. It’s equally vital that we engage with the movies on offer, both South African and foreign, to better understand and appreciate the possibilities of the cinema and detect spaces for development that artists can move into and fill. Zola Maseko shows a keen interest in South African art by adapting the work of an important and accomplished South African artist, and he has proven his talent and the potential for the development of his own artistry. The duty that follows is for us to support him and others, in all the ways we can, and for him and other South African artists to work towards building that artistry and expanding South African art into the large open spaces that become available to it.

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