Comparisons to older Woody Allen classics are rife in the reviews of Catching Feelings. The parallels only struck me afterwards, in reflection, and not while I was watching it. The first of the two ways in which it resembles a Woody Allen film is in that Kagiso Lediga stars in it as well as having written and directed it, setting it within a cultural context in which we can safely believe Lediga himself lives in real life; and the other is that one of the most prevalent and repetitive motifs is men and women who cheat on their spouses. The ways in which the two filmmakers are different is far more numerous, and, as always, more interesting to consider.
Read others’ reviews of Catching Feelings here.
Lediga demonstratively and immediately establishes the location of his film — the City of Johannesburg — as an important feature in the story; unlike Allen’s encomium of New York City in the prologue to Manhattan, Lediga’s attitude towards Johannesburg and its people is far sourer, and his emotional responses far more tempered. The scene is set after an animated prologue, in which a soldier grows horns out of jealousy and possessiveness over his wife, whom he catches engaging in the rut with a “Moor”. It’s styled as a faux-medieval comic book fantasy, and indicates that the central problem to be faced in the unfolding film is cuckoldry, in all its archaic and patriarchal tensions.
The geographical frame of the area is quickly plotted out in the opening scene, filmed at the well-known restaurant Pata Pata, as the characters around the table tell anecdotes of events and instances taking place in Rosebank, Parkhurst, now sitting in Maboneng. Later on in the film, Killarney is brought up as a possible place of residence, and Max (Lediga) breezes through Braamfontein, the West Rand, and Soweto. The cultural and socioeconomic contexts are also briskly set up: Max is a novelist and a university lecturer; his friends are all of a literary, academic, or media milieu; there are interracial romances abrew, and an interracial adoption on the horizon; the bill for a handful of people at a restaurant is considered a sizeable cost, and the inability to pay it just as large an embarrassment; Max is married to Sam (Pearl Thusi), who is considered by most as far above his league; just about everyone is conspicuously silent on current political matters (a young journalist upbraids Max when he dares to bring up his half-ironic recommendation of a violent revolution); and apartheid is looked back on as a terrible misfortune in the past, with virtually no view of its sustained consequences today. Lediga sketches a scene of petite bourgeois with the privilege of education but impoverished of any intellectual substance. They discuss novels with the superficial cheer of preening townsfolk who read to enhance their look and not their lives; the only comments they can offer on the work of the fictitious lauded author Heiner Miller are “Great” and “Okay,” with no thoughts or feelings on its substance or their experiences; and all the men have the idea that women are their playthings or, if they’re married, their possessions.
It’s the inferior value of women that’s implicit to his male characters’ mindsets that Lediga pays the most attention to in his script. No man gives a thought to a woman’s psychological state, emotional requirements, spiritual worth, or the sheer grandeur of her being, not even those who ostensibly love the women in their lives. They only think in terms of what a woman does, and what she has to offer. And Lediga stokes his drama along these lines with the arrival of that thinly discussed novelist Heiner Miller (Andrew Buckland), who boasts of and flaunts his sexual exploits, with young women, women of different races, and even an infatuated man (maybe more than one?). Max resists Heiner’s insistent bluster and chatter at first, but agrees reluctantly to take him in when Heiner suffers a heart-attack (induced by viagra, which Heiner allows no one to forget) and needs care while he recuperates. The situation becomes less and less agreeable to Max as Heiner disrupts the household, and his frustrations come to a head as he’s on a trip to Cape Town to give a series of lectures, while Sam is alone at home with Heiner. Max suspects and imagines the worst, and sets off a series of climactic events in the plot that prove decisive in the fate of his marriage.
Why, I wondered, would Max go so crazy about his wife staying alone with a colleague of his? Is she not an adult person, who has professed her love for him and rejected undue sexual propositions in the past? The answers are in Max’s character, not Sam’s. His self-loathing and deep dissatisfaction become clearer as the film unfolds, and he sees Heiner as a threat not only to his marriage but to his livelihood and personal creative faculties. Heiner has the greater prowess and proficiency sexually, but is also the more acclaimed and accomplished novelist; Max has convinced himself that he is not good enough for his wife, and seems to have written only a single novel, which he has no idea how to follow up on. He masks his lack of self-respect and self-worth with a constant self-centred and bitterly sarcastic shtick, that he never turns off, and which often takes the form of a quasi-political rant, as when he insists on confronting a police officer rather than paying a bribe, or rails against neo-capitalist encroachment every time he and his wife go out. It’s also not surprising that Max would suppose that Sam is dissatisfied with him and their marriage, as he must subconsciously realise that his treatment of her is far less than desirable: He behaves selfishly nearly at all times, he goes out and gets motherless without telling her where he is, he spends considerable amounts of money without discussing anything with her, and he seems to have no regard for her feelings, her opinions, her thoughts or emotions, her actual human being and worth. He’s quick to bring up any point he can about white privilege and systemic racism, but is totally blind to sexism and his mistreatment of his wife. A man who behaves this way — particularly one who writes novels and teaches storytelling craft for a living — must surely, at some point, on some level, appreciate how despicably he has behaved; it’s not shown that Max ever comes to such a realisation, but it would make sense for how nervous he is about the state of his marriage and his wife’s faithfulness.
Lediga’s script starts up a number of other treads on a number of other themes, but none of them is developed very far nor properly integrated into the plot. Notions such as those of white privilege, systemic racism, capitalist exploitation, sexual predation, class resentment, and widespread political dissatisfaction are brought up in the dialogue, but only to make a few brief statements, usually without an accompanying examination or inspection in the sounds and images, and then dropped. When Max (who brings up these points most often) wants to present his view on some or other matter, he’s invariable told by whomever he’s speaking to, “Relax, Max,” which is where Lediga cuts out the conversation, often without even showing Max’s reaction, in a mere gesture or expression, to the repeated injunction to Relax. A sensible idea was to bring Max and Sam’s marital problems to a boil in a commonplace discussion and situation involving personal finance (with an insurance broker present as the spectator), but, as with all the other underdeveloped themes, Catching Feelings doesn’t take this anywhere worthwhile. Lediga writes and films what it is easy for him to imagine — what he already knows from experience or can credibly reproduce from common media stereotypes — but doesn’t appear to be seeking out emotions, ideas, situations, or developments that may be unfamiliar to him. He doesn’t capture anything with the camera to inspect or to contemplate it, and he doesn’t add anything to his script to abstract it or to draw it out and enrich and expand the ideas behind it. When Heiner candidly asserts his own point of view in a final confrontation with Max, and cuts through Max’s self-centred views by presenting a lot of ideas previously excluded from the story, Lediga avoids facing it head-on, but spins the camera rapidly around the two characters until a quick and convenient resolution ends the scene. He has Max complain characteristically, when he and Heiner visit Heiner’s old flame in Soweto, about white tourists visiting the township like a zoo, to observe the locals and kid themselves about their experiences. But Lediga doesn’t show anything of the township that would not comfort the white tourists; there is no view of Johannesburg’s working class or impoverished black people; nobody from that kind of background who appears in the film is given the chance to speak and to present their own thoughts or feelings, to present the fact that they themselves have stories that are consistently omitted from media representations of them, such as movies like Catching Feelings. Considering the minimal thought that Max gives to the lives of anyone other than himself, it’s no surprise that he can’t think up any stories for his new book; yet that is a theme that evades Lediga’s conception and execution as well.
This lack of consideration and of a larger view taken by Lediga in his film is probably what led to my uneasiness about the characters’ sexism. I don’t doubt that Lediga opposes sexist structures himself, nor that he is aware of the rife sexism in our society: after all, it’s a lot of what he made his own movie out of. Yet he gives such a determined depiction of his male characters’ sexism and mistreatment of women that he leaves out the broader, brighter, higher, more enlightened filmmaker’s perspective that condemns this behaviour, that shows the shortcomings of this kind of thinking, that considers the harm it causes and the implications it carries, whether in society at large or in a single couple’s relationship. Max’s friend Joel (Akin Omotoso) is seeing, and falling in love with, a married white woman. He, too, doesn’t ever give an indication that he thinks about her other than as a gratification for himself. Lediga’s script and filming should show that there’s more to her than even her lover realises; instead, she’s as much an object of the film’s ridicule as the men’s obtuse failures are. The only way in which a woman rises above this narrow perception is in Pearl Thusi’s performance, the most expressive and emotionally immediate in the entire film, which gives a sense of a fuller and deeper person on the screen than is given room for in the script. She says what Lediga has given her to say, but she does so with glances, with gestures, with nuances, with a presence and personality that escape the narrow confines of her character and fill in a lot of what, without her, would be absent.
What would be most pleasing, in the wake of Catching Feelings, would be to hear that Lediga has been presented with further opportunities to make films in South Africa. As his career advances and he is allowed to develop his craft and his own personal ideas, he may yet find the way he can advance and heighten his art. Though risk and uncertainty are often catalysts for great moments in artistic creation, they may hinder many artists from cutting loose and pushing through whatever boundaries they come up against. A bright future may be just what some of them require to illuminate the way forward.