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