A bit of a pocket interest this week on Midnight Screenings, with two instances of foreign masters exploring the thick, sickly world of the American Southern Gothic.
A deep water jambalaya of reptilian-brain sexuality, harebrained violence, delinquent cinematic contempt for social propriety, and acerbic, conniving racial conflagration and sensual tension overflowing in spurts of human combat, it is entirely fitting, and entirely Buñuelean, that one of the Spanish directors two meager English-language films manages to explode with traumatic awareness of American cultural disjunction better than arguably any other American film. A three-character barbecue of sun-scorched, humidity-flaring raw flesh left out to burn, the director’s foray into American racial and sexual politics is admirably a political study only insofar as it slithers into the political found in the everyday terror of fighting for your life. This is no lecture, no dissertation on this director’s part; this is fetid, pungent, even foolishly carnal backwoods trauma of a corporeal, direct nature. It’s racial politics as out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire nightmare.
In this Southern update of “The Most Dangerous Game”, the director’s torrid, unfumigated style wafts with so much sweat and raw-boned brio that Southern Gothic – with its implications of built-up, partially upkept architecture fading against the acid of grotesque human malevolence – seems itself inappropriate for a story this primal and primordial. Even the suggestion of a social structure is too clean and respectable for a work that defines the South more as an imaginative hot-house of unsparing tempers and pulsating, pugnacious human desires nearly irrational and senseless in their dogmatic commitment to the unquestioned perniciousness of insatiable individuality and personal fetish. This is the South as fable mindset or toxic fairy tale plunge into race and sex at their most hoarse and all-consuming, scraping away any and all the niceties of social propriety for an intentionally primitive study in unkempt emotion trampling all over imperious intellect. Of all the films about race in the American canon, The Young One is perhaps the one that claws itself most readily into the bowels of race as absurdist fervor sans justification or logic; it’s an illogical, hostile, inexplicable film for a subject matter that epitomizes all three.
The mythic sparseness of the film’s island location is an immediate suggestion of this nightmare-logic, blood-and-guts tale that dissects the innards of Southern culture with an admirable terseness and refusal to cater to the need to gussy up or play dress up with the norms of convention or reality. Compared to the curated, too-reputable, suffocatingly reasonable likes of the films Sidney Poitier would be starring in yearly before the decade was done, The Young One makes no gestures toward pragmatism or respectability politics; this isn’t your well-to-do white liberal parents’ version of race in America, but an excoriating, vituperative incision into the base animalistic impulses of human attrition and power dynamics at their most unmediated by social convention.
While In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner plead, lecture, and orate about the benefits of progress, The Young One reprimands, dissents, and assaults. Other racial films are modulated, safe-guarded, design-by-committee works designed to please everyone, institutional democrats in a world that needs a backwater socialist rebellion. These films pat you and their own selves on the back. In comparison, The Young One is busy stabbing you in the back for ever thinking the gossamer thread of social acceptance actually alleviates the bruised egos and hatred-spewing viscosity surreptitiously brewing beneath. Pardon my French, but while Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is busy applauding black exceptionalism and Barack Obama’s acceptance into the flattening institutional hierarchy of America, The Young One is asking what happened to Nat Turner. One seeks to find the few blacks who fit America’s understanding of “respectable” and introduce them to the system, while the other stages a coup against the notion of respect altogether.
Anyway, enough with platitudes, even if The Young One’s greatest strength is its refusal to cater to the faux-respectability of intellectual cinema, preferring the poetic discovery of real, noxious, nearly-surrealist feeling found in the gut rather than the head. The story of Traver (Bernie Hamilton), a black man who, accused of raping a white woman, escapes to an island where disgruntled whites hunt African-Americans, Traver eventually instigates a dalliance with a young mixed-race girl Evayln (Key Meersman). The Young One casually links white hunter Miller’s (Zachary Scott) desire to kill Traver with Miller’s impotent inability to accept that Traver, on balance, might be a superior adult figure, or sexual partner, for Evalyn than he.
Miller’s abusive, salacious contempt for Evayln for interacting with Traver and her own mixed-race heritage is both friend and enemy to Miller’s simultaneous affection for Evalyn. This befuddling tension marks The Young One as one of the few American films willing to descend into the complications of sexual appraisal and paternalism among white men in a clandestine world that muddies the waters of parental figure and sexual partner when the justifying principle for men in both cases is the power their exert over women. Sexual power is the prime currency for racial tension in a film that is palpably acclimatized to the way that the dynamics of oppression, for all their ideological implications, are also battles over human flesh. The Young One understands that, for white men, their oppressive abuse of non-whites was both the product of their desire to retain power and their curiosity to test the system by miscegenation with or befriending of non-whites, knowing full well that this wasn’t really a test or disruption to the system but a slight bending of it that ultimately proved their hierarchical position at the top all the more-so.
As such, Buñuel’s film is a work of provocative, lascivious exploitation as a commentary on the lascivious, exploitative nature of race and sex in America, a film that prefers – unlike Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – to revel in the curdled, kindled nastiness of intersectionalities and power dynamics in America rather than painting over the rotting, festering rust with a single coat of social progress paint. Dinner is a comforting bedtime story about race, while The Young One is a fire-and-brimstone sermon at an African-American church, enlivened with the unhinged demeanor of a forested, secretive slave meeting, a liberating affair where the rules and regulations of normality and ownership were scraped away and the desire to contort, dance, and limber-up the human body violently rebelled against the ideological restraint and immobile stagnancy asked of slaves by their white masters. In its from-the-gut outbursts of primal emotion as a rejection of the pseudo-intellectual laws of a society that used those laws to oppress, The Young One rebels against the rules of “proper” filmmaking as a way to discover the liberating possibilities of exploitation cinema before the genre really existed.
Most race films try to break-down – or at least add a progressive addendum – to the master’s house with the master’s tools, relying on the same cinematic norms that constructed the very oppressive films that they are nominally in opposition to. Most race films turn cinema into a safe, learned, rational space that washes over the bubbling tension underneath. In contrast, Buñuel’s abrasive near-absurdism pays little heed to how we expect characters to act and interact, his bizarre reorientation of character logic (such as when characters neglect to kill one another, seemingly rejecting their stated intent without reason) dismantling the secure, sheltered normalcy of Western cinema. The Enlightenment rationality and reason that has for centuries proven a justification for racial oppression holds no power in The Young One, a work that holds court on this very cinematic rationality via its emotionally-unrestrained, sensory, erotics-first form. The focus on sometimes-surrealist, primal emotion over logic is a cinematic insurrection against the complacent quasi-intellect of most race films, much as the slave spiritual, with its guttural, bowel-first noises, was a rejection of the domesticity and acquiescence of the pseudo-intellect that was used to oppress African-Americans in the first place. The Young One is an almost violently undomesticated film, recreating the spasmodic freedom-from-inhibition that has epitomized various forms of racial resistance, from slave-meetings to jazz and blues music.
Compared to even a modern film like, say, Ava Duvernay’s otherwise sharp, incisive Selma, The Young One casually obliterates the very assumptions of “respectable history” cinema – continuity editing, realist character interaction, individual volition as the core tenet of the narrative – that Selma still stands on. In other words, while most black-focused race films simply apply the norms of respectable cinema – the very cinema that has emphasized white characters for decades – to black characters, The Young One actually threatens the way we represent race in cinema by obliterating the ideological prison of “moral” or “issue-focused” cinema style altogether. As a film, the racially progressive Mississippi Burning is different from, say, the racist The Jazz Singer or Cimarron only as a matter of content – its politics are different, its choice of main subject matter is different – but the style and the form of the film are copy-pasted from the very conservative cinema that once held such progressive subject matter back. If Mississippi Burning is a reaction to racist cinema, it is entirely acquiescent to the formal norms of that very cinema it ostensibly reacts to; it is racially progressive but cinematically conservative, shackled to the milquetoast white-bread visuals it ought to reject. In contrast, with a style that owes as much to emotionally unrestricted, uninhibited African ritual as Hollywood film (recognizing that the Southern Gothic tradition is deeply entwined with slave culture and aesthetics), The Young One questions not only the content of Hollywood cinema, but the form of the medium itself.
In place of this progress-party, The Young One invasively stages an insurrection of frustrated and twisted cinema without safety, a film that constantly reinterrogates power structures via a camera that prefaces different perspectives in different scenes in different shots, constantly liquefying stagnant, one-size-fits-all power dynamics much like textual studies that emphasize the relative fluidity of identity, race, and power. The Young One is akin to treatises on how slave mansions were hotbeds of racial frustration where the ostensibly empowered whites were partially slave to the very ideological preconceptions that afforded them power, or texts on how nominally successful African-Americans are obsequious to the need to “fit in” to society’s vision for a respectable, socially upright black body in America (something that Traver, with his vituperative remarks against white men, boldly and brazenly redresses). Buñuel’s constantly fluxional style and his sweltering, shifting camera prowls and ultimately descends into America’s torrid affair with racial progress, applying form as an excoriating revolution against the stately, too-upright craft of films that rely on stylistically conventional (stylistically white-public-approved) norms to investigate progress.