Of Good Reportby Kavish Chetty / 12.08.2013
The “animality” of man is a threatening artistic construct, especially in an age coming into mortal awareness of “rape culture”, the silent historical privileges embedded in the very flesh of our reasoning. If it were possible to extrapolate our nature from Nature – and such thinking now enjoys a primacy of place thanks to certain trends in evolutionary biology – then males are fated to be a violent species, drugged with their natural lusts; prone to sexual pathology, territorial, in endless conquest of a womb to incubate his agitated semen. This vantage on males is socially-sanctioned, and reaches its highest glory in the remark that “sluts” should “cover up” to avoid being raped. Two intrigued moments of introspection, then: firstly, this presumes a flattening of the vast socio-cultural complex of our being, all men becoming by this logic predators by genetic design. Secondly, it grants to men an unfathomably powerful lust, in which women do not participate equally (the sexuality of “sluts” – filled with their fearful desire – then complicates the neat division of male/female according to their natural purpose)
As Of Good Report brings a difficult set of symbols into play, in which the above seethes variously, it’s worth ditching on the regular job of “review”, and moving into something more closely of a kin with “analysis”. Before that, however, a few preliminary remarks on the Film & Publications Board: OGR was banned at the Durban International Film Festival this year, on charges of “child pornography”. Having now released this corrupting cinematic document into our midst, it becomes very apparent that the FBP are capable of some astoundingly unsophisticated readings – there is nothing remotely pornographic about this film, and far more severe instances of torture and sex have sprawled on our shores from foreign masters without so much as an eyebrow raised. So, as to the motivations behind this brief censorship – and I leave it to other cultural critics to decode this mystery – one must suggest some combination of this film’s protagonists being black; or that its lead female is a young girl commanding the sort of thirsty sexual appetite against which conservatives quail in horror; or that it features cunnilingus, which as director Derek Cianfrance (of Blue Valentine) discovered in his own engagements with ratings boards, seems to carry a sense of moral uneasiness that doesn’t match our culture’s chummy relationship to fellatio . The decision to censor this underage-girl/adult-man psycho-romance perhaps speaks more of a fear to indulge the darker realities and possibilities of our social lives.
OGR is a noir-ish thriller, billed in the existing coverage as the “origin” story of a psychopath. It’s a film of slow and tense ambience; thrilling musical interludes; savage displays of body (vomit, blood, teeth, shit) – above all, it’s a superbly exciting movie, even if it squanders its symbolic potential in the closing scenes. Its closest intertexts are the other broody South African psycho-thriller (Retribution), and then just Psycho itself. In its opening moments, Parker Sithole (Mothusi Magano) is limping across the monochromatic countryside. Much like animals, who return to your thresholds with all the marks of their bloody encounters elsewhere, Parker is bruised and wet with blood, broken teeth are jammed into his skull. The film then lurches back in time to show Parker arriving among the rural domains of the Eastern Cape to take a job as a teacher of Grade 9. He takes tenant-ship in a hired dwelling of corrugated iron; and at his inaugural lecture to the class, he has the following lines from Othello scrawled on the blackboard, portentously: “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve for daws to pick at. I am not what I am.” This, from Iago, tells us that Parker is a man whose calm exterior belies a tortured interiority he will not grant us. In fact, Parker does not speak throughout the film – he laughs maniacally, he screams like a wounded animal, but he does not speak. Two remarks on this: Parker does not enter into social relationships in the normal way, through dialogue, because to do so is to give us access to him, to allow us our own private registrations of his character; it makes him vulnerable to interpretation. But simultaneously, the decision to deprive the character of his tongue, the language which separates us from animals, and to give him only laughs and screams, like a hyena, de-humanises the man. His dark behaviour in the film, therefore, becomes interpretable only as a lustful pathology, unalleviated by consciousness. In a film which derives its mystery from rape and murder, one can imagine how an inscrutable male antagonist becomes a dangerous symbol for an inscrutable male lust.
I am getting ahead of myself. Parker comes into contact with a young girl called Nolitha (an enmeshed name in which the “N” of Nabokov, the “olita” of Lolita and the “th” sound of a vernacular language are brought together) one stormy evening at a bar. She is disastrously attractive and flirtatious, and he later finds himself not only fucking her, but being fucked by her – and later courting her in a montage of creepy, mute romance. Those who wish to keep the viewing experience intact in its suspense should probably shield their eyes to the blinding spoilers which follow: Importantly, Parker fucks Nolitha before he knows she’s underage, and before he finds out that she’s a student in his class; furthermore, Nolitha appears to have pursued Parker, and is perfectly capable, young though she may be, of satisfying her own sexual desires to have this older man. Thus, even though the camera-eye sometimes matches the lurid perspective of Parker, we also sometimes get a glimpse of the ways in which Nolitha is in sexual charge – like when she climbs aboard his supine body and rides him. In a surreal sequence in which Parker tangoes with Nolitha as part of the school programme’s dance class, another teacher says that in Tango, “the man must lead”, he must be a “hunter”. But the juxtaposition of this tango with Nolitha’s authorial sex-drive troubles this vision of the hunting, predatory male; severely interrupts any clean reading of power dynamics at this stage of the film. This complication alone is worth a thousand of the thematic compromises made in other South African films (I excuse the brilliant Skoonheid here), which would never dare to rise beyond social platitudes in their representations of the world.
I won’t divulge the plot further, except to say that the Parker/Nolitha consortium comes to a close and that very closing is what drives further madness. Parker clearly wears a mask of agitated sanity, while at the same time harbouring a history he will not give us. His muteness renders him opaque. He is a man of civilization (plays, poetry, opera, dance). Like the Hannibal Lecter of that utterly stylish new series (Hannibal), the character suggests what most educated sociopaths do: that man, even civilised man, is a divided thing, and culture finally cannot draw us away from the things which make us base; the black currents of the id, the repressed whim of the unconscious. Culture and nature are of one mind. There are, however, two gestures toward some originary trauma that made him the psychopath he is. The one is a reference to a problematic relationship with his mother, which recalls Freud and Norman Bates; the other is some mention of a military record, suggesting the usual complement of psychic tortures which comes from excursions into the nightmare of war. However, neither of these is sufficiently explored to give us any real continuity between his past and his predation, and this task is then instead left to the superabundance of animalistic symbols which come to define him. A man, of unintelligible animal lust, having sexual relations with underage girls… contingent, social reality is cut out of this constitution, and instead, his gender absorbs the blame. Indeed, the final lines of the film – again, turn away if you’re squeamish about details – tells us that a prospecting headmistress is wary of hiring male teachers, who are too easily distracted; or, in other words, are repressed rapists all.
Mothusi Magano acts out his sociopathic intensity excellently; with no syllables to his mouth, he still gives a thoroughly unsettling performance of quiet madness. Equally, Petronella Tshuma (Nolitha) plays her role with persuasive imaginative power. Of Good Report is a fine, assured, thrilling, complicated piece of South African film-making. There is no pornography to be found here. Far more pornographic is the very gratuitous idea that the moralistic arbitrators of the FPB could so whimsically censor this film.