High tech sexual politics

by Ernece B. Kelly

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 39-40
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

DIVA, now reeling into its second year in New York City, its third year in Paris, is quite a special film. It's not only a well-crafted thriller. It also has wondrous music, tableaux-like scenes of stunning beauty, and a cast of bizarre characters.

The casting is worth noting. Not only does an Asian play the surprising role of the streetwise nymph with a heart of gold, but a Black actress plays a central and non-racial role. I mean two things by the term 'non-racial." First, opera singer, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, playing the part of the diva, is certainly not stereotyped. The diva is scripted with enviable qualities: personal courage, self-assurance, a sense of humor, and handsome beauty. And, except for one brief scene in which a Black man compliments her by calling her "Queen of Africa," the film makes no special point of her race.

While some cultural nationalists might argue that such treatment of Blacks diminishes a people's rich history and culture by pretending as if they were no different from whites, my guess is that Blacks and some whites are hungry for these kinds of more complex and unexpected roles for people of color. A diet of thin, old stereotypes fails to nourish us as viewers.

DIVA's popularity is explained not only by these qualities, however, but also by its comforting romantic images of social relations. Because it shows women in highly differentiated roles, the film seems to put them on a par with men. But they're not. The female characters are decidedly weaker in terms of their ability to initiate action, specifically the acts of taking and giving. Nadia, the primary exception, is murdered in the film's opening sequences.

And, although we see a variety of women here, we see practically no female solidarity. So while individual women characters may seem exceptionally strong, without a community their strength is presented as a dead end. In other words, their visible potential for affecting change is frozen in just that stage, potential. The one exception the film shows to this general condition is unflattering — solidarity exists solely among prostitutes.

DIVA leaves its women to have relations only with men, and then only half-realized relations. It's as if some capacity for shared intimacy is missing, resulting in the characters' being in association rather than together. Even the characters' conspicuous eccentricities fail to explain the emotional and psychological gulfs between them. In fact, glaring racial and age differences are strangely ignored by the storyline that are so distracting in our age and race-conscious society, that these differences may well provide sufficient explanation. The two principal male characters are white; the women they relate to are the diva who is Black and Alba who is Vietnamese. And one man, Gorodish, looks old enough to be Alba's father, while Jules is eighteen and his flame, the diva, probably around 35. In this respect, the film is old and conservative wine carefully poured into a shiny bottle with New Wave labels.

The diva and Alba, the principal women characters, are consistently shown as social isolates. Plotlines develop so that they never meet. The film's events keep them isolated from most kinds of social contacts. Neither is shown with friends, acquaintances, or relatives. Neither woman of color shows a connection with her cultural group or betrays a longing for any. Both have an ongoing relationship — such as it is — with only one man, a white man.

The film makes the viewer experience and understand the women characters only through men. This is a theme hinted at in one of the film's earliest shots. In the opening scene, we first glimpse the diva filmed directly. Then we watch her reflected in sunglasses worn by a man in the audience. The shot provides a visual metaphor for the narrative and social importance of men and relative unimportance of women. Men are active; they use their eyes for seeing. Women, on the other hand, are to be seen, and they are seen well when reflected through men. The film consistently depicts its principal female character either isolated or in the company of men.

The diva, for example, is shown as having an important and long-standing relationship with her manager, also a white male. She needs him but not so much that she'll maintain a relation with him at all costs. Specifically, she's unwilling to compromise her principles — she does not wish to make recordings. When her stance forces him to choose between changing his mind or leaving her, he leaves. Similarly, Alba has a live-in relationship with Gorodish, to whom she refers as "The Lone Ranger," implying that they don't ride together. And even Paula, a minor character, is consistently shown either alone or in the company of men. The prostitutes provide an exception to the pattern. One who first services, then befriends, and then betrays Jules is in touch with other women. She walks the streets and shares cigarettes with other prostitutes. And finally she chooses to protect not only herself but her community, this group of women, by informing on Jules.

In a scene shot in medium and close shots, we learn that this compassion and solidarity is mutual. The prostitute, who has just befriended Jules by lending him her apartment as temporary sanctuary from the crook's henchmen, hesitates to make her phone call to the "Chief." Her friend, as if to lend her the strength to make it, reminds her of what happened to Nadia. The prostitute makes the call, and the two henchmen come to her place to get Jules. While the way in which the scene is shot tends to draw us into the women's company, few viewers would identify with them as readily as with some other female characters. The result structures ambiguity in our potential response to these female characters.

Yet, while the film may be criticized for its failure to show female solidarity, it also does not show women's full and gratifying relations with men. In fact, the women characters experience only superficial and imperfectly realized romantic relationships. Indeed, men and women care about one another, but their feelings don't lead anywhere.

For example, in one of their most sexually suggestive sequences, Jules ends up treating the diva with more respect than love, more awe than affection. They're walking. It's an overcast day with intermittent rain. Jules holds the umbrella for both of them, but he doesn't hold it as he might, low enough to create a tiny haven of privacy and closeness. Instead he holds it high, several feet above their heads. It becomes a symbol of reverence. It's the kind of gesture one looks for in the entourage of a queen, one who earlier had been called "Queen of Africa."

When Jules and the diva pause at some abandoned outdoor tables, they sit with bodies turned away from each other. Neither talks. Finally, Jules gets up, goes over to her, and puts his hand on her shoulder. She looks at him. Is she grateful for his tenderness? Moved by his attentions? Enamored? Infatuated? In love? It's impossible to tell.

The same kind of ambiguity colors the closing sequences of the movie. Here, Jules and the diva are standing very close on the operahouse stage. Their arms are touching each other's bodies, but curiously they're standing at a 45-degree angle to one another. Jules eventually rests his head on her shoulder. The camera, which had never come in for a close shot, begins to pull back so that the scene ends in a very distant perspective. What had begun as a scene with romantic potential rather quickly becomes something else through a combination of stage direction and camerawork. The intimacy we might have felt with this pair is denied us. Hence, the scene and the film end by insisting that only ambiguous relationships can exist between men and women in cross-age and cross-race settings.

Audience expectations are similarly manipulated in a scene with Gorodish and Alba, his friend. Their relationship all along has seemed more friendly than loving, more sensuous than sensual, but in one particular sequence, we're led to believe that they're going to bed They've just succeeded in whisking Jules away from the clutches of the Chief's henchmen, and have carried him to safety, to what Alba calls the "magic castle." As they rest after their harrowing rescue, we see them in medium shot, Gorodish is chain smoking, apparently planning how to outsmart the Chief. Alba is perched suggestively on the arm of his chair, dressed in a seductively cut dress. They seem on the edge of doing something sexual. But then Gorodish abruptly leaves, and Alba is left to nurse Jules back to health.

In keeping with this, pattern of thwarting viewers' expectations of male-female relationships is the film's treatment of the principal male characters. Again, expectations are disappointed. Both men are "feminized" in that they have skills, avocations, and attributes traditionally associated with women. Both Gorodish and Jules seem comfortable with their "feminine" styles, encouraging audiences to accept them finally without censure or question. Yet, when women characters in fictional films assume traditionally male attributes, such as assuming initiative or showing personal courage, they are at best shown as abandoned, at worst as murdered.

In the film, Gorodish is a homemaker. We never see him working outside his place. He takes obvious delight in cooking in his kitchen. In one humorous scene he elaborately demonstrates the Zen of buttering bread. And he enjoys sensuous pleasures of bathing while listening to music. In the narrative action, Gorodish confronts the murderous villains twice, and both times his style is "feminine". He overcomes one killer by squirting a chemical in the thug’s face. And he tricks another murderer into stepping into an open elevator shaft. Gorodish's methods are quiet and stealthy and involve neither physical conflict nor contact. They are tactics conventionally associated with a woman's defenses, not a man's offensive.

Jules, the other principal male character, departs from masculine standards in literally more physical ways. He's puny. His too-big cap and oversized parka and overwhelming motorcycle helmet underscore his scrawniness (The New Yorker's film reviewer aptly dubbed him "birdlike".) Jules delivers mall on a moped, a decidedly less masculine symbol than, say, a motorcycle. He's a devotee of opera — not a traditionally male, working class, musical favorite.

But the array of women is quite a different story. Nadia, for example, has taken the initiative. She has made the tape intended to destroy the Chief of Homicide. She has also taken what she must know is a fatal step by telling the police of the tapes' existence. So, both these steps are brave and the type usually reserved for male heroes. (The camera follows Nadia's feet as she literally takes steps carrying her to her rendezvous with the police.)

Her act of giving the tape — all giving, in fact — presumes not only possession but also privilege. And because she presumes possession and that privilege of selecting who to give her possession to, she is punished. In a sense, she is destroyed for acting more like a man than a woman. In this way, she is strikingly different from other women in the film. The others give insignificant things, and those things which they take are also insignificant in comparison to the sometimes precious things which men take from women.

Beginning with the opening scene of the movie, Jules is not only listening to the diva, he is recording her voice, stealing it, as it were. Two serious consequences spin off of that theft. The diva seems robbed of some measure of professional stability, for her manager leaves her. And, second, she seems to be robbed of her certitude around the question of whether or not her voice should be recorded.

Moreover, after the concert, Jules comes to her dressing room with others from the audience to congratulate her. As he's leaving, he steals her gown. Whereas he came to the theatre with a sophisticated recorder and his mailbag to conceal it in, his theft of the gown appears spontaneous. But it's by no means trivial. For newspaper headlines the next day carry news of the theft. The movie audiences laughed when those headlines were flashed, suggesting surprise that the theft warranted this kind of front page treatment.

A woman's voice is also stolen by the two Taiwanese businessmen, whom we first see at the concert which opens the movie. Anxious to make a private record from Jules' taped recording, they steal a tape at gunpoint. They're murdered before realizing that they've stolen Nadia's tape, not the diva's voice.

But clothing and women's voices are not the only things taken by men. Nadia, the prostitute-turned-informer, has her life taken from her — by a man!

Consequently, there is simply no comparison between these significant kinds of thefts and the kinds of things taken by women. The one women we observe stealing is Alba. She takes watches and phonograph records. But, unlike the male thieves, she doesn't steal for herself. She gives these things to men: inexplicably to Jules whom she's just met and to Gorodish. In other words, she's merely an intermediary for things: they don't come to rest with her or to ultimately belong to her. So, although the act of theft is similar, the quality of a woman's thieving is altogether different from that of the men.

Lastly, the homage DIVA pays to modern technology is so great that cars, recording devices, even telephones are pivotal. And with their primacy, certain questions arise: Can we use technology without being seduced into the belief that it's omnipotent? Can we use technology and not like it? Can technology's seemingly limitlessness, blind us to our own superiority?

Its primacy is obvious. Both main and subplot revolve around an audiotape. And tape recorders are practically ubiquitous. They appear and reappear throughout the film. Jules, a prostitute, Gorodish, the splendid antique car belonging to Gorodish, the projection room in the opera house — all these people and places have them.

And automobiles are similarly omnipresent. They're also used for an extraordinary variety of things. They're deathtraps, meeting places, a trysting place. They're subjects of stories and of symbolism, a means of destruction, ambulances, a place of torture, things of striking beauty, visual gags, and, of course, means of transportation.

Cars are loved and hated here. The two poles express the film's ambivalence toward technology. Jules, the innocent, loves cars and has filled his apartment with parts of them. Twisted wrecks of expensive models (a Rolls Royce, for one) litter his anteroom. His sofa was once a car seat. And a surreal mural of a car careening toward (or is it away from?) a small child dominates one wall. On the other hand, Cure, one of the henchmen of the Chief, is outspoken in his scorn of cars. "I don't like cars," he says, watching one being demolished in a wrecking yard. The visual image strengthens the power of his sentiment.

With cars figuring so importantly here, viewers half-expect the obligatory car chase. We're not disappointed, but there's a refreshing and telling twist: it's car vs. moped, and the car loses. This loss is an early harbinger of one of the film's themes: the individual's ultimate superiority to technology.

Mirroring this notion is the outcome of each of the tapes. Jules' is eventually given to the diva; in her possession we can assume no one else will ever hear it. And Nadia's tape is destroyed by a car bomb. So, despite the capacity of tapes to generate a great deal of activity of both a physical and psychological kind, they ultimately "die."

In contrast, something that doesn't die is the diva's attitude opposed to technology. Refusing to record, she insists on that special moment between the artist and audience which occurs only during a live performance. "Business should adapt to art, not the other way around," she maintains. (Any suggestion of elitism is offset by her association with Jules, who is solidly working class.)

Even the death of the Chief of Homicide is directly traceable to a shortcoming of technology, or, one might argue, the Chief‘s misguided optimism. The closing sequences take place in Jules' apartment. The Chief's henchmen have carried Jules there. They torture him, forcing him to implicate himself in the contents of yet a third tape. This one has falsified information about the origins of the Chief's international vice ring.

Earlier, the police officer assigned to stake out the apartment was called back to the office by the Chief, who alleged that there was paper work to do. Complaining, the subordinate leaves. But he leaves behind his policewoman friend, Paula. Of course, the Chief has no way of knowing this and no reason to think there's more than one officer there. He has recklessly relied on a telephone to provide information which lies outside its capacity. It cannot show or otherwise indicate unasked for information. Paula is instrumental in his death.

DIVA's idealistic tribute to individual supremacy over high-tech is, however, seriously compromised by its visions of women and of their collective potential for change. And given the film's dismal vision of interracial and cross-age relationships, who, are we to conclude, are those individuals who have primacy? It seems they are white males who are either unattached or aligned with white females. So, even with its daring casting, even with its New Wave sound and look, video machines, and high technology, at its heart, DIVA betrays an old-fashioned rightwing bias.


The writer is grateful to Toby Emmer and Mike Langyel for their ideas and criticisms.