Stranded in the Jungle--17

The Color of Love

DECOMPOSING. The image of a vagina fills the screen. Fingers caress and pry, pulling the labia apart. The lurid pink of the vulva stands out against the white of the fingers and thighs. Now a head enters the screen from above. Lips move down to the clitoris. It's a sequence from Peggy Ahwesh's 1994 short film, The Color of Love. This film has no plot to speak of, no real characters, no dialogue, and no metaphors. The only thing it has is bodies. Every image is literal. Every image is an image of sex. A man lies naked on a bed. Blood is smeared on his chest. Two women hover over him. They bathe their hands in the blood. They make desultory efforts to arouse him. They graze his flaccid penis with a knife. They make out with each other, straddled over his inert form. They kiss, in close-up. I don't know who these people are, or why they're doing what they're doing. The images are flat and inexpressive. They show me everything, but tell me nothing. They don't get me hot. They don't involve me in the least. The sex is perfunctory. It's performed without conviction. I can't imagine anyone being aroused by it. These images aren't interesting in themselves. They are cliches. We've seen them too many times. What's fascinating about them is only this: how fragile and delicate they are. It would be so easy to disfigure or erase them. Indeed, this is happening, even as I watch. Blotches of purple, red, and blue race randomly across the screen. They pulse and throb, changing at every moment. Now they spread out in moldy stains. Now they congeal into granules. Now they stretch into long gashes. Now they break into filaments, forming an intricate web. These abstract patterns take over the film. They tear it out of any context. They become the main focus of attention. The sexual performances are only secondary. The body of the film eclipses the bodies of the actors. It's as if the celluloid itself were writhing in an erotic frenzy. And in a sense, it actually is. The Color of Love is made from found footage. Its source is an anonymous Super-8 porno movie. Ahwesh found it in the garbage. The print must have been deteriorating for years. Chemical decomposition did its work. It ate into every frame, creating the blotches we see now. Ahwesh reprocessed this cinematic debris. She didn't try to restore the original footage. Rather, she carefully gathered the traces of its decay. Sometimes we think that art makes things eternal. Film is supposed to preserve appearances. The actress grows old and dies, we like to say, but in the movies her youth endures forever. Ahwesh shows us otherwise. Film stock, no less than flesh, is mortal. Images are weak and vulnerable, just like bodies. The decomposition never ends. Everything changes and decays. You couldn't stop the process if you tried. Better to affirm it, as Ahwesh does. The Color of Love anticipates its own demise. Its mood is elegiac, before the fact. It seems to be saying: "I am mortal. These splotches all over me are signs of age. I am going to die. Sooner or later, I will perish. So much of me is gone already." Few images are left untouched. Even the ones that remain intact are not quite right. Somehow they don't seem real any more. It's as if they had been placed in ironic "quotation marks." They are imitations of porn, not images from life. The whole film seems to unfold at second hand. A melancholy tango plays on the soundtrack. It reminds me of the music for silent films. It's in a minor key. It's alternately fast and slow. The fast sections are filled with frantic motion. The slow ones are mournfully reflective. At either speed, the music seems distant and detached. It is reserved and formal, even at its most frenetic. And it is reticent, even in its sadness. This tango is the faded echo that pleasure leaves behind. It evokes, not sex itself, but the nostalgia for sex. The Color of Love does not take place in a living present. Watching it, I do not think: "this is happening now." Rather, I think: "this has happened already." Nothing is more fleeting than an orgasm, after all. It's over, almost before it has begun. It happens in the barest sliver of an instant, like the time between one frame of film and the next. But it is surrounded by stretches of empty time, in which nothing happens. A time of infinite longing lies before it. And a time of slow forgetting extends after. The Color of Love is all about these abysses of obliterated time. In its ruined frames, sex and death meet face to face. The encounter is as tender as it is painful. A whole world of desire is created and destroyed. In less than ten minutes, it's all over.

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