31. Mai 2022 Intro Essay by Jesse Cumming

Twisted Tales: Power and Performance in Mutzenbacher and Rewind & Play

While the debates about ethics or trust that swirl around documentary filmmakers and their subjects are ever-evolving, more-often-than-not a starting and end point remains the ostensible invisibility of the former, and the hyper-visibility of the latter. In both Ruth Beckermann's Mutzenbacher and Alain Gomis' Rewind & Play however, the filmmakers push such perennially fraught dynamics into particularly layered and knotty territory, expanding such considerations of power and agency beyond the frame to consider the active role of an audience. While the two projects are grounded in historical materialthe former an early 20th century pornographic novel, and the latter archival television footage of Thelonious Monk, from the late 1960seach is explicitly and undeniably contemporary, with the content manipulated and interrogated in order to reveal, and at times trouble, shifting relations of power and performance, particularly as they intersect with technology and the act of storytelling.

 

They also intersect significantly with questions of race, in Rewind & Play, and gender, in Mutzenbacher; each of the films’ source texts are notable for their mistreatment of their central figures, even if the violent dynamic is blurred or downplayed by false veneers of amity or consent. While it would be misguided to overdetermine the similarities between the filmmakers and the central figures in the textsto too-neatly align the French-Senegalese Gomis with the American Monk, or the well-established filmmaker Beckermann with the formerly destitute sex worker of the novel. They notably share the same race and gender that the harm in the original texts is predicated upon. While such questions of positionally and relatability precede the films themselves, they also woven into the documentaries in ways both subtle and explicit. In each case the filmmakers employ revisionism—and at times outright refusal—to challenge their chosen sources. 

Taking as its starting point the 1904 pornographic novel Josephine Mutzenbacher or The Story of a Viennese Whore, as Told by Herself, infamous in the German-speaking world since its initial publishingincluding a since-overturned ban on its sale in both Germany and AustriaBeckermann’s film engages with the text by way of scenes with an intergenerational assortment of Austrian men that answered a call the filmmaker published in a local newspaper. Filmed entirely in a Viennese studio, Beckermann remains a constant yet unseen presence, her voice the only intrusion into the entirely homogeneous, masculine cinematic space, as she prompts and prods her guests on questions related to the novel and sexuality more broadly. 

 

While Gomis himself remains physically unseen and unheard in his projectconstructed exclusively out of footage from an appearance on the French TV program Jazz Portrait in 1969, shortly before Monk effectively retired from performing, and presented without text or voiceoverthe filmmaker’s presence is nonetheless felt through visual and sonic edits that emphasize the performer’s anxiety and alienation in the studio, as the demands of the program and its host bristle against his own unwillingness to fulfil the roles expected of him

 

Each film presents interrogation into the role and agency of a performer, with the “what” of a performance put into question. At the same time, such an inquiry is expanded into a broader exploration of audience, demanding, with equal force “and for whom?”  Both filmmakers seem eager to foreground and exploit the audience as an active element in the creation of meaning, blurring distinctions between a reader, a viewer, and a director. In Rewind & Play the role of director feels particularly fluid, with Gomes as filmmaker troubling the directorial vision of the show’s original white host, whose specific needs for the program, informed by a consideration of the presumably white, middle-class French audience at home, is revealed through the previously unseen b-roll capturing second takes and revised phrases. For Monk, despite the invitation into the studio to play music and ostensibly candidly speak about his art, he is gradually stripped of his agency; we watch as his responses are subtly guided before being explicitly coaxed. From a musical performer to a performer of a lazy racist stereotype, he is expected to detail moments of his early life lived in poverty in America for the at-home viewers. As if in an attempt to mask or smooth over the chasm of power between the host and his guest, the former makes a point of reminding us repeatedly about the fact that the two have in fact met before, and, if a viewer so wishes, they might even consider them friends. It’s not difficult to recognize in him a very familiar and contemporary liberal figure, one whose seemingly good intentions operate as a cover for countless micro-aggressions. Though Gomes serves as a belated intervener into the painful exchange, challenging not only the shape of the material while also, presumably, reorienting it towards a different and more diverse audience, the filmmaker takes care to retain the moments of refusal that Monk himself produces within the original footage, whether the muffled single words the pianist begins to offer as a response to asinine prompts or—even more forcefully—when he finally has the chance to perform, to claim space by himself and for himself.

In general no such false dynamic of friendship exists in Mutzenbacher, wherein the participants instead largely responded to the filmmaker’s newspaper notice due to an interest in the novel. Far from the presumed readership of the original book, compelled exclusively by its explicit sex, Beckermann’s myriad interests in Josephine Mutzenbacher are at once historical and contemporary, as well as both formalist and thematic. Here, in spite of the camera we understand the audience to be primarily she herself, and the invited guests in the warehouse space engage with sequences and fragments from the novel in a variety of modes under her direction: reading aloud directly from excerpts, acting out sequences in staged recreations, and shouting, as part of a chorus, some of the texts more salacious nouns and verbs.

 

As the biographical inquiries of Rewind & Play suggest, in both Beckermann’s and Gomis’ films we see the ways in which story and the act of storytelling is manipulated and torqued. Beckermann’s source material and her approach to staging offers a particularly disorienting approach to voice and perspective, with such occlusions present firstly in the history of the text itself. Published anonymous, but commonly attributed to Bambi-author Felix Salten, the book is written by a man but narrated in first person, as the book’s subtitle suggests, from point-of-view a sex worker in her 50s recounting her early sexual experience from ages 5-13. The troubling and lewd content here, which engages with abuse and pedophilia, is never framed as assault, and always treated as consensual and arousing on the part of the narrator. That these explicit and often troubling words of a man narrated by woman through her memories as pre-teen girl, are then voiced by men at the direction of a woman, is itself a complex and provocative device. Would such a film project and the presentation of such taboo content be acceptable if it were produced by a man rather than a woman? Is it even acceptable when it is a woman who is not only controlling the terms of engagement, but editing and shaping the final material? Beckermann is eager to play with these questions of voice, and also to position the “memories” of the book’s narrator alongside stories shared by her guests, as she invites and encourages them to recall and engage with moments—some quite troubling—from their own budding sexuality. 

 

Finally, while neither film is strictly defined by its spatially contained nature, it remains a notable formal element of each, and serves to amplify the intricate relationship between the performer and their host. Mutzenbacher remains strictly delineated within its industrial space, while in Rewind & Play, beyond an overture of Monk’s arrival in Paris as well as a brief sequences in a brasserie and on the street that feel like escape fantasies more than anything, the film is contained to the non-space of the television studio, in which the lo-fidelity image pushes the black backgrounds into crushed nothingness. Even if in each case the figures are invited in, the bond between them and their host-cum-interlocutor-cum-director feels increasingly claustrophobic and fraught; from an open door to a huis clos. Built into each of the films, however, and their refined approach to spectatorship, is a means for us as viewers to further produce a shift in the dynamic. While it may not be possible to overturn the structure of power in that French studio in 1969, or the interpolation engineered between Josephine Mutzenbacher and the men reading its words, we are invited to carry forward the work the filmmakers themselves have begun, to examine present anew through an inversion of the past.

 

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