The Good Woman of Bangkok
In 1964, Jean-Luc Godard dreamed aloud (not for the first time) about a kind of filmmaking unconstrained by the protocols of genre or good form. “Is the cinema catalogued as a whole or a part? If you make a Western, no psychology; if you make a love-story, no chases or fights; if you make a light comedy, no adventures; and if you have adventures, no character analysis”. Then, in relation to his latest project, he added: “Woe unto me, then, since I have just made [a film] where subjects are seen as objects, where pursuits by taxi alternate with ethnological interviews, where the spectacle of life finally mingles with its analysis”. (1)
That film reached the world, later in 1964, as A Married Woman (Une femme mariée) – although Godard wanted the more universal title of The Married Woman. Whatever one now makes of Godard and his extraordinary influence on contemporary cinema, it seems crucial, in retrospect, that his vision of a film “delighted to be only what it is” should centre itself so completely on an investigation by man of woman. Indeed, something unmistakably judgmental and constrictive inexorably creeps into the Godardian operating definition of a free cinema: “The cinema … can be everything at once, both judge and litigant”. (2)
Dennis O’Rourke is another filmmaker who demands the right to unconstrained artistic freedom, and then turns in an ethnographic movie (a “documentary fiction film”, as his credits proudly declare) with a suspiciously sweeping title (to which I shall return): The Good Woman of Bangkok. Naturally, the alarm bells starting ringing around film culture from the moment of its first public appearance – and for some pretty good reasons. A privileged, white, male documentary filmmaker playing “both judge and litigant” over the body of a random Thai prostitute?
O’Rourke’s justification of the project comes in several guises: that it is a provocation to Australian documentary cinema; that it is a daring, self-revelatory testament putting his own masculinity on the line (since the very idea was to let himself fall in love with his subject, Yaiwalak Chonchanakun, known as Aoi); and that it is a work of art, in a specific tradition. Clearly, The Good Woman of Bangkok is a film that deserves a lot more than a knee-jerk leftist dismissal. What it demands, on all its levels, is a thoroughgoing, properly critical dismissal!
For O’Rourke as for Godard, cinema is a matter of a whole, not its segregated parts – “my starting point, of course, is that it’s all storytelling; it’s all cinema, good or bad, fiction or non-fiction”. (3) His artistic aim – laudable enough in itself – is to make a work as fully and complexly formed as any fiction, starting from a documentary base. And it is true that the film achieves, on several levels, a coherence of organisation and unity of purpose comparable to that of a narrative (or to a Frederick Wiseman documentary, although he would doubtless never go near a subject quite like this, quite in this way).
A fully contrived work of film art creates both a unique world, and a special meaning for that world; in Pascal Bonitzer’s terms, it both “represents and relates, figures and shows” simultaneously. (4) Strange as it may sound, probably the highest praise one could give O’Rourke’s film is that it entirely succeeds is conjuring a filmic world (out of the real world) which is relentlessly ugly and depressing. It is an insular, flattened, almost timeless experiential chamber: no variation, no light or shade, no glimpse of anything resembling daily normality ever intrudes into this hellish Asian pit of bars, hotels, prostitutes and their clients.
Even more forcefully, this fictive world acquires a universally symbolic and metaphoric status: it is a picture of the whole world, and nowhere more so than on the level of its gender relations. Time and again, O’Rourke selects his documentary fragments of speech and gesture to reinforce the notion that the horrible men we see stand in for all men, since all men are (apparently) the same; and ditto for the women. The world-view thus conjured is hardly an edifying one: men are barbarous, immoral, driven by sheer lust; marriage is just another form of prostitution for women; women suffer all this animal sex for the sake of one day buying a home or an education for their children ... And, however one responds to the film’s nihilism on this existential plane, there’s absolutely no doubt that on any political level, O’Rourke’s gesture – dropping into an exotic tourist getaway and then ignoring all social specificity in order to adumbrate a personal vision of sexual hell – is almost unbelievably blinkered and reactionary.
An index of the film’s frightful artistic coherence can be found in the up-front role played by the camera itself. O’Rourke is not beyond including the occasional frisson (by conventional documentary standards) of an on-screen participant suddenly exposing, mid-scene, the presence of the camera or the filmmaker. But, for the most part, his camera never even pretends to the usual documentary invisibility; on the contrary, it becomes an integral part of this ugly world of sexual exchanges, soliciting the poses, performances, come-ons and self-justifications of anyone who does not immediately flee its voracious eye. O’Rourke has decried what he calls the “theological”, holier-than-thou pretensions of most documentary film; his (surely no less pretentious) search for a lasciviously sinful, participatory cinema at least serves to remind us of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s soberingly anti-idealist summation of the medium: “The cinema has always been fucked by everybody ... it’s lying out there in the ring of the circus, being fucked over by the clowns, by the acrobats, by the performing seals”. (5)
In the film’s press kit, O’Rourke states that it is “an attempt to describe ... and to conflate, what is so banal about sex with a measure of what is profound”. The banal sordidness of the project’s representations is obvious; the intended profundity signals itself on another level: in the showy, poetic flourishes – all the arresting compositions, slow motion and classical music employed to transfigure and redeem this ugly world for a fleeting moment or two, drawing it nearer to the contemplative, sanctified realm of art cinema. (The film’s slightly more modernist poetic touch comes in the quasi Warholian, oft-used video footage of Aoi, drugged and/or drunk, confessing to the camera, her glass eye disconcertingly evident.) This poetry, too, belongs at the heart of the film’s system, and cues immediately the artistic tradition from which it is very consciously shaped.
“It’s not new for an artist – a man – to connect with prostitutes in order to say something about himself and male-female relationships”, says O’Rourke, placing himself in a line with (among others) Stendhal, Gaughin, Alberto Moravia and Walter Benjamin. Now there’s a Great Tradition for you! But it opens up a wider frame: of men’s depiction of sublime women, which in cinema includes films as diverse as Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51 (1951), Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988) and Ian Pringle’s Isabelle Eberhardt (1991). These heroines (whether missionaries, junkies, philosophers or adventurers) are sublime because of their intense suffering, and their ecstatic experience of being lost to themselves and the workaday love-and-sex world. Filmic tales of prostitutes as veritable street angels (in the manner of Alexandre Dumas fils and his Marguerite Gauthier, Lady of the Camellias) form a prominent part of this tradition, running from Frank Borzage’s Street Angel (1928) to Marco Ferreri’s horrendous Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983) via Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962). (6)
Gérard Gozlan offered one summary of this sublimity in his savage eulogy of the Catholic film theorist André Bazin: “The best woman is a dead woman”. (7) Aoi herself offers another when she says to O’Rourke, “You are the sky and I am the ground”. Yet, as Bérénice Reynaud has brilliantly argued, the relation of male filmmaker to female subject in this sublime mode is far more than simply voyeuristic or fetishistic (although it is undeniably that, too). (8) The sky and the ground remain separate, with one obviously standing over and exploiting the other; yet there is also a complex interdependence, a process of exchange at play, which O’Rourke is keen to magnify. In short, the male artist in such a scenario is not content merely to present or adjudicate on the sublime woman (although there is often, as here, a note of disapproval or disappointment). Fundamentally, he comes into being as a sensitive soul through his identification with this fatal woman, an identification as passionate and reckless as it is ambivalent and ultimately evasive.
O’Rourke stakes a lot on the gamble that his film is excessively intimate, even embarrassing – and thus a productive transgression of the norms of documentary content and form. Like virtually every self-proclaimed independent filmmaker today, O’Rourke is quick to distance himself from the majority of his colleagues in the area of documentary – making mention of the “appallingly low” level of “critical debate” that manifests itself in such conventionally overdetermined work. Yet one can validly question the depth of O’Rourke’s own engagement in the not altogether new history of what he calls “documentary fiction film”. For while he cites directors (for him, Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu) who instill a certain documentary-like quality into their fictions, he seems unaware of the considerable traffic that has already travelled the other way – from fiction into documentary – since (at least) the first, wild ethnographic experiments of Jean Rouch in the late 1940s.
An attempt to clearly place The Good Woman of Bangkok into a pertinent context of the most formally radical documentary fictions of the previous decades inevitably diminishes its touted achievement. Indeed, in this light, it can seem little more than a bundle of diverse, diffuse gestures of innovation that have been better researched and explored elsewhere. There is the lightly Brechtian angle of the self-reflexive moments, the prosaic written titles, and the structuring, allegorical reference to Brecht’s own The Good Person of Szechwan (first known in English as The Good Woman of Setzuan) – yet nothing approaching the neo-Brechtian rigour of filmmakers like Yvonne Rainer (Privilege, 1990) or Alexander Kluge (The Power of Emotions, 1983). There is the attempt by the filmmaker to fully digest, reflect on and restructure an experience that was in the first place chaotically lived through as a complicit partner; yet no equivalent to the complex, eloquent montage structures that mark the participatory essay-films of Jean-Pierre Gorin (Routine Pleasures, 1987) or Robert Kramer (Our Nazi, 1984). There is the will to explode the documentary genre via an almost psychodramatic immersion in a reality which is itself a whirlwind of diverse and conflicting roles, masks, drives, identities; yet none of the really scary thrills to be found in frankly avant-garde documentaries by Rouch, Werner Herzog, Stan Brakhage (The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, 1971) or Peter Tammer (Journey to the End of Night, 1982).
The documentary-fiction genre that O’Rourke’s film most closely resembles is that of the diary film, which is sometimes discussed within a broader category of personal cinema – especially operative in the sphere of avant-garde production, as the early 1990s Rotterdam Film Festival retrospectives devoted to “Cinema Narcissus” and “The Diary Film” amply demonstrated. O’Rourke’s personal cinema is of a particular sort: we could call it crisis filmmaking, filmmaking as confession and therapy – perhaps even, finally, as redemption. Thus, the filmmaker-as-badman goes to the very end of the world and to the very edge of his transgressive, sinful experience in order to live out the extremes of his critical condition; he comes clean, hoping that, for his honesty, he will be absolved by the cinema-watching public. (Even as poetic logic suggests that this public, sitting in the dark, is more likely to identify with the perverse contents of the confession itself!)
It is in this dream of total, naked intimacy between filmmaker and film-viewer that we must locate the impossibility, indeed the madness of a certain conception of personal cinema. For not only is there the problem of what interferes between a filmmaker’s direct, immediate experience and his/her capacity to record or convey any of it with a camera and a tape recorder; there is also the more profound issue of what then mediates as cultural communication between the film that is completed and the audience who receives it. The fatal question must always be: what unheard-of personal truth can possibly be broached, and then revealed, in the process of constructing a film that is to be consumed, ultimately, in the light of all preceding films?
A terrible truth haunts even the most intimate confessions of personal cinema. When one sees extreme examples of the genre like Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water (1980), Dirk De Bruyn’s Conversations With My Mother (1990) or Nick Deocampo’s Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song (1987), one can be struck by the fact that they reveal nothing; nothing, that is, beyond a messy weave of postures, clichés and fictional constructs cut all too obviously from the cloth of public culture. Pure alienation, in other words: the understanding of oneself through others, the experiencing of one’s own situation through what has already been written and filmed, rehearsed and codified – without the slightest apprehension that this is the case.
The Good Woman of Bangkok is in many respects a tame, compromised, half-hearted instance of personal cinema. But it at least provides another instructive example of this phenomenon endemic to the genre: it inadvertently offers us the spectacle of alienation mistaking itself for sublimity.
Preliminary Note: when I was asked (by a committee including O’Rourke himself) for permission to reprint the above text in the anthology The Filmmaker and the Prostitute: Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok (Sydney: Power Institute, 1996) edited by Chris Berry, Annette Hamilton & Laleen Jayamanne, I agreed on the condition that the following Postscript – which addresses Berry’s critique of my argument – also be included. That condition was refused – unfairly, I thought – so I withheld my essay from the book. This Postscript appears publicly for the first time on this website.
In his book A Bit On the Side: East-West Topographies of Desire, Chris Berry comments that my evocation of the “confessional film” as a way of discussing The Good Woman of Bangkok “disavow[s] O’Rourke-the-filmmaker’s explicit positioning of the film as a ‘documentary fiction’ as distinct from the truth claims of conventional documentary”, and that, “[a]mong other things, O’Rourke-in-Australia’s decision to accompany O’Rourke-in-Bangkok’s activities with Janet Baker singing a Mozart aria seems to have escaped” my attention. (9) Although I think it is perfectly evident that my 1992 article overlooked neither of the aspects that Berry mentions, it may be worth saying a little more in defense of my critical approach.
First, I think it unwise to ignore the marked confessional aspect of the film. O’Rourke, after all, goes on about it in virtually every public proclamation he issues (random snippet from the Cinema Papers interview: “The film is a statement of love”). Some of the most extravagantly positive accounts of the film have responded favourably to just this quality. Martha Ansara, for instance, not only praised the film as a Brecht-influenced “challenge to the present state of documentary filmmaking” (as Berry cites); she also waxed lyrical in Filmnews about it being “about more than prostitution; it is a film about love, about emotional pain and dignity, and about destruction and survival. To me, it is so obviously therefore a film about Dennis”. (10) I am fully aware that a film-text and what the director says about it are not the same thing. But it is equally true that the latter often has the power to publicly frame, amplify and overdetermine the former in a decisive way – and I believe this happened for many viewers with The Good Woman of Bangkok.
Second, and more importantly: a point about the (predominantly masculine) “confessional genre” itself. I do not see this genre as consisting of raw, unworked audiovisual documents torn straight from the camera and hurled onto a screen (as Berry seems to think I do). Many confessional documentary-fictions (such as Ross McElwee’s Time Indefinite ) in fact present extremely worked, formed, manipulated accounts of their original diaristic material. Post-production procedures of editing, music overlay and carefully composed narrational voice-over are (routinely) central and determining of filmic meaning. But – here’s my real point – this working of the initial material, in another time, place and context, does not in an automatic way guarantee any measure of contradiction, richness, ambiguity, ambivalence or complexity (the very qualities that Berry claims for The Good Woman of Bangkok).
What the filmmaker-in-editing does with the footage of the filmmaker-in-scene may create no cleavage, open no productive space in the text whatsoever; post-production decisions may be totally of a piece with the impulses and aspirations that drove the shooting. This is exactly what I think O’Rourke aimed at and succeeded with in The Good Woman of Bangkok, leading to what I called its “frightful coherence”. And it is at this point that Chris’ enabling distinction between the two O’Rourkes breaks down, and I find myself agreeing with Owen Richardson in his review of A Bit On the Side: “O’Rourke continues to be a filmmaker whatever else he does; sex tourist and filmmaker are not mutually exclusive roles. He is a filmmaker before, during and after he is a sex tourist”. Richardson asserts that Berry gives his distinction between the two O’Rourkes “more than it can bear”. (11)
While I respect Berry’s detailed account of The Good Woman of Bangkok, I, too, remain unconvinced by his argument. Something is missing from this textual analysis with its shuffling of split enunciative positions, here-and-there dialectics, and emblems of a fabulous, socio-personal ambivalence: something of the real sensibility of O’Rourke’s film, the living, material gestalt of how it breathes, looks and feels, and the fully conscious (rather than obscurely unconscious) dynamic of people’s viewing responses. Ansara, in her passionately undistanced, fannish response, gets closer than Berry to this sensibility when she admits that, for her, O’Rourke belongs to “the best side of the conscious, proletarian, ocker aspect of Australian society”, and fights for the film’s “beauty and its gentleness”.
And those who dislike the film, too, might have some purchase on this sensibility when they see the film in a continuum not with Bertolt Brecht but with the brazen, masculine, willfully politically incorrect self-exposure by a national Australian figure such as Bob Ellis, and respond (as I endeavoured to do) to some of the really nasty, murky, self-deluding stuff in it. Either way, getting close to the filmic and cultural sensibility of this (or any) film means attending to it more closely as a film – as an unfolding drama of behaviours and postures, temperatures and emotional effects – than a lot of recent analytical writing is willing or able to do. This is Richardson’s point: “Like too many film writers, Berry does not attend sufficiently to the film as a sensuous object, and thus marches right past the inflections of meaning that such attention can reveal”. (12)
If all this seems to conjure a war or a great divide – between those old-fashioned auteurist aesthetes who call for refined responses to cultural works, and those latter-day saints of contemporary theory who presume to psychoanalyse and pigeonhole the reactionary ambivalences of the former sect – then this just indicates all the more strongly and urgently our need to get beyond thinking and practicing criticism in these unhelpfully split positions.
1. Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 208. back
2. Ibid. back
3. Andrew L. Urban, “Dennis O’Rourke and The Good Woman of Bangkok”, Cinema Papers, no. 84 (August 1991). All further statements by the filmmaker are quoted from this piece. back
4. Pascal Bonitzer, “Les images, Le cinéma, l’audiovisuel”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 404 (February 1988). back
5. Quoted in Raymond Durgnat, “Nostalgia: Code and Anti-Code”, Wide Angle, Vol. 4 No. 4 (1981), p. 78. back
6. I know of (but have not seen) two films that connect this European art cinema tradition to stories of East-West erotic exchange: Alain Tanner’s La Femme de Rose Hill (1989); and Pierre Rissient’s Cinq et Peau (Five and the Skin, 1982), about “a Frenchman in Manila ... his movements, his meetings, his enthusiasms, and his sexual fantasies”, which Tony Rayns describes as “unclassifiable”, “clearly autobiographical”, “exquisitely literary” and “mesmerising” (Time Out Film Guide). Both films would clearly provide rich material for comparison with O’Rourke’s. [2018 note: Rissient’s film has now been restored for DVD/Blu-ray release by Carlotta in France.] back
7. Gérard Gozlan, “In Praise of André Bazin”, in P. Graham & G. Vincendeau (eds), The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (London: British Film Institute, 2009), p. 103. back
8. Bérénice Reynaud, “Representing the Sexual Impasse: Eric Rohmer’s Les Nuits de la pleine lune”, in S. Hayward & G. Vincendeau (eds), French Film: Texts and Contexts (London: Routledge, 1990). back
9. Chris Berry, A Bit On the Side: East-West Topographies of Desire (Sydney: EMPress, 1994), p. 31. back
10. Martha Ansara, “A Down to Earth Festival”, Filmnews (July 1991), p. 6. back
11. Owen Richardson, “A Bit On the Side”, Agenda, no. 38 (September 1994), p. 12. back
© Adrian Martin January 1992 / December 1994