Early Eighties, Late Winter: "Vice Squad" x "Utopia"

In 1982, the year I was born, Gary Sherman made Vice Squad. One year later, in 1983, Sohrab Shahid Saless directed Utopia. On seeing the first of these two films, the latter, however disparate on the face of it, imposes itself as a contemporary, inhabiting the same glacial plane of late capitalist existence, which, coincidentally, was to become a common place, and a commonplace, of the early Eighties. That one was made and the other directed, as I would have it, is not to be taken for a judgement of value. But it's still a difference worthy of note: Sherman made a genre movie out of – in both the functional and environmental ("umweltlich") sense of that preposition – a wealth of lurid genre movie tropes, while Shahid Saless, an Iranian who had studied film in Vienna and Paris and at that time was working as a filmmaker in (the Federal Republic of) Germany, directed lonely figures in an empty, geometrical space devoid of colour or sensation.

Where they come together is in their allegorical understanding of prostitution as the truth not only of the nascent service economies but of society at large. To both, social relations are relations between abusers and the abused, a viciously viscous glue that holds society in place rather than keep it together – "The streets are swimming with neon slime," as the rowdy opener to Vice Squad puts it. Both films are hard to watch, but for entirely different reasons. While Shahid Saless strategizes to first enclose and then slowly asphyxiate us in a claustrophobic tomb of eternally recurring humiliations, Sherman's genre piece is all neon lights and dirty intensities, with some rather misogynist violence and earnest, totally un-Brechtian ham acting added for good measure. Still, and regardless of the many efforts Vice Squad makes to provide comic relief from the fierce pimp/whore-opposition at its centre, more often than not the film's bleak grounding will show through – the contrast making it all the harder to bear.

What the bulky, fearsome Wings Hauser does with Ramrod, the film's aptly named villain, can only exist in B-movies, and only in the most uninhibited of them. He's brute force, prevented from exploding (rather than positively contained) by little more than a thin layering of malicious foresight. One particularly harrowing scene shows Ramrod subjecting a new hire to his will, his hands kneading her initially upright, self-possessed body into submission. As with Utopia, which I first saw a couple of years ago, I had to press stop four or five times, even though I probably shouldn't have. Hopefully, Vice Squad will one day make its way back into a repertory cinema, thus disabling the pause button as a source of consolation. Why am I writing all this? Someone uploaded the whole thing (apparently the uncut version) on YouTube. Don't pause!


On a brief moment in "Finye" (Souleymane Cissé, Mali 1983)

There's one shot reverse shot sequence in Souleymane Cissé's "Finye" that stayed with me. The two main characters, lovers Bah and Batrou, are having a bath together. Though Cissé denies us a total view of the situation, he unambiguously establishes the spatial axis of their encounter at the outset of the scene, with her on the right and him on the left-hand side. A close-up of her naked left breast - however classically posited as the object of his gaze, at the other end of a straightforward eyeline match - then unsettles something in the order of things.

First there is a cut back to the beholder,

then we see his stretched-out hand fondling hers halfway between each other, but here the axis has already been breached: his (lighter-skinned) hand extends from the right, where she used to be:

The next cut makes this breach noticeable, when her face is shown on the left (turning to the right), her former position vis-à-vis the camera reversed as if in a mirror:

What follows confounds the spatial logic even further: a reverse shot of his face, still gazing rightward, his position the same as before.

The fleeting image of their hands seems to inaugurate an altogether new space, a true con-figuration of lovers unbound from the exacting geometry of the preceding shot reverse shot sequence. Or so I tell myself, in an attempt to explain away this beautifully mysterious, and mysteriously beautiful, everyday encounter.