Monday, 10 May 2010

THE ALBATROSS (Remi Ataka, 1982)

'Often, when bored, the sailors of the crew
Trap albatross, the great birds of the seas
Mild travellers escorting the blue
Ships gliding on the ocean's mysteries.'

Charles Baudelaire, The Albatross.

There comes a moment of false in so many Remi Ataka movies- the good (Fraudulent Doctrines, Tapas Dancing, Um Bungo), the great (Singed Songs Saved From The Fire), and the decidedly mediocre (The Singing Menstrual, Trojan Whores II: Roost, Roast, Rest, Repeat) when he reveals The Vortex, the name we have collected and attached to that whirling, writhing face he finds at moments of high conflict.1 Suddenly, he starts the audience with such a display of unhinged anger (be it at the English filmmakers attempting to replace his village with a more 'accurate' fake one in Um Bungo, or when fighting the ghost of his suicide bride at the end of The Singing Menstrual)- a blast of tool-sharp intensity that punctures the screen with it's power. Ataka is more than one of African film's great icons- he is an ambassador of entire human conditions, bringing messages from such foggy bays as Resentment Squared and Revenge Infinity, areas of such extremely disfigured emotions as to be almost comical. Especially to a modern Western audience.

Essentially, Ataka is an actor with one tic up his sleeve, but what a tic. Raised in the Congolese jungle by a traditional family, he was educated in the art of dance and performance in ritualistic situations. 'Everyone of my cousins laughs at my acting. They are all able to perform this war-cry that the newspapers have called 'The Vortex.' Many of them perform it better than me, and find my films to be funny and lacking in depth because of this.'2

The Albatross, which Ataka directed and starred in himself, is not good, great or decidedly mediocre. Its seriousness and fire drags it into another entire realm, where judgements so superficial are disgustingly arbitrary, like price tags on sheep's heads or women's thighs. It came at a point in Ataka's career when, aged 29, he was the most famous man in his home country. The films he had starred in previously were made in Zimbabwe, under the last vestiges of British rule. The Hammer studios had paid for several of them, and Tapas Dancing (1978) and Bushman II: The Whites of Their Thighs (1978) had gained much success in parts of Africa, despite being unreleased in Europe and America. Ataka set out his stall as a serious actor in both films, utilizing method techniques for his roles in all his films, whatever their budget. And the budgets ranged between modest and non-existent.

He headed back to the Congo prodigally, with a slick crew and the biggest budget his home counntry had ever seen. Employing many local non-actors, his film set out to discover the astonished heart of Africa. As such, The Albatross is an inverse-Heart of Darkness, an alterna-Aguirre, with Ataka playing a leader of a a group of tribesmen protecting a religious artefact as colonial soldiers approach. They wait, and as they do so, they think. And think. Heightened anticipation over days and weeks takes a toll: the threat of the advancing men distorts, until they become convinced that the devil's own foot-soldiers are on their way. Visions jump from the trees, the air is a vast echo chamber rebounding whispers into fear. An unbreakable vanguard is destroyed from the inside, by fear bombs. When the white man does arrive, he is not fearless and strong, he is vain and completely ignorant of the artifacts. Sad ironies litter the compound amongst the mad bodies.

'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattening,' said Kip Lowry of Fox when his company embarked on a series of remakes of foreign films in the early 1980s. 'The only way we can destroy competition in the territories is to give them shinier versions of their own stories.' Ataka, offered a join-us-or-be-forgotten ultimatum, chose not to be a part of Fox's damply polite remake of The Albatross, which forgetably starred Michael Douglas and Laurence Fishburne in 1984. He did however reprise his role of Femi in the fish-out-of-fish-sauce drama Lucid Intern. The original, made on a budget in 1980 by Ataka's uncle Jean-Luc, followed Femi as he moved from the country to a job at a law firm in Cape Town. The remake throws him to the liars by inevitably sending him to New Yotk City, Hollywood's ultimate city as a character.

'Hollywood swallowed me', said Ataka in 2000.3 Roles in such mediocre fare as Crocodile Dundee III: Crocodile Rock Star (1995) and the later Trojan Whores films left him examining the wreckage of his career on the world stage. He did star in Timid with Jennifer Jason-Leigh as late as 1998, but nobody saw that, and he had a subsequent recurring role in CSI:Voyager to a little acclaim. All of these roles have required him to pull out his old moves, weak parodies of The Vortex, but with less and less success: Hollywood, more than any other place, is subject to the law of diminishing re-runs. Ataka finally realised this, leaving America in 2003. Since then he has kept radio silence, emerging only in 2007 to announce he would be commencing work on a Congolese film version of Wagner's opera Parsifal.

But then nothing. Ataka has always had a cult following of fans in Europe, but he may well already be spinning in his grave disposition at his champions. 'He wanted to be Brando, or Eastwood. But now the only people in the West who know him are the the kind of world music clapping, tofu-munching, miso-horny types he always felt patronised by.'4

The Albatross Directed by Remi Ataka, Produced by Remi Ataka, Jean-Luc Ataka, Lomana Lomana, Written by Joseph Smith, Remi Ataka Starring Remi Ataka, Jean-Luc Ataka, Lorolei Samuel, Tresor Pasquale Vision Pictures/Afrika Films 203 mins Release Date: UK/US: N/A, Africa: April-December 1982, Tagline: 'The Ghost Stalks'

1. Perhaps author Will Self has given the best description of 'The Vortex': 'It is as if his face collapses, becoming a cavemouth that surely leads to Hell, or some kind of purgatorial punishment at least'.

2. New York Times interview, March 2002.

3. Rolling Stone interview, March 2000.

4. Will Self, The Independent, April 2008

No comments:

Post a Comment