On Peggy Ahwesh’s The Color of Love (1994)
The use of the tango music seems a clear nod in the direction of Un Chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1928). Like its surrealist predecessor, The Color of Love is an assault on the norms of vision. It is explicit; it shows too much.
A few years ago I had the privilege of studying avant-garde/experimental cinema with Ron Green at Ohio State. He introduced me to a lot of amazing and unsettling work. One of the most uncomfortable films I recall experiencing in that period was a voyeuristic film called “Martina’s Playhouse” by Peggy Ahwesh. I won’t go into detail about it, other than to say that it was my one and only experience with Ahwesh’s work until last week when I watched “The Color of Love.” I’ll give you a link to where you can watch this film at the end of this post. Beware, though, it is (arguably) a work of pornography.
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.
Peggy Ahwesh once commented: “Erotic is completely subjective. Erotic is a smell of a flower, the wind in the trees. Bodies are not the easiest things to evoke erotic feelings with. It’s easier to do it with other things: sheets, patterns of color, food.” In short the ‘male gaze’ is undermined not only by the visible story, driven entirely by the two women’s desire, where the man “isn’t even a prop-he’s set decoration” (Gavin Smith), but by the blatant refusal to conceal the ‘falseness’ of the narrative, renouncing any claim to its ‘truthfulness.'”
In “Color Of Love” Peggy Ahwesh’s ‘ready made’ appropriation of a distressed 70’s pornography whose damaged surface glows with found colors. Ahweash’s manipulations of the Super-8mm porn, her repeats, slowed and sped-up sections, all to a tango score, created a kaleidoscopic appreciation of sexuality. Fruity images of the cunt, vegetal in its lush power are simply unforgettable.
–“Looking back at Counter Culture, Counter Cinema: An Avant-Garde Film Festival” by Robin Menken
In classic pornography woman is a commodified entity where the exchange of females among males is the main currency. Female desire in moving picture imagery is often equated with prostitution, rape or bondage where the female body is displayed fragmented and dismembered. Pornography which literally means ‘writing about prostitutes’ is a tool for the reproduction of imagery and text to facilitate this equation.
The pornographic film is narratively framed by a vampiric, necrophile motif that supports the affect of the morose, decadent, and elegiac: there is fake blood, a dagger, and a heavy red curtain. We need only recall Paul Willemen’s association of the “cinephiliac moment” with “overtones of necrophilia, of relating to something that is dead past, but alive in memory.”24 The dead (or sleeping?) man never revives himself and becomes a prop for the sexual activities between two women. The trope of death precedes the film’s death by disintegration, and the dead man functions allegorically, the “dead object” of porn and heterosexual masculinity. Yet he has to be present, stagily symbolic, to mediate the enactment of “lesbian” sex. He is playing dead, and the women are playing lesbians. This is part of the generic, tacit convention of pornography, and one that this pornographic film, typical and atypical at once, is enacting. Significantly, the fragment that Ahwesh has chosen to comprise the film offers no erection—the man’s penis remains flaccid through the film— and no “money shot,” two staples of the generic phallic “coherence” of commercial pornography.
MacDonald: The love/sex trilogy—Dead Man, The Color of Love, Nocturne—includes narrative, but ultimately it’s like dream narrative. The viewer gives up on figuring out the story. This sounds pretty straightforward.
Ahwesh: The reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution. By the end, you’re supposed to be able to figure out why things happened the way they did. And I’ve always been more into presenting a problem and getting you into an emotional place where you understand the calamity or joy or desire within a person’s life. It’s like a texture, or a mood, a moment—not this is the story and this is how it turns out.