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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Colonialism, up close and personal

Charlotte Rampling and Ménothy Cesar in
“Heading South.”

Libidos of a Certain Age

Published: July 16, 2006

WHILE teenagers bought popcorn by the ton on their way into “Pirates of the Caribbean’’ last week, and fashion addicts clawed into “The Devil Wears Prada,’’ a different crowd lined up for a movie playing at two Manhattan art houses: “Heading South,’’ about older single women visiting 1970’s Haiti in a female version of sex tourism.

The women in the film, in their late 40’s and 50’s, are spending a vacation at a resort where impoverished local beach boys serve as holiday gigolos. The teenagers devote themselves to nourishing the women’s starved libidos in exchange for food, gifts and temporary refuge from the perils of the island’s repressive regime.

A rave review by Stephen Holden in The New York Times called the movie “one of the most truthful examinations ever filmed of desire, age and youth.’’ Since it opened July 7, theaters have been packed with women about the same age as the ones on the screen. Some bought tickets in groups for a kind of middle-aged girls’ night out. Interviews indicated the movie has hit home with this audience because it affirms the sexual reality of women of a certain age, that even as they pass the prime of their desirability to men, libidos smolder. More than a few said they came seeking a hot night out.

“The whole notion of women’s sexuality fading away has disappeared,’’ said Marjorie Solovay, 63, a retired schoolteacher in Manhattan, after seeing “Heading South’’ on Wednesday. “Women’s sexuality carries on.’’

The next night a retired 62-year-old said: “Two friends of mine saw it over the weekend and said it is a must-see. They’re 60 and 72. It’s interesting that women feel they’re able to relate to it. So many movies are youth-oriented.’’

The film takes a hard look at the dearth of appropriate sexual partners for women like Ellen, its lead character, played by Charlotte Rampling, a single 55-year-old professor of French literature at Wellesley. Ellen says, “If you’re over 40 and not as dumb as a fashion model, the only guys who are interested are natural born losers or husbands whose wives are cheating on them.’’

Instead of passively drifting into a future of unwilled celibacy, however, Ellen and the other American women seek satisfaction in exotic places. A few viewers were put off by such desperate measures — with their implication of the exploitation of the black Haitian teenagers — and by the neediness of the women. But others supported the film’s message that a woman has a right to seek pleasure where she can find it.

“Single older women need to find a place to have sex,’’ said one filmgoer in her late 50’s who lives on the East Side but did not want to give her name. “If you’re at this point in your life, and you have needs, and you can make yourself feel good or whole, go for it, so long as you don’t hurt anyone.’’

In its first week on two screens in New York (it will open in other cities this summer), the movie has earned $56,000. Managers at the two theaters — Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on the Upper West Side and the Angelika in SoHo — said it is their highest grossing current film.

Hmmmm, what do we call this when American men go to Korea and do the same thing: exploitation. The US military has been attacked for years for this kind of thing.

I'm all for sexuality being defined as something people older than 25 do, but this kind of thing is basically colonialism in the bedroom.

If you listen carefully, men of a certain age refer to Asian women of a certain age as Mama San. Where did they learn that? Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam? It may seem like an exploration of adult sexuality, but it is also an exploration of the colonized and the colonizer.

One of the things not discussed in colonialism is the way that the occupier often wound up in the bed of the occupied. Anglo-Indian, Anglo-Malay, they didn't come from the sky, but the beds of the colonizers and the colonized. There's a movie which pops up on cable called the Sleeping Dictionary. Where British civil servants assigned to Malaya would learn the language by picking up a mistress. Only problem was when she got pregnant, the locals got real upset.

The irony is that the sexual availability of poor boys was what led to the spread of AIDS from Africa to Europe and the US. Because they were desperate for money, they would engage in clandestine sex with rich westerners, male or female.

Colonialism and sex is not something you see in texts, but it drove relations. A Passage to India suggests that no white woman would have sex with an Indian man, The Raj Quartet suggest all manner of illict sex, from lesbianism, to sex with native boys.

It's easy to romanticize or make taudry, but the reality was that sex caused as much resentment toward colonial powers more than politics.

How Stella gets her groove back deals with the same kind of phenomenon, with an ugly real life ending. 20-something Jamaicans with money do not pick up American tourists off the beach, they pick them up in New York and London nightclubs.

posted by Steve @ 1:22:00 AM

1:22:00 AM

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