Huffpost Arts
Michael Vazquez Headshot

On Nénette

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

On Nénette
By Michael Vazquez

Marina Abramović, stare your heart out...As befits our gawking society, if you're in New York City, you have 48 hours during which to discover an unintentional performance-art-slash-installation by way of a short documentary that's way better on-screen than it sounds on paper: a camera pointed at an orangutan habitat in a French zoo, over which we hear visitors' comments and interviews with the animals' caretakers. Herewith, my random notes...

The extent to which the eponymous Nénette (she is the 40-plus year-old main subject of the film) might initially emerge as gimmicky to the cynical (me) is offset by the extent to which it is effective -- a term which can have as many different meanings as it has viewers; it is likely that critics (whatever "critic" means in the case of a film like this) alongside civilian viewers of this film will behave just the same as the zoo's visitors: our unavoidable projections/summations/obtrusions/yearnings are unintentionally (but guaranteed to seem) poetic -- and they are, and they are the real stars here -- which to some extent, makes Nénette like any other film.

Only of course, Nénette emerges as a kind of tabula rasa...a moving confrontation with the fool on the hill, about which Society has long mythologized, both envying, pitying -- and thus, condemning -- her/him.

Watching Nénette, I (and, very likely, only I) was reminded of a (still) beloved film from my post-adolescent discovery of revival houses, Alain Resnais' Mon Oncle D'Amerique -- specifically, the juxtaposition of animal behavior and human behavior.

Whereas Mon Oncle D'Amerique uses footage of clinical animal behavior to punctuate the drama and chip away at our presumptions about the absolute uniqueness of humans, Nénette flips the animal-human 69, utilizing a largely animal storyline punctuated by audio snippets of human behavior, making for an evergreen meditation on consciousness and well, the purpose (if any) of life itself.

During one interview, the director of the orangutan habitat meditates at length on Nénette's virtuosity in being "drained by the curiosity of others"; assessing that she lives in a state of being which is "in the moment fully" - a trifecta synthesis of Sartre's being-for-itself and being-in-itself and being-for-others? And if so, to what extent is it authentic (in capital "E" Existential terms), insofar as it is a matter of facticity, rather than volition?

After delivering his treatise, the head zookeeper asks the same question a six year-old might have; What is she thinking? Of course, staying true to human form (read: vanity), he furnishes his own answer, concluding -- to no mean amount of unintentional, self-indicting irony -- She wants to be left alone.

Yet this phrase which he uses, "completely in the moment" emerges to my feeble mind as a euphemism for the fact that she is in a state of captivity; the zookeeper's Pop metaphysics bring me back to the moral, and thus, structural dilemma: she is not in-the-moment so much as she is in a cage, and this simple fact is what lingers, even after his confession about "all zookeepers bearing the taint of guilt".

He also reads a lucid observation on the uniqueness of orangutans, written during the 18th century, which, taken in tandem with his own meditations on Nénette's idleness, brings up the old pig-satisfied-versus-Socrates-dissatisfied question, from which another question arises, one more often asked by despairing, gimmicky politicians: Is Nénette better off now than she was before?

In bringing a then-six year-old orangutan away from her civilization as she knew it -- temporarily foregoing increasingly urgent considerations of the inherent wrongness of abduction -- and given Nénette's natural tendency toward an existence which, if not meditative, then certainly one informed by what might classically be called leisure -- (though understimateth ye not the enterprising nature of these tree-house builders) have we made her happier when we gave her the deal of a lifetime: an unlimited food supply and an inviolable shelter and total sense of domain? To be certain, this hasn't necessarily improved la conditon humaine...

And, of course, zookeeepr politics and intrigue (not unlike the careerists' dramas in Mon Oncle D'Amerique), rear their ugly heads, but I'll leave that for you to discover. The answer to the question about whether Nénette is better off in captivity partly depends on the divorce rate of orangutans in the wild. In captivity, Nénette has gone through four husbands, and is now on The Pill, as a preemption against impregnation through possible incest with her only remaining son. Fact check: do orangutans in the wild pick their mates for life? And is this really better, or should one play the field?

With the average orangutan's life spanning 35 years, Nénette's 41-and-counting proves that captivity delivers, if not necessarily qualitative improvements to life, it certainly adds longevity...and, well, could this make for a historical shift in the consciousness of orangutans?

By way of my own projection onto this film, I'll note a shift in my own consciousness (at least of others) during a battle with what Sartre called "The Look": In the mid 90s, I lived in a loft on Broadway, in Bushwick, where the subway was perfectly at eye-level. The space had floor-to-ceiling windows, and on most mornings the train would come to a full stop right outside of these windows, bringing, in regular, hellish intervals, a subway car's-worth of morning commuters gazing directly at my most vulnerable, morning self. Since I am particularly shy, it was very, very hard for me and I'd run and close the shade, still feeling their gaze sweeping me like an X-Ray...that damned, dreaded Other.

But after a while, I got used to it, which was a minor miracle for someone like me. In fact, I'm of a misanthropic enough mindset to have arrived at a point where they were, in fact, on display to me. Of course -- and in keeping with Sartre's perfect analysis of existence (Nénette has me re-reading Being & Nothingness) -- there were days when they claimed ownership, and of course, there were days when I saw achingly gorgeous women, poignant children, senior citizens, et, al, in my uhm, little window on the world -- or at least the J train. And I remained free to pull the shade down anytime I chose.

And after seeing Nénette, I now choose to never go into a zoo nor circus again, and I have got to stop using animal products across the board. Why? Because whatever animal consciousness is, it is to be respected by me, if I am to respect myself. I'm also reminded of a line in Eric Rohmer's film Summer, about the vigilance required if one is to sustain the correct sense of horror a child experiences upon seeing an animal slaughtered, into adulthood. And it's simply better to make the effort to divest, than to carry around half-assed guilt and low-level anxiety. And I now view those campy calendars with photos of orangutans, captioned "Hang in there, it's almost Friday" as profoundly upsetting, rather than novel. This is not what I expected from such a cute-seeming movie.

And so, as a new year begins and we all seek a kind of inner peace whilst also beset by frequent, often unkind self-assessments, I suggest -- or rather, I hope -- that someone reading this will go see Nénette and stay in the theater the whole day, watching everyone else go by...think of it as sort of, like, an (even more) Existential yule log. And as you look to rid yourself of fears and habits in 2011 and beyond, herewith, a list of phobias far longer than the few Lucy tackled in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

At (just barely) feature length, Nénette makes sense; I believe my conditioned mindset would have viewed Nénette-the-short as novel, rather than profound.

In relation to my earlier questions, I welcome the thoughts of zoologists whose actual experiences have revealed to them that captivity isn't -- or is -- harmful to orangutans and/or any other species.

Extra-credit viewing: here's a recent video of a live performance I filmed at SXSW 2010, by a band named after my favorite animal at the Bronx Zoo, the capybara, which I won't be visiting.

Nénette screenings: http://www.filmforum.org/films/nenette.html

Extra-credit reading: My random notes from the 48th annual New York Film Festival