Given the most generic script in the world, Michelange Quay might prove to be a great director: He’s got a matter-of-factness, love of languor, a patience and lightness of touch that takes on everyday life on the street as though he were filming the ocean—a bunch of sounds and movements rising up in parades, and then drifting apart as individuals hustle about shopping. Ocean sounds are constant through Quay’s non-narrative, Eat, for This Is My Body, providing a loose, gentle sense of queasiness that belies Quay’s portentous tracking shots, rigorously controlled, which suggest a horror film with the horrors just out of reach. This is Werner Herzog terrain, a mix of lazy rhythms and obsessive rituals, though Quay, with his straightforward lack of sensationalism in taking on such purple content, is just as reminiscent of the brilliant old Hollywood genre director Richard Fleischer. Eat would, in particular, make a perfect double feature with Mandingo, perhaps the greatest film “about” race ever made; both follow black exploitation at the racist hands of noble-minded whites in old empty mansions, emblems of soon-forsaken power.
Whereas Fleischer, however, takes an entire system of terror for granted and dutifully notes the causes and effects (if not excuses) of an escalating history of violence (Mandingo is the ultimate of Fleischer’s handbooks to hell, everyone coolly exercising their rights to abuse), Eat stupidly elides Fleischer’s rationalist approach to the most fervently unreasonable impulses. Quasi-surrealist, it’s an assortment of symbolist claptrap that exists only to be deciphered. A legend is easy to make out: a cake featured in a food-fight is, per Quay, “the cake of humanitarianism”; electric keyboards played by all are representative of the tools the whites use to administer the blacks; the scene in which a bunch of kids nod and say “merci” to each other for about five minutes is representative of the way the blacks have been forced to submit to civilization’s mindless cordialities; the white-lace clothes the black servants wear are representative of the way blacks have been gentrified as proto-whites; the wild half-savage parades outside are representative of the enchanting tribal way of life that should exist apart from the colonialist hegemony; the gooey milk the blacks have to drink from a bottle is representative of all the white industrial cock they’ve had to suck; and the old white woman’s line, “I am destroyer of the world…I am Eater of Food…Eat you ungrateful black chimpanzees” speaks for itself.
Besides being inadvertently racist (the exotic mystique of fire-eating blacks vs. whites ruthlessly ordering gentility for all), Eat really exists, like The Heartbeat Detector, only to translate an ancient argument into convoluted terms, with no concern for why or how it’s true. Were Quay to give up confronting reality and social issues altogether, or actually confront them—the best parts of Eat are all documentary—he might have come up with something more than Matthew Barney hieroglyphics. Instead, Eat is a stupid film by a smart man, a film that literally sees everything as black and white and legible. Quay thinks his movie is dream-like, because it’s really weird, but while allegorical dreams and allegorical dream directors (Buñuel, Kubrick, Denis, to name his three primary influences) forage social reality and everyday life for symbolism and nonsense, Quay is, like Fleischer, too much of a scientific mind to see reality as an artist’s toy. A wannabe visionary, he doesn’t really see it at all.