Hollywood’s obsession with prequels and sequels comes from an age-old human preoccupation: how did things start and how will they end? Creation myths and the apocalypse. Birth, death. In between, this thing called life.
Famed careers are often the same. They actually begin before the biographers’ claim they begin. Did you know Don DeLillo used to work in advertising? Tadao Ando was a boxer? Richard Serra welded?
The film oddities 1, 2, 3 Rhapsody and The White Slave belong to Amsterdam in the latter part of the ‘60s and to a group called ‘1, 2, 3 enz’. Its members were journalist Rem Koolhaas; his high-school friend and film-maker Rene Daalder; Frans Bromet, a cameraman who later became a well known documentarian; Kees Meyering, future inventor of the Rolykit toolbox; and Jan de Bont, future director of blockbusters Speed and Twister. Other members came and went, in the spirit of the collective’s open-ended configuration.
Koolhaas started to work at the magazine Haagse Post aged 19, and would come to interview—in eccentric, satirical detail—the film director Federico Fellini, avant-garde artist-cum-‘hyper-architect’ Constant Nieuwenhuys, and pen a four-piece series entitled ‘Sex in the Netherlands’. Koolhaas’ father, the acclaimed author Anton Koolhaas, was director of the Amsterdam Academy of Film, from which most of the ‘1, 2, 3 enz’ group hailed. Koolhaas has said that his father, ‘did not have very good taste in film, and that is why I did not attend the academy.’
The short films entitled 1, 2, 3 Rhapsody (1965) are more notable for the ideology fuelling their production techniques than the merits of their bawdy scenarios. As announced in the group’s three-part manifesto, published in the cine-phile magazine Skoop, what mattered was acknowledging film-making as a collective, team effort—not as something heroically individual in nature. For them, the auteur cinema of the Nouvelle Vague deserved to be debunked. As such, Rhapsody places its protagonists on a merry-go-round where they each write, direct and act (or, more precisely, goof around). According to future co-founder of OMA, Madelon Vriesendorp, on-set laughter erupted (mainly from Daalder and Koolhaas) throughout the making of Rhapsody. Irreverence was paramount.
1969’s feature film, The White Slave, is a very different effort altogether. Co-written by Daalder and Koolhaas, and directed by the former, it became the most expensive Dutch film ever made to date (after its nervous Dutch financiers had to be convinced by Luis Bunuel’s scriptwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, that the two twenty-something year olds actually had written a proper script.) It also went on to become one of the biggest commercial flops in Dutch cinema history. Ergo, its mythologized disappearance from view.
The White Slave’s plot centres around the trafficking of beautiful, young Dutch women sent to Tangiers allegedly as aid-nurses. On arrival, however, they are trapped in an Arab brothel, forced to belly dance and cavort with the white slave master, (played, not unironically, by an Israeli actor, Issy Abrahami). A ‘good German’, Gunther, keen to make-up for the war crimes of his people, helps to procure his newly found near feral niece and a bewildered au pair, whom he tries, unsuccessfully and repeatedly, to seduce.
The film both exaggerates and inverts grotesque colonial stereotypes, against an actual historical backdrop where African and Arab states were acquiring their independence. The ‘revenge of the post-colonial subject’ was imminent. Countries like Holland, France and Great Britain would experience an unprecedented flow of immigration from their former colonies, initiating the still troubled era of ‘multiculturalism’ and presaging post-9/11 Islamophobia by decades.
The atmosphere of The White Slave is somewhere between Luis Bunuel’s social surrealism and Russ Meyer’s 60s fast-cutting sex-fests. The latter dealt with the absurdities of male power and impotence. Meyer, a.k.a the ‘King of the Nudies’, was also Rene Daalder’s mentor, and occasional boss at the time. In one White Slave scene, doctors apply fake, trompe l’oeil wounds to perfectly healthy bodies. The doctor says, ‘With wounds, reality surpasses fiction.’ A year later, J G Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition would invoke similar, surgical themes, culminating in the erotic-masochism of Crash in 1973.
A number of palpable absences haunt the centre of The White Slave (a missing husband/brother, a missing wife)—around which Gunther assembles his own ‘harem’ of white women subservient to his whim. They all seem to congregate around fallacious motives (the central one being the need to ‘rescue Africa’). A low-level sadism pervades every human interaction. While the characterization of Abrahimi as a repugnant Arab may seem crude by the standards of our political correctness today, it is Gunther—the good, white German—that is the most ethically troubling of all. Why? Precisely because he sets out to have noble intentions.
TRUTH & METHOD
So, what to make of these filmic curiosities today? If we apply the famed Paranoid Critical Method, that technique of a posteriori fact-finding beloved of Salvador Dali and Koolhaas himself, what do we glean?
Firstly is the importance of the scriptwriter and the writing of a scenario, which becomes the basis of a plot. Right from Delirious New York (1978), this has also been one of the guiding principles for understanding the plan of a building: a plot waiting to happen.
Secondly, is a human universe where contingency and predestination seem to collude on a one-way course to tyranny, executed under the benign guise of moral, do-gooding rhetoric. The ultimate curse of morality is its self-destructive perversion.
And lastly, the same human universe is truly made manifest in details. Not the kind of details architects fetishize (shadow gaps, door frames, screws), but the idiosyncratic, unconsciously delivered details of human behaviour. Everyone is acting at being themselves all of the time. In the later Koolhaasian world of Bigness, Europe and the XL-ness of globalization, these telling, beautiful flaws of human nature will continue to manifest as narrative details against the immeasurable superstructure of economy and politics.
If life ever attains meaning, it’s either as a consequence of how it began, or, as a preparation for how it will end.
This essay was originally commissioned by The Architecture Foundation to accompany the UK premieres of The White Slave and 1,2,3 Rhapsody for its ongoing film programme at the Barbican, Architecture on Film. http://www.architecturefoundation.org.uk. With thanks to Rene Daalder for his invaluable insights and anecdotes during the course of writing this text.
For details into this period and the backstory to my text see Bart Lootsma’s phenomenally fascinating essay here: http://www.architekturtheorie.eu/?id=magazine&archive_id=108