Privileged Voyeurism: Life Within Emblematic Borders.
María Novaro’s film El jardín del Edén (1994) is a film about the human condition and the self-imposed boundaries we must overcome; it is about watching life instead of participating with those around us. This is a film that explores themes of freedom, identity, and voyeurism. For example, the themes of freedom are explored through the juxtaposition of characters in the story, often presenting the opposition through adroit motifs like the relationship of Jane (Renée Coleman) and the whale. Furthermore, identity and boundaries are integrally linked with voyeurism, we see this in characters like Elizabeth (Rosario Sagrav), who experiences her own Chicana identity via video; a kind of tourism to the self. There is also Frank (Joseph Culp), a character who would rather spend his time watching and listening to whales than pursue a woman (Sergio’s mother). These ideas of voyeurism are also present in how the US-Mexican border is utilized as a stage for the drama in the film, but is “decentralized as a dividing line or marker of absolute difference” (Smith 278). Not unlike conventions of ‘Border Cinema,’ Novaro’s border is less a physical line and instead a place to invest our own symbolic meaning. In this analysis we will contextualize Novaro’s voyeuristic leitmotif and explore how it functions within the film. In examining the film’s voyeuristic tendencies we will see how the byproducts of these visual elements work to reinforce and exemplify ideas of personal freedom. Furthermore, we will pay special attention to the way these components portray Jane in the film, both a ‘privileged voyeur’ and child.
Boundaries and Vouyeurism
During an interview about El jardín del Edén, Novaro states:
“Borders are always with us. It is a condition of human nature. And yes, I wanted to talk about those other borders that we ourselves create, and that, like the geographical, idiomatic and emotional [frontiers], they also serve to wound us” (Haddu 149).
The protagonists of Novaro’s story have come to Tijuana Mexico in search of paradise, or at least believe they are on a path towards their version of it. However, all of the characters in the story are struggling with their own obstacles, many of which are self-inflicted and separate each character from personal autonomy (paradise). Sergio (Jerónimo Berruecos) is the son of a recently widowed photographer. Both he and his mother have a voyeuristic habit of taking photos instead of participating, even with each other. However, this is less true with Sergio than his mother, as Sergio makes a journey across the border in Jane’s trunk, he proves that he is willing to participate with reality (trying to visit his family in Southern California). There is also Felipe (Bruno Bichir), a peasant from rural Mexico who plans on using Tijuana as the place from which he crosses into the US; however most of the time he prefers to watch attempted border crossings than participate himself. Furthermore, he seems to be running away from family obligations, which is represented by Felipe reminiscing about his brother in the film (though we do not see him till the end). The most complicated character in the story and therefore who we will focus on in this analysis is Jane: an aspiring writer who arrives in Tijuana at the beginning of the film. Jane spends much of her time in Tijuana searching for a ‘muse’ to inspire her ‘writer’s voice’ instead of developing her own (essentially looking for happiness in the other people).
Several writers and critics have commented on Jane’s storyline, writing that her character is simply a depiction of an Other obsessed güera looking to find her voice through Mexican culture. For example, Debra Castillo writes that the “portrayal of the gringa precisely fits the known structure of the dumb, friendly blonde woman who is totally enthralled by the exotic otherness of the border. This is the case for Jane… looking for ‘her voice’ ” (Castillo 210). The assertion that Jane is interested in finding her voice through the exotic is first identifiable in the film when she says: “Franky, I wanna be a writer. Yeah I really think I have a voice… though I am not really sure what it is yet.” She is essentially hunting for someone or something to write about in Mexico. Later in the film Jane also talks about how she is going to write about Margarita Luna (Ángeles Cruz) and San Mateo de la Mar (essentially, about exotic Indians). Although the stereotype concept is unclear in Castillo’s writing, this idea that Jane is concerned with observing the “exotic otherness” is important to the voyeuristic themes in the text. Moreover, in the scene directly following Jane’s introduction to Margarita Luna in the restaurant also piggybacks this idea, because it is the only time we see Jane truly writing in an almost frenziedly way at her desk; showing us that otherness and exoticism is at least a partial Muse. Furthermore, her passion for watching reinforces the idea that she needs some kind of spectacle to feel happy and appease her own innocent curiosities.
However, Jane’s voyeuristic tendencies are not so straightforward because though she likes to observe, she also influences all of the characters in the story; loosely fixing them together. Jane is made more complex by the fact that in some ways she embodies the concept of the illustrious whales that serve as a motif in the story. As Frank says, “Fortunately for the whales, no one has put borders on their territory.” The whales (and later dolphins) are a metaphor for the characters in the story that is juxtaposed by the wall that separates the US and Mexico. After all, the whales do what the characters cannot: Effortlessly cross between national boundaries. Jane reflects the whale’s ability as she travels freely around the world, money and borders appear to hold no power over her (something we will call ‘privileged voyeurism’). Frank elucidates this point when he says that Jane has “been to every place in the world, you’ve got a great talent for it” and even tells her she should “be a tour guide.” It is interesting to note that this scene also reinforces Jane’s whale/freedom motif due to the fact that the diegetic sound behind their conversation is that of whales. The sound mix for the whales is hot, showing us the filmmaker wants us again to associate the water mammals with Jane.
Jane is shown crossing the border with ease, even when she is obviously nervous with two illegal travellers (Felipe and Sergio) in her trunk. However, we cannot overlook the plot and the fact that she is an American and therefore is allowed a kind of privileged voyeurism, whereas Felipe and Sergio, whom are Mexicans, have to sneak across. In contrast we have Frank the former writer (and American gringo) who has spent the last three years whale watching and hiding from his friends and family. For example, when Jane arrives and phones Frank at the beginning of the film, he immediately walks away from his answering machine and onto his front patio where he begins whale watching (tying the whale theme to Jane once more). Furthermore, the film uses Frank in juxtaposition to his gringa sister; he has the privilege to leave Tijuana, but his reclusiveness and lack of interest in the world around him acts as a barrier, shown in his lack of curiosity for the world around him; keeping him from dating or returning to the US.
Like many of the characters Jane is preoccupied with watching. For example, the first time Jane enters “Pescado Mojado” we see an interesting long take where Jane says nothing and instead observes a group of women she has never met. In the sequence, Jane pulls open the curtain and we see a long shot of three women talking with their backs to the camera. The depth of field becomes less shallow as we dolly slowly (and in a slowed frame rate) into the women’s cooking space. Margarita is at the center of the frame and also the object in focus, showing us that she is indeed the center of Jane’s attention. The slowed frame rate with normal speed diegetic sound (conversation and kitchen noises) shows us that Jane is in a state of fantasy when she sees Margarita. However, one can make the argument that it is not because she is obsessed with her otherness, but rather Jane looks at the world with curious eyes, not unlike those of a child. This is not a far reach considering the excitement with which Jane approaches most situations in the story. Jane in general is a very outgoing and easily excited character compared to the rest (even the other children). Opposed to Elizabeth who tells Jane “don’t be ridiculous” when a smiling Jane suggests they give Felipe a ride to town the first time they meet him. Another good example of this is her last scene where she is saying goodbye to Elizabeth. Here we see a close-up of Elizabeth’s face covered with a look of concern, she looks screen right to follow Jane’s eyeline from the prior shot. Almost immediately we hear the sound of birds chirping, Elizabeth’s head returns to the center with her eyes forward where Jane’s eyeline would be just as slowed non-diegetic accordion music (saturated with reverb) begins.
We cut to a right tracking shot that follows Jane in a close-up as she moves through a background filled with white pillars and smoke. We then see a POV from Jane as she moves out from behind a pillar, revealing a long shot of a colorfully dressed Native American woman with bird cages on her back. We then cut back to a loose framed close-up of Jane looking entranced, her eyeline matched with the woman with the cages. We then see a right tracking long shot of the ‘bird woman,’ she starts out of the left edge of the frame and moves towards the center; displacing a young boy who is in the middle of the frame before the camera tracks (attention is on the young boy). The bird woman turns around after she reaches the window of the bus at the center of the frame and walks back the direction she came from; meanwhile the small boy stares at her intently. We then see a cut to a close-up of the bird woman looking upward and right, away from both the boy and Jane. However, after a moment she looks down and towards the boy, the camera tilts to follow her gaze. The camera focuses on a bust shot of the boy as he stares at the bird woman, simultaneously smoke blows in front of the boy while he looks (functioning to illuminate Jane’s awe) as the bird woman walks off frame.
The camera then pans left to follow the boy as he moves towards the left side of the frame; he is obviously taken in by the bird lady. We then cut back to a close-up of Jane, and it is here we notice that she is looking at the boy with a smile on her face; it is the boy who is going into an eyeline matched with Jane. This fantasy POV sequence, not unlike the one with Margarita, reinforces Jane’s pure curiosity. Moreover, her character appears to identify far more with the boy, the smoke has a reflective and therefore reflexive quality; showing us Jane is a child at heart not unlike like the boy. Jane’s childlike tendencies are also reflected in the scene in her brother’s house, in the second of her only two visits. In this scene Frank says, “Mommy gave you little fluffy white chicken — and you flushed it down the toilet.” Jane responds: “I admit, I admit. I was just trying to see if it could swim. I didn’t mean to flush it down the toilet” (El). Jane’s curiosity can be related with much of psychological theory about being a child. Edith Mumford, a child psychologist writes, “Curiosity is the stimulus which impels him [a child] to prepare for freedom. The greater possibility of freedom, the more urgent is the need for curiosity” (Mumford 150). This example is interesting in that Jane as aforementioned, is free to cross national borders and appears to be less afflicted by social boundaries due to the fact her ‘visual curiosity’ that caries her through the narrative. This is important note because Jane is the main reason we truly interact with the narrative’s tourists, such as Felipe, Frank, and Elizabeth. In this case the border space brings them all together rather than separates them.
The border: just another site to see
‘Border Cinema’ was a term coined by Norma Iglesias that refers to a post 1980’s body of films that explored and contextualized issues of living on or near the US-Mexican border (Iglesias). Moreover, Border Cinema focuses on previously absent themes, such as “the deterritorialization of migrant cultures, the porous and shifting nature of the frontiers, and the redefinition of identities and cultural practices” (Perez 108). In most of these films the dramatic conflict occurs when “characters confront an encounter of two national cultures… the border functions as a symbol or cultural barrier rather than a geopolitical line” (Iglesias 234). Novaro’s film functions well as Border Cinema in both examples, but particularly in the second example because the main characters are American and Mexican, therefore they create the “encounter of two national cultures.” Furthermore, identity is also a theme indicated in many inner textual references throughout the film, especially in the videos Elizabeth watches as she struggles with her own Chicana identity. However, Andrea Noble argues that “the film is not concerned with the border as physical object, nor indeed with the traditional narratives associated with the border movie as a film genre (although elements of both—in the narratives of Felipe and Jane, and in the way in which the border is constantly reinstated as visible, physical presence—are present in the film)” (Noble). Although Noble’s argument does not reflect the other writer’s opinions completely, he does illuminate an important issue in the film; that it is not concerned with the border as a physical boundary.
The border is less a physical place in the story than it is a stage or symbolic. For example, our first experience with the border is through a POV from Felipe in the beginning of the film. Not only do we not truly interact with it as a physical space, but Felipe watches it from afar, as if he were looking through coin operated binoculars at a tourist attraction. Andrea Noble does a great job of synthesizing this idea here:
“By displacing the illusion of three-dimensionality and replacing it with an avowedly one-dimensional image, this opening scene dramatizes the border’s status as image, precisely as visual representation… as spectators our looking is foregrounded not only in the presentation of Felipe’s binocular vision, but also in the fact that the figures he views on the border are also engaged in the act of looking: the first figure perched on top of the fence is clearly looking over to the other side; another at ground level is spying voyeuristically through a peep-hole in the fence” (Noble).
Felipe’s POV reinforces the idea that the border is merely another space in Tijuana, a place which characters will spend more time looking at then interacting with; symbolic of the character’s own boundaries they must overcome. For example, the border serves to reinforce the emotional distance between Sergio and his mother Serena (Gabriela Roel), this is shown by Sergio running away to US and therefore adding another boundary between him and his mother. Moreover, Sergio’s inability to overcome his father’s death culminates in his withdrawal from reality. He becomes a shutterbug and consequently another voyeuristic lens through which we see the border and film as a whole. In contrast, for Felipe and Jane, the border also represents a physical separation of American and Mexican culture in the form of the language barrier, this fact is elucidated by the several mistakes Jane makes when speaking Spanish. For example, Felipe asks Jane and Elizabeth, “Are you touristas?“ Jane Responds: “No no, um — me are… a writing desk” (El). In Jane’s struggle in communication reminds us again with the struggles of being a child, illuminating the varying degrees of identity.
What does it all mean?
In this analysis we have seen many varied elements in Novaro’s film. In specific we looked at some of the voyeuristic tendencies and how they functioning in defining Jane in her relationship to several filmic elements. However, before we can conclude this examination it is important to reference one of the main elements of identity and elucidate why it has been left out. Many authors such as Iglesias, Noble, and Castillo have focused their critical responses on the representation of hybridity and Chicana identity in the film. It is important to acknowledge the Chicana duality in Elizabeth’s relationship to the border because her ethnic identity does represent both sides of the border and thus the space in-between. However, every character in the story is a tourist; there is not one that is stated to be from Tijuana so her hybridity appears to be a moot point aside from the border metaphor of her duality/separation. Therefore, Jane being tied to many filmic elements and motifs makes her a great element of study. Furthermore, Jane represents the US side of the hybridity while also showing us aspects of Tijuana that no other character wants to show us, such as Felipe and Margarita. Though subjective Jane’s view might be, she also represents the idea of freedom far more than any character. This freedom is specifically embodied in how she floats between observing and interacting with different cultural identities in the film, whether it is Mexican, Native American, or Chicana. Therefore, it is the avowal of Jane’s identity as the dominant tourist that is central to tying together the narrative elements of the story, whether symbolically or physically.
In acknowledging the many voyeuristic themes of the film we have explored, we know that it can be easily read as “a female’s journeys to the exotic, both real and fantasized, which in conventional postcolonial terms may be regarded as naive fights to the repressed Self at the expense of the Other” (Sippl 42). However, to simplify this statement while also taking into account basic plot elements, it is much simpler to say that this film is about travel and finding oneself. Pico Iyer reveals the idea of travel well here: “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves… We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again” (Iyer 1). Iyer’s example serves Jane’s character well, in that she does possess some traits of a young fool or child. Furthermore, it serves many of the filmic elements such as losing and finding oneself. Travel and themes of tourism also better explain the characters desire to watch, such as Felipe and his spectating at the border throughout the film; watching others cross and congregate around it. He even has Sergio take pictures of him at the border like a tourist would, telling us they are for his brother. Sergio is also an interesting example and fits better into Castillo’s idea of a character obsessed with the Other represented in border culture through photography. In contrast Jane spends her time practicing Spanish with Felipe (an out of Towner).
Castillo, Debra A., and María Socorro Córdoba. Border women: writing from la frontera. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.
Haddu, Miriam. Contemporary Mexican cinema, 1989-1999: history, space, and identity. New York: E. Mellen Press, 2007. Print.
Iglesias, Norma. “Reconstructing the Border: Mexican Border Cinema and Its Relationship to Its Audience.” Mexico’s cinema a century of film and filmmakers. Ed. Joanne Hershfield and David Maciel. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1999. 233-243. Print.
Iyer, Pico. “Salon Travel: Why We Travel.” Salon.com. N.p., 18 Mar. 2000. Web. 7 Oct. 2011. <http://www1.salon.com/travel/feature/2000/03/18/why/index.html>.
Mumford, Edith Emily Read. The dawn of character. A study of child life. 8th impression. London: Longmans, 1923. Print.
Noble, Andrea. “Yéndose por la tangente”: TheBorder in María Novaro’s El jardín del Edén.” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies 7.2 (2001): 191-202. Print.
Perez, Maximiliano. Visual synergies in fiction and documentary film from Latin America. Ed. Miriam Haddu and Joanna Page. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Sippl, Diane. Redirecting the gaze gender, theory, and cinema in the Third World. Ed. Diana Maury Robin and Ira Jaffe Albany, New York: State University Of New York Press, 1999. Print.
Smith, Brent. “Re-narrating Globalization: Hybridity and Resistance in Amores Perros, Santitos and El Jardín del Edén.” Rupkatha Journal 2.3 (2010): 277-278. Print.
El Jardin Del Eden. Dir. María Novaro. Perf. Renée Coleman, Bruno Bichir, Gabriela Roel. Urban Vision, 1994. DVD.