By Farooq A. Kperogi
Conventional wisdom holds that art imitates life. But Oscar Wilde, the inimitable Irish writer and wag, once provocatively remarked, in his characteristically brilliant contortion and defamiliarization of settled existential certainties, that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life."
This apparently harebrained Wildean inversion of the axiomatic logic of the dialectics between life and art was bestowed an uncanny materiality when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States—in consonance with the plot line of The West Wing, a hugely successful American television serial drama in which a charming, idealistic, nonwhite Democratic presidential candidate defeats an old, experienced White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican maverick. (The drama was originally broadcast from 1999 to 2006).
It’s not just the similitude between the storyline and what happened on November 4, 2008 that is eerily congruent with Wilde’s celebrated iconoclastic rhetorical upending of conventional notions of reality; even the main characters in the drama series—the young Latino congressman Matthew Santos who ruptures racial barriers to become America’s first nonwhite president and Josh Lyman, the White House Chief of Staff in the series—were, according to the writers of the series, inspired by Obama and Rahm Emanuel (Obama’s pick for White House Chief of Staff) respectively!
Well, what has this got to do with Nigerian movies? A lot. It seems to me that while American filmic aesthetics has advanced to such creative sophistication that life is now literally imitating its art, Nigeria’s has degenerated to such a nadir of cinematic absurdity and incompetence that our art now imitates dreams.
Our movies are so hopelessly out of step with quotidian reality that instead of imitating life, or life imitating them, they are rather imitating dreams— dreams that are no more than a series of unstable, disordered, soporiferous parade of mental images and emotions that might seem perfectly logical during the unguarded moments of sleep but that strike one as completely illogical and implausible in retrospective wakefulness.
This is precisely the experience I came away with after watching an unbearably dreary Nigerian movie unoriginally titled Pretty Woman that an old Ghanaian lady from whom I buy Nigerian food here in Atlanta recommended to me a few days ago.
Over this past holiday season I got so oppressively overcome with gnawing boredom— and an inexplicable nostalgia for home— that I broke my vow never to subject myself to the torments of watching Nigerian movies after previous frustrations with their cheap, predictable storylines, slapdash plots, annoyingly inept acting skills, and poor technical quality.
But I thought Pretty Woman seemed different. It turned out, however, that I judged too hastily.
Here is a plot summary of the movie. A Lagos-based woman travels to her village in Eastern Nigeria for an event and sees this prepossessingly pulchritudinous but rustic—and impecunious— young girl. She immediately thinks that with a little polish the girl would be a perfect wife for his brother, an upwardly mobile young man in Lagos.
She drives back to Lagos and convinces her brother to seek the girl’s hand in marriage. After initial feeble reservations, he agrees to travel to the village. He is awestruck by his future wife’s raw but stunning beauty and decides without second thoughts to seek her hand in marriage.
After the wedding, he brings her to the city and literally spruces her up to meet his social standards. Then he buys her a huge grocery store. However, it is in this grocery store that she makes friends with two degenerate female chartered libertines who encourage her to cheat on her husband for financial gains. But throughout the film, she has sex with only one rich man. All other trysts are with younger men, most of them the boyfriends of the same ladies who introduce her to the life of debauchery and profligacy.
Rather than use the power of her beauty to make money, as her friends advise her, she instead buys houses for the young men she sleeps with. The husband notices that she has made unusually massive withdrawals from her bank account, but he does not suspect anything. He merely questions her without expecting an explanation.
She also begins to shirk her conjugal obligations: she comes home at ungodly hours, stops cooking, and resists all her husband’s sexual advances. Yet the husband has no suspicions. However, he is now deeply depressed and has lost his erstwhile infectious vitality and ebullience.
Then one day, one of his best friends tells him that he has circumstantial evidence that his wife is cheating on him. In an astonishingly off-the-wall move, he pounces on the friend and pounds him soundly. Huh? Is that how we behave to our best friends in real life? Well, that’s not the flakiest part of the movie.
The protagonist’s second best friend catches the lady with a young man at a hotel—almost pants down. But instead of telling on her to his friend, he demands his own “share.” The lady grudgingly obliges him in exchange for confidentiality.
One day, the family doctor summons the young man and tells him that he has aborted two pregnancies for his wife and wants to know if he and his wife have decided not to have children because he has just refused a third request for abortion pending the husband’s approval. It is at this point it dawns on the young man that his wife has been cheating on him. But why would a cheating woman go to the family doctor to abort unwanted pregnancies?
But the movie’s denouement is the most bizarre. Finally, all the men that this “pretty woman” had liaisons with discover that they have “AIDS” (not HIV, mind you!) and are predictably devastated. Her debauched friends discover too that she had been sleeping with their boyfriends and wail impotently upon discovering that she has “AIDS.”
The “pretty woman” later confesses to her husband that she had indeed been cheating on him and might have contracted “AIDS” from her many sexual escapades. The man is so riled up he resists her entreaties for pardon and throws her out of his house. But he later regrets this and cries like a baby for minutes on end—with disgusting mucous secretion running down his nose, and all!
Then his friend comes to confess to him that he too has contracted “AIDS” through his wife, asks for his forgiveness, and tells him that the other friend he punched badly for telling him his wife was cheating on him is his true friend. To this, he acts incredulous. In spite of the new revelations before him, he still appears furious with the friend who’d told him the truth about his wife’s infidelity.
But, curiously, it turns out that the “pretty woman” tests negative to “AIDS”! The protagonist’s friend also tests negative. And newspapers all over the country have front-page stories rhapsodizing over the fact that the “pretty woman” has tested negative to “AIDS,” although we were never told that her infidelity was a national story.
Now, the young man, rather than being embarrassed that the shameful conduct of his wife is now grist in the mill of the national press, is overjoyed. And that’s the end of the movie! But, rather oddly, the message at the end reads: “AIDS is real!”
Now, this can’t be an imitation of life. This looks more like an imitation of dreams, of phantasmagoria—a constantly kaleidoscopic miscellany of real or imagined images. In dreams, we sometimes helplessly suspend our credulity and accept narratives that run contrary to commonsense. But in the well-ordered and familiar structures of wakefulness we wonder why we believed the illogicalities and inconsistencies of the events, timelines, and images in the dream. Now, Nigerian movies have literally elevated this to an art.
This movie is merely representative of most Nigerian movies. And one can’t help but wonder what drives the creative impulses of the writers of our movies. Is this a conscious genre, or is it a manifestation of rank incompetence and egregious creative deficit? Why do sane and rational people watch and enjoy these movies?
Surprisingly, the popularity of Nigerian movies is growing, even in the historic African Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere—that is, in the Caribbean and the Americas—where people are expected to have more sophisticated cinematic sensibilities. The movies are also increasingly attracting scholarly attention in moving image studies.
I must be missing something. Am I, perhaps, guilty of gazing at Nigerian films, not on their own terms but through the canonical cinematic lenses of Hollywood?