Ofelia’s Kiss: Racing the Sticky Fingers of Time
The Sticky Fingers of Time is a richly layered, low-budget, sci-fi independent film about the encounter of time travelers Tucker Harding (Terumi Matthews), “a writer of hard-boiled fiction” living in the 1950s, and Drew (Nicole Zaray), “a jaded woman with blossoming self-destructive urges,” who is also a writer but living in the 1990s. After Tucker is mysteriously murdered on her way back to the 1950s, Drew’s investigation brings her to Ofelia (Belinda Becker), “a futuristic femme fatale” who, in forcing Drew to accept that she cannot undo a past loss, propels her into a quest to save Tucker from Ofelia’s kiss of death. 1
In some ways The Sticky Fingers of Time follows a typical bildungsroman pattern: a young woman discovers her self and in the process realizes her vocation as a writer. Drew, a white woman living in New York’s Lower East Side, struggles with a general lack of direction and satisfaction in her life. She is unable to resist a former lover, Dex, or to labor at what seems to be her only deserving pursuit: writing. Consequently, she feels that life is not worth living and makes an inept attempt at suicide. Her gloomy existence takes a literary twist when it becomes entwined with that of Tucker, who has been “stimulated” by her sadistic lover, Ofelia, to time-travel from the 1950s and meet her death—as well as Drew—in the 1990s. [End Page 425]
When interviewing Hilary Brougher, the film’s screenwriter and director, I felt compelled to ask why the satanic, red-clad femme fatale is the only prominent black actor or actress in the picture. (A black actor has a supporting role. His lines are all obscene jokes concerning “pink” body parts.) Brougher’s answer was that she had cast the people whom she knew and who had showed up for the auditions; it had never been her intention to cast either black or white. Symptomatically, Brougher’s color blindness characterized all available press materials, including the reviews that appeared in the gay press in Miami, where I first saw the film. The reviews tended to highlight the film’s cerebralness and “bisexual pentangles,” leaving racial questions unaddressed. Toward the end of our conversation Brougher brought up a complex question in response to my query: “What’s the alternative, not casting a black actress for a part just because she is black?” 2
As Isaac (James Urbaniak), Tucker’s friend and another of Ofelia’s lovers, comments about nonlinear time, the question offers no easy way out: “Whatever you do, or don’t do—it sticks.” Hence, I am not arguing against casting black actors in parts not “meant” for them. Rather, I am suggesting that racialization—the process by which certain social groups are deemed to have and to belong to a distinct race and thus to represent an absolute difference in relation to seemingly unmarked social groups—must be taken into account. Neither as cultural producers nor as spectators can we escape its effects. In this review I will explore the impact of casting black on the racialized narrative economy of The Sticky Fingers of Time as well as the effects of literally seeing black. In this sense my reading stems from the premise that “this world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” 3 The fundamental question I pose is, why does an experimental queer narrative require a black woman to acquire meaning and erotic tension as well as to establish a white lesbian normative identity? 4
One of the film’s central propositions is that gender can be represented as an arrangement of fashion and surface matter in relation to the more complex on ne sait quoi of desire. The ambiguity of Tucker’s and Drew’s names, the interchangeability of characters, and repetition-with-a-difference are underscored at many junctures, from Ofelia’s mistaken-identity murder of a friend passing as Drew (to obtain free dental care), through the use of the same lines in different contexts, to the gesture of Tucker trying on Drew’s nonprescription glasses. Desire is continually realigned throughout the narrative as in a chain: Tucker is first seen kissing Ofelia, then in the company of Isaac, and finally in bed with Drew. Drew is first seen with her ex-boyfriend, Dex, then next to Tucker, then kissed by Ofelia, and [End Page 426] finally living with Tucker. The eroticization of the oral—Ofelia’s kiss, Tucker’s asking for food and maternally watching Drew eat, Isaac’s cooking, and the importance of leaving someone at home to feed the white (pussy)cat—suggests that sexual indeterminacy and bisexuality serve a pre-oedipal sexuality.
Within this insistence on the oral, however, the open-ended, polymorphous chain of desire is interrupted, perhaps contaminated, by Ofelia’s phallic appearance. Once her desire casts its shadow across the frame, Tucker dies and Drew suddenly finds meaning in her life, orienting her random desire onto a specific object (Tucker). The virtually seamless way that blackness evokes danger, death, love, and revelation recalls Toni Morrison’s project in her study of canonical American literature, Playing in the Dark: “I was interested . . . in the ways black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change emphasis in literature not written by them.” 5
While science fiction films, novels, and television programs allow for imagining nonrealist characterizations and narrative possibilities, Ofelia’s initial decorative eroticism is eventually superseded by her role as killer—two predictable uses of blackness to mediate white anxieties, fears, and pleasures. Black surrogacy significantly complicates a psychoanalytic critique of The Sticky Fingers of Time as a prime example of the “masochistic aesthetic.” 6 In Drew, the film provides a character invested in masochistic pleasure within a structure designed to prolong and consummate a symbiosis with the mother, even if the risk of achieving such pleasure is death. In fact, Isaac, Tucker, and Drew all display masochistic tendencies, while Ofelia’s blackness (beyond and in excess of the actress’s skin color) racializes sadistic pleasure as either tied indexically to blackness or emerging from blackness (as Ofelia’s two “white” extensions—hitmen—are made from her soul’s “code”). In addition, Ofelia’s body and speech erupt in white time with the seemingly boundless power to fulfill her desire by killing Drew and Tucker. As Gaylyn Studlar describes the prototype: “The freedom Sade’s heroines achieve is obtained at the price of destroying other women” (19).
But what if Ofelia has not been cast as a sadist but has been called on to play a sadist in the narrative? Can we not read her in nonrealistic terms? After all, she not only time-travels in the guise of an excessive femme fatale but is seen simultaneously concerned with the evening meal and microwaving a pair of engineered fingers. Following this mode of identification, Ofelia can be understood as a willing participant in masochistic role-playing, enjoying the game along with the other partners. The narrative offers a partial basis for this reading in Ofelia’s climactic exchange with Drew: [End Page 427]
OFELIA. We’ve got our parts to play. And mine is to kill. And Tucker’s is to die.
DREW. And mine?
OFELIA. Yours is to do nothing.
DREW. You’re wrong.
OFELIA. Am I? Careful, Drew. Don’t write yourself out of the book.
Despite the seductiveness of this reading for some spectators, it does not invalidate the fact that through multiple incidences of racialized shorthand, Ofelia is invested with the repressiveness of phallic sexuality and is ultimately eliminated not by death but by a racialized substitution.
The allusion to writing—“Don’t write yourself out of the book”—points to another tension through which Ofelia’s black surrogacy is emphasized. While we do not know her biography (she describes herself as “self-engineered,” outside time and narrative), she is the only character who seems to possess a biography (the book The Sticky Fingers of Time), written by two whites. The fundamental difference between Drew and Tucker (victims, writers) and Ofelia (victimizer, engineer) also signifies racialized difference through the predictable undervaluation of oral language in relation to the written word. In the polysemic opening scene, for instance, Tucker is writing and Ofelia leans in to finish her thought. Tucker begins: “Time has five fingers. One is the past, two is the present, three is the future . . .” Ofelia completes the sentence orally: “. . . and four is what could have been and five for what yet could be.” While Ofelia contributes the most original part of the sentence, when the scene is repeated at the end of the film, Drew sits down not to dictate but to write the end of Tucker’s novel. Thus, although Ofelia is invested with mastery of the physical universe, Tucker and Drew control the signs that constitute reality and fantasy. Ofelia’s violence against not only white women but writers who give birth to their “creations” and to each other is consistent with her casting as a sadist who seeks the destruction of maternal nurturing and the ability to reproduce, even if only symbolically.
Ofelia is doubly dangerous because the contaminating potential of her blackness extends to light-skinned people. For instance, J. L. (Thomas Pasley) and the Dental Assistant of Death (Julie Anderson) are both white, yet by virtue of Ofelia’s code engineering (they carry parts of hers), they are extensions of evil. While the white extensions are potentially destabilizing to the rigid racial coding of good and bad, the film overwhelms this possibility by additionally casting Ofelia as a phallic black beast, morphologizing her demonic power in a penislike extension to her body: a tail.
In sum, Ofelia is less an attempt to represent a black character than a narrative [End Page 428] shorthand both to insinuate blackness itself (the “darkness” in human passions) and to conjure stereotypes linked to black women that make the narrative culturally plausible for a segment of the audience. The basis of Ofelia’s grudge against Tucker, for instance, is the wish to eliminate the possibility that her lover Isaac will leave her for a white woman. At the same time, when Ofelia learns of Isaac’s infidelity, she has no qualms about chopping his fingers off—a blatant reference to castration, given that these two fingers are the ones that enable Isaac to time-travel and indeed were engineered by Ofelia herself. In this sense Ofelia is the quintessential “black bitch,” killing for but also capable of castrating her man.
Linked to the struggle to control the narrative in the film are the problematics of time. During most of its eighty-one minutes, the film revels in and reveals the mechanics of travel and the ways that the main characters struggle against time. While most of the film’s running time is dedicated to the three main white characters’ untimely ménage à trois, Ofelia reappears with full intensity during the last twenty minutes and affects every character’s life or death timing. The relationship between linear time and death is overtly represented on the cover of Tucker’s novel, The Sticky Fingers of Time, where a color drawing of Ofelia sits above the caption “A mysterious woman with time to kill.”
Unlike every other character, Ofelia does not seem subject to the contingency of time travel; instead, she provokes and stimulates its course. In this sense the coordinates of time itself are aligned with phallic power, a thing that one either has or does not have. Isaac, for instance, is constantly fearful of having no time, of being unable to contain the black menace of Ofelia’s superior will. Time is signified by his pocket watch, a wandering phallus similar to Ofelia’s tail/tale. Linear time is what whites lack, and this lack may prove deadly to them, since they have lost their mastery over time by implicating racial others in their own identity. In the opening sequence, for example, Ofelia kisses Tucker before she takes her fateful journey to the 1990s; toward the end of the film she also kisses Drew to stimulate a trip toward family disintegration.
However, Ofelia’s kiss is ultimately ambiguous: it seems to constitute the ultimate sadistic act in its victimization of women, but in relocating the subject onto a time/space where Ofelia can encounter her love object, it again serves rather than threatens the narrative. In these multiple ambivalences—blackness as evil or serviceable, blackness as phallic or as a mediation to pre-oedipal wholeness, blackness as a nonthreatening fantasy or as a threat to life—the film resolves its own desires by visually eliminating the other’s desire. Blackness is the means to enact a mutation, a breaking down, a disruption of proper narrative and subjectivity—in short, difference. Hence, when Tucker tells Drew how she met [End Page 429] Ofelia—with Isaac sitting, significantly, in the middle—she recalls: “A woman writer gets an out of town gig through an editor friend she leaves in charge of her cat. When she returns, he’s missing. The friend, not the cat. In his place, she finds a woman who starts to grow on her like green on cheese.”
Less obvious than the overt racialized shorthand of Ofelia’s characterization as the container of moral darkness, bodily blackness, and sexual bestiality is her function as the trigger to the white female characters’ future and their ability to relocate themselves, literally to write themselves as, protagonists in the narrative. (Not coincidentally, Ofelia means “help” in Greek.) In defying Ofelia’s cruelty, Drew finally articulates a clear sense of purpose, which makes her a “human” (ethical, capable of caring for others), a writer (capable of narrating her own destiny), and, arguably, a lesbian (defined but unremarked). In mobilizing Drew’s affection for Tucker, Ofelia unwittingly erases herself and saves “our” white creative foremother from effacement, symbolically rescuing the protofeminists of the 1950s, who against great odds wrote and paved the way for the ungrateful spoiled young (white) women writers of the present. Ofelia’s castration of Isaac seemingly safeguards the happiness of the lesbian domesticated couple, safely tucked under the preatomic age of blissful careerism. In these racialized substitutions Tucker is the object desired by all subjects. Her desirability traverses a sexually and ethnically ambiguous male (Isaac) through a black and sexually (phallic) dangerous female (Ofelia), but ultimately it is at home only with a white woman (Drew).
In the blissful living room where Tucker and Drew are reinscribed as a couple in the last scene, and where Tucker’s activity enables Drew to invoke her writerly self, Ofelia and Isaac are obliterated. In fact, the domestic ideal that the narrative destroys is that of Ofelia and Isaac living an unconventional life in a gothic mansion on Staten Island. This erasure is complex, since Ofelia and Isaac are simultaneously an interracial, queerly gendered (phallic woman and castrated man) couple, cyborgian (engineered), infrahuman (possessing animal traits), and oedipal in their sadistic sexuality. In this sense, while Ofelia is potentially the most transgressive character in the film, the multiple ways that the narrative both allows and represses her pleasures (Ofelia’s own and the spectator’s) undermine and constrain the possibilities offered by Ofelia’s kiss.
The spatialization of Ofelia and Isaac’s obliteration is made clear by a comparison of the opening and closing sequences. While the first frames of the narrative show us Tucker and Ofelia in the same domestic space, with Tucker writing, the last frames show Drew at the typewriter, eagerly attempting to complete Tucker’s book, The Sticky Fingers of Time, and hence cocreating the narrative. Drew’s substitution for Ofelia literally prevents Tucker’s death and guarantees the [End Page 430] completion of the novel. Hence, while in Morrison’s reflection on American literature the enslaved black population serves as the surrogate for reflection on freedom and the terror of being unfree for whites, in the film the black persona awakens the potential for action, “good” lesbian desire, pre-oedipal sexuality, and purpose. In this sense Ofelia serves the duties of “exorcism and reification and mirroring” by allowing Drew to adopt a new identity, that of a lesbian fiction writer. 7 Consistently, the return to the mother via pre-oedipal sexuality is racialized; it is the return to the white mother and the elimination of the (bad) phallus marked as black.
In psychoanalytic terms, the film’s foregrounded nonlinear narrative structure suggests a pre-oedipal pleasure in which the appearance and disappearance of objects, and the ultimate return to/arrival at a symbiotic relationship with the mother, are clearly articulated through Drew’s journey. The possibility of warding off the unpleasure of total surrender to Tucker via a weak identity is guaranteed by Drew’s confrontation with the racialized other. Drew’s mission, once Ofelia “cruelly” shows her that the return to the mother is impossible (in a subplot involving Drew’s desire to save her own family by averting the divorce that occurred in her childhood), leads Drew to defy Ofelia’s phallic law and prevent Tucker’s death as a way of keeping her desire alive. In some way Drew undergoes a crash course in ego formation through Ofelia that allows her in the end to enjoy nongenital bliss with Tucker. Indeed, the psychic danger and exhilaration of fusion are not foreclosed by the narrative, since Drew takes over the narratival role from Tucker; they are now fused as writers of the same text. Thus Drew experiences a rebirthing mediated by Tucker’s body/language.
The continuous reversibility of time, desire, and race—Isaac is running out of time and has no phallus, Ofelia has a lot of “time to kill” and has the phallus—suggests that jumping the time line goes in tandem with the disavowed crossing over the color line. While the time line stages a masochist desire through repetition and role reversal, Ofelia is excluded from the joy of pre-oedipal sexuality so signified. In this context it is interesting to comment on how the opening of the film also plays with, and seduces through, the eroticization of lesbian interracial desire but ultimately retracts this option, remaining instead in the comfort zone of sameness. In The Sticky Fingers of Time there is neither a politicization nor an eroticization of race but a literal demonization of interracial relations. Ofelia’s presence is tolerated to the extent that she facilitates a meditation on the white and queer self and that what she represents is contained in her character alone. As Chéla Sandoval writes, “Difference is treated as a controlled substance: to be enjoyed in small doses, always under conditions of moderation and restraint.” 8 Ofelia’s darkness [End Page 431] may have not been “planned,” but the film’s narrative economy is almost unthinkable without her: the narrative aligns spectatorship with pre-oedipal pleasure coded as white, through and at the expense of the facile casting of sadistic, phallic violence as black. The racist cultural associations between blackness and violence represent an obstacle to a more transgressive reading.
The role of Ofelia in making the narrative possible begs the question of whether whiteness is, as Morrison and other critics suggest, invisible and empty. Morrison partly summarizes this position: “Whiteness alone is mute, meaningless, unfathomable pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable.” 9 While most of these observations are applicable to this film, in it whiteness signifies above all an awakening from a trauma and a complicity with it.
In her “Director’s Notes” Brougher describes the 1950s as a time in which evil and creativity lived side by side, producing a more “exciting” cultural space than the present:
I think I chose the 50s for the film’s “past” chapters because it was the decade of my parents’ childhoods, and somehow the farthest back I feel I can personally touch and/or indirectly remember. It’s also possible that I have millennium fever, and can’t help feeling a sense that much of what was beginning then for America is ending now (take for example advertising culture, blossoming then, smothering us now). But along with the portents of destruction in the Cold War and the H Bomb, it was also a time when writers were working with a freshness and urgency (Baldwin, Burroughs, the Beats) and art and jazz were getting “modern.” 10
In Brougher’s formulation, the 1950s also represent a time that predates the overt identity movements—gay, feminist, black—in which whiteness apparently went uncontested.
The allusions to the H-bomb and to black music, as well as Drew’s traveling at precisely those moments when circumstances are about to overwhelm her, insist that she—like the narrative—suffers from trauma and is possessed by guilt. The experience of time travel can be understood as traumatic, following Cathy Caruth’s definition of trauma as “the breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world.” 11 In this sense Ofelia, the phantasmagoric figure of blackness, traumatizes whiteness, since she is able—through a kiss, a seduction—to disrupt white time and hence its unquestioned possession and privileged relationship to history. Once Drew travels back, however, time seems to be malleable only on the page, through creativity, a willed attempt to restore and give [End Page 432] meaning to experience and the self. Drew’s withdrawal from consciousness at every climactic juncture of her life creates the effect that in every awakening she is, literally, not herself. In other words, her evasion of “real time” prevents Drew from producing a writerly self, since the building blocks of narrative and subjectivity are constantly missing.
Awakening in a fright of not knowing how she has survived, and unable to offer testimony through writing, Drew cannot fulfill the “ethical imperative” in relating to others. In overcoming Ofelia’s will to see her dead, however, Drew flees the present, and in finally awakening to the acknowledgment of survival—from her parents’ divorce when she was a child, from Tucker’s death, from the attempt on her life—she founds an identity that, although it is bound to Tucker’s and Ofelia’s identities, nevertheless allows for its own fictionalization; it is narrativizable in its alleged simplicity and readability.
Significantly, although Drew saves herself and Tucker and hence successfully retreats to the safety of whiteness as sameness, the allusion to the H-bomb—“atoms coming together like a billion sunsets”—implies that there is a visibly catastrophic side to whiteness. As the narrative reveals, being a “time freak” is “a condition caused by the post H-bomb mutation of their souls, which allows the affected subjects to travel spontaneously—and often involuntarily—in time.” 12 The A-bomb, meant to “end the war” by sacrificing Japanese civilians, comes back in the form of the H-bomb to haunt whiteness, to alter its code, and to remake whites as damaged and unproductive (Ofelia’s two white “extensions”). As a result, some white subjects lose control of their wills, of their sovereignty as subjects of narrative (and history). The ultimate punishment is that the film’s white characters are also subjected by and to Ofelia in a compromised tribute to black self-invention, creativity, and survival.
In eliding the consequences of the bomb, The Sticky Fingers of Time suggests, in spite of itself, that white violence against people of color also disrupts white lives, even linking white identity to those identities that it destroys. Although the question of Drew’s identity seems to be solved by the narrative—as in a Nancy Drew mystery—the film’s disavowal of trauma condemns whiteness to one (another) hundred years of solitude as Drew returns to save Tucker, not to intervene in the consequences of the H-bomb, to prevent the death of civilians, or to engage racial oppression in the United States.
By relocating in time—by leaving the present—whiteness returns to an allegedly uncontested space that is contrasted with the 1970s, when women were divorcing men and kids suffered as a result of it and with the 1990s, when there is no imperative for transformative action and no social, racial, or cultural taboo to [End Page 433] subvert. In sum, The Sticky Fingers of Time literally begs the question of the future of whiteness.
“Through the protagonist Drew, we are forced to take charge of our imagination and believe in our ability to ‘travel,’ a metaphor for writing, for imagining and for materializing intuition. Time travel is the perfect device because it is not confined to a desk; it is utterly cinematic and can take you anywhere. Around this notion of traveling at will—of choosing your future—I wanted to make a film that would challenge our jadedness as an audience and cause us to speculate with uninhibited pleasure.” 13 While the film narrates desire as a quest for symbiosis, the only vehicle to achieve this pre-oedipal, nonnormative bliss goes through the body of a black phallic woman, who at the same time is subservient to the seemingly subversive needs of white women. The Sticky Fingers of Time makes Ofelia’s kiss frightening and dangerous, because it activates predictable racial premises. Yet there are so many other ways to savor that kiss.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is an award-winning independent filmmaker, cultural critic, and writer based in Miami. She is coeditor of Shouting in a Whisper: Latino Poetry in Philadelphia (1994) and Puerto Rican Jam: Rethinking Colonialism and Nationalism (1997) as well as director of Brincando el Charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican, among other films.
* I would like to thank Robert Rosenberg, who brought The Sticky Fingers of Time to my attention and motivated me to write a review of it, and Hilary Brougher, who graciously granted me an interview and entertained my sometimes extravagant questions. Special thanks to Patricia White, who offered support, critical commentary, and crucial editorial suggestions.
2. Hilary Brougher, interview by the author, Miami Beach, Fla., 10 October 1998.
3. James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1984), 175.
4. I owe this succinct way of expressing the question to several exchanges with Patricia White.
5. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage, 1993), viii.
6. Gaylyn Studlar, In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
7. Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 39.
8. Chéla Sandoval, “Theorizing White Consciousness for a Post-Empire World: Barthes, Fanon, and the Rhetoric of Love,” in Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, ed. Ruth Frankenberg (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 89.
9. Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 59. See also Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997).
11. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 4.
12. “Director’s Notes.”