Dirty Looks Curator Bradford Nordeen on the Hollywood Stars of Avant-Garde Cinema

07/26/2011 8:54 AM |


Bradford Nordeen curates Dirty Looks, a monthly series of queer experimental film and video. This month’s program, a rooftop screening of films about the Hollywood star machine, will be presented tomorrow evening at Silverhead in Chelsea; it’ll be called “Under the Stars.” Our friends at birdsong have prepared a publication for the event, and in the meantime, Nordeen has contributed these notes on the program he’s assembled.

75 years ago, Joseph Cornell invented the fan edit. From a trivial adventure film, Cornell did away with narrative pretense, spinning that Hollywood yarn into an intricate and obsessive study, a loving portrait of the film’s female star, Rose Hobart. Sometimes stars endure, long after their movies have become démodé. As such, there’s an honesty of vision to Cornell’s film, which trims the large production to its luminous lead. On July 27th, Dirty Looks will host a rooftop screening of Cornell’s film, Rose Hobart, alongside works that take as their starting point stars, starlets and purveyors of the dream machine.

For some time, experimental artists have turned to stars for their alchemical effect. Assembling found footage or in rare moment of direct access, these filmmakers employ star imagery for a succinct visual power, a kind of glyphic language akin to contemporary mythology. Whether it’s Kenneth Anger’s gossipy tales of old Hollywood in his Hollywood Babylon books or Warhol’s reinvention of the canon for the Factory, stars form a visual framework which commands power over us all. Floating in their fantastical realm, between fact and fiction, stars truly are heavenly bodies. When they appear, pasted into more handmade productions, their meaning is subtly undone and their image becomes shockingly personal. We begin to see how one reads them.

Rose Hobart, for instance, projects a personal psychology, since each seemingly random edit was, in fact, deliberate and selected. Ultimately, the film becomes as much a portrait of Cornell, of this personal obsession, as it is a dreamy vision of its starlet. Lewis Klahr’s Her Fragrant Emulsion (1987) is more invasive a confrontation. Lifting footage from B-actress Mimsy Farmer’s performance in Road to Salina, Klahr works at the very surface of the source footage, to reach out and caress dear Mimsy. The result is erotic, uncanny and somewhat disturbing.


As is Glen Fogel’s video Quarry (2008). In the work, Fogel inserts himself into an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, portraying a pedophile with tremendous olfactory skills. The footage spastically cuts between the original cast member and Fogel’s reenactment, as they take a trip down memory lane, sniffing the baseball caps their young victims. Fogel and his doppelganger drone the names of each boy and Mariska Hargitay looks on in contempt, clearly not amused.


A more devotional title is Matthias Müller’s Home Stories (with Dirk Schaefer, 1990). Here, Müller links together gestures and conventions of the 1950s woman’s film, rephotographing footage directly from the T.V. screen. Through the films (which include The Birds, Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, Portrait in Black, Madame X, All that Heaven Allows amongst many others), these starlets— well… mostly Lana Turner—obsessively repeat melodramatic gestures. They hurl themselves upon the bed, fly up the stairs in suspense, pensively switch on a lamp or run to the door in terror. Müller’s film is perhaps the most critical in its investigation of behavioral stereotyping. Still, there’s definite homage being paid to these potentially problematic films, for who could make such an intricate picture without ultimately being in love with the source material?


With their signature styles, Marie Menken and Luther Price train their cameras on the filmmakers, themselves. In Andy Warhol (1963-64), Menken, granted an insider’s access to Warhol’s Factory, films a far more industrious artist than the dandy Andy is often mistaken as. And Price creates a very elliptical portrait of the recently deceased experimental filmmaker with his A Hallow Kiss for Mark LaPore (2008).

Rounding out the program, Paul Mpagi Sepuya will premier a new work, The Maids. Like the other films collected here, Sepuya manages star persona as a persuasive and ideological tactic. Glenda Jackson and Susannah York shine through, in the footage Sepuya mines from the 1975 film adaptation of Jean Genet’s The Maids. Our recognition of them grants far greater entry to experimental cinema than we might otherwise afford. It’s exciting, unnerving and strangely liberating, stargazing out of the Hollywood formulae; to watch the public icons perform private dramas is a rare sight to behold, a release from the mainstream ideologies that guide dominant film culture.