Articles by

<Bradford Nordeen>

05/11/12 4:00am

Werner Schroeter
May 11-June 11 at MoMA

The cinematic movement known as the New German Cinema is a famously rich and fertile one. Running from the early 1960s into the 80s, a group of now-canonic filmmakers like Wim Wenders, Volker Schlondorf, Werner Herzog, Margarethe Von Trotta and Rainer Werner Fassbinder made films at an often breakneck speed, due, in part, to support from the recently established German Federal Film Board. There were, of course, always idiosyncratic auteurs who occupied the same film scene but didn’t fit in with this model of production, and didn’t promose the national cinema the same crossover potential. This cultier sect included figures like Ulrike Ottinger, Rosa von Praunheim and Werner Schroeter. Unlike the filmmakers mentioned above, whose films were predominantly structured around arthouse conventions, which were somewhat modernist in their machinations, Ottinger, Praunheim and Schroeter leaned more towards the experimental. As such, Ottinger and Praunheim have, over the years, found rich followings in the contemporary art world and in queer, academic film studies. And now, finally, it would seem that Werner Schroeter’s hour has arrived, as the Museum of Modern Art finally graces us with an exhaustive career-spanning retrospective, courtesy of the Munich Film Museum.

Fassbinder famously wrote, in 1979, of his colleague’s cinema:

Werner Schroeter will one day have a place in the history of film that I would describe in literature as somewhere between Novalis, Lautrémont, and Louis Ferdinanad Céline; he was an ‘underground’ director for ten years, and they didn’t want to let him slip out of that role… His films were given the convenient label of ‘underground,’ which transforms them in a flash into beautiful but exotic plants that bloomed so unusually and so far away that basically one couldn’t be bothered with, and therefore wasn’t supposed to bother with them. And that’s precisely as wrong as it is stupid. Werner Schroeter’s films are not far away; they are beautiful but not exotic. On the contrary.

Schroeter’s cinema is a studied mélange, fusing the seemingly associative nature of avant-garde film production with the exquisite, aesthetic rigor of German theatre or opera forms. His cinema speaks through its often breathtaking images. Schroeter was a timeless aesthete with the ability to traverse a full range of extravagant epochs in a singular frame, while remaining defiantly trained on the contemporary. His panache for the excessive and the hysterical nature he commanded of his performers gave way to a new brand of melodrama and an unprecedented potential for allegory in the cinema. Rather fittingly, his most famous film recounts the intense life and death of famed opera singer Maria Malibran, a headstrong mezzo-soprano who literally sang herself to death. In that film (Der Tod der Maria Maliban, 1971), historical affectations slip into contemporary tableaus, in scenes featuring Fassbinder regular (and first wife), Ingrid Caven and a pistol-toting Candy Darling.

His early, breakthrough work defined an aesthetic that would in large part characterize Schroeter’s career (the filmmaker died in 2010), which brings a contemporary, open-ended structural approach to more mannered or classically Romantic imagery, replete with languid pacing and those histrionic performance styles (a read exemplified by films like Malibran, Eika Katappa and Argila, both 1969). So, it’s nice to see that the diversity of films in this program showcase Schroeter’s breadth of vision, featuring more wily and often looked-over gems like Der Bomberpilot (1970, in which a trio of women move to America in order to become feminists, after their involvement in the Nazi party comes to an obvious dead end at the close of World War II) or the Southern California wasteland cult of Willow Springs (1972).

Joining Schroeter for many of his illustrious journeys, was the elegant and exceptional Magdalena Montezuma, a leading lady of the most experimental and Germanic variety. Starring in nearly all of Schroeter’s films until her death of cancer at 41, Montezuma was an unrivaled muse, the filmmaker’s Malibran, but also his surrogate—his King Herod, even his Macbeth (she would play the Lady role, respective of her sex, but that was for another adaptation by Schroeter’s contemporary, and former lover, Rosa von Praunheim). Her final film with Schroeter, Der Rosenkonig (1984), is billed as a directorial collaboration. It was devised and shot in haste (in Hans Christian Andersen’s former Portuguese estate, with the help of Pedro Costa), as the ailing Montezuma hoped to exact her desire to “die on set.” Such was her ardor and so brightly does the film glow with a radiance of vision, of love and of life. Interestingly, it is also Schroeter’s most explicitly homosexual affair. After the death of Montezuma (who endured another two weeks after Der Rosenkonig wrapped), the only actress who would broach this type of collaborative intensity with the director was Isabelle Huppert, who starred in two of the three features Schroeter would complete after Montezuma’s death, 1991’s Malina and 2002’s Deux.

During the heyday of the New German Cinema, Schroeter never accepted money from the Film Board, preferring, instead to independently finance his films, in order to maintain complete artistic control. This spirit of defiance worked to alienate many who would have helped these smoldering works see the light of day. The films of Werner Schroeter are some of the most artfully minded cinematic impressions ever captured. It’s no surprise that a retrospective took so long to execute. The cult of Schroeter is a rabid, zealous and, ultimately a masochistic one. Because of this singularity of vision, however, it is also no surprise that these passion plays have returned to our shores for the first time in 20 years and are revealing themselves, upon closer inspection, to be not only wild and flamboyant by design, but ultimately innately human and instinctual. As Fassbinder understood at the time of his writing, they are primal. Far, far from exotic.

11/22/11 2:39pm

Jack Smith

  • Jack Smith

Bradford Nordeen (curator of the Dirty Looks series, spotlighting queer experimental film) was at MoMA this past weekend for the debut of several newly restored films by underground film godhead Jack Smith. Three of the programs repeat this week.

A sold-out auditorium, crowded with every age demographic imaginable, though mostly young, in a hushed murmur of anticipation. No, this wasn’t the premier of The Immortals in glorious 3D, but an afternoon matinee premier of recently restored prints by Jack Smith, including his magnum opus, Flaming Creatures. Smith has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years, first through the legal debacles surrounding his estate and then through the resulting exhibition of works by the Barbara Gladstone gallery, who bought it up in 2008. In that show, Thank you for Explaining Me, curator Neville Wakefield invited three contemporary artists, all under 40, to respond to Smith’s flaming visions and secrets of Cinemaroc.

Smith was a man ahead of his time and there have been attempts to reintroduce him to the world—most prolifically in the 1997 PS1 exhibition Flaming Creature, which yielded a wonderful accompanying catalogue and occasioned the printing, on Serpent’s Tail press, of Smith’s collected writings, Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool. But, for some reason, that didn’t quite go off as well as curators had planned. Now, it seems, is the time.

Surrounding me at the MOMA yesterday were stalwart avant-garde regulars—folks like Views from the Avant-Garde curators Mark McElhattan and Gavin Smith and drag historian Joe E. Jeffreys, as well as original performers like Lola Pashalinski, Augusto Muchado and superstar Mario Montez (the event’s special guest). More tellingly, however, were the faces of a younger generation, performance artists and musicians, most of whom were well under 30. They crowded the space as if at vigil. After chatting with numerous acquaintances both before and after the program, I discovered that this MoMA screening was serving as their entrée into Smith’s oeuvre. And you could tell by the crowd: the roaring applause that welcomed Montez to the stage; the laughter that broke out amidst cock shots and dervishes; the cat-calling, “BORING” at lesser Smith titles (Overstimulated)… But the ovation which met Flaming Creatures, the last film on the bill, seemed to mostly come from the older contingent.

“I liked his use of color,” one friend explained after the screening, in reference to the first work screened: Respectable Creatures, a film which pieces together some of Smith’s earliest footage, from a 1950s film called Buzzards Over Baghdad, documentation of a carnival in Rio de Janeiro and unused footage from the 1963 filming of Normal Love. Flaming Creatures‘s placement, after this film, it seems brought attention away from this lavish restoration to the wily performative gestures, the zany props and eccentric stagings that would emerge from the Normal Love shoots.


  • Jack Smith’s NORMAL LOVE

This, unsurprisingly, is the work that Gladstone hoisted to the position of fine art in her reprinting of Smith’s photography: Pasty creatures spewing pearls and peacock witches feasting on pomegranates in flaming Technicolor, slideshows detailing Smith’s inventive use of color in Arabian facades and what could now be interpreted as radical faerie fantasias. This, it seemed, is what folks were picking up on in yesterday’s screening, and it’s an undeniable facet of Smith’s genius. Even later in the night, after many of us had shuffled over to the Museum of the Moving Image for their tribute Mario Montez, Superstar, one seasoned artist mused that Smith was not even a good filmmaker, that his contributions were of a more conceptual and aesthetic/political nature.

Then what of Flaming Creatures? To my surprise, numerous folks still fled during the screening. For me, Flaming Creatures is flawless cinema. The film, shot on a rooftop between 1962-63 on grossly outdated film stock with a wardrobe more consistent than its cast, offers a smoldering revision of Modernist aesthetics. Without Flaming Creatures, none of this color stuff would have been as rich. Susan Sontag half-bemoaned of the film: “of no sequence is one convinced that it had to last this long, and not longer or shorter.” Sontag recognized this gesture as inherent to the film’s mastery, its own sensual rigor. If there is tedium in the viewing of Flaming Creatures, it seems to stem from the film’s own lost-in-its-throes-ness, what J. Hoberman describes as “a world half-consumed in the heat of its own desire.”

The film will never look perfect; It was shot on stolen film, overexposed and then the internegative was lost for decades—only to be discovered literally on the street by filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia. It’s still kind of scratched, there are emulsion bubbles on the surface—but that only adds to the beauty of this image, this postmodern baroque tableau vivant, where pandrogynous revelers build heated scenes of whimsy from their own body accumulations.



Even for seasoned viewers, this new print teases nuance out of clouded sequences, each moment as clear as it’s ever going to be. And each moment, too, could function as a still photograph in its own right. But, more than Normal Love, more than No President, Flaming Creatures is Smith at his most cinematically learned, packing everything he found in Maria Montez, Josef Von Sternberg, Busby Berkeley, Dolores Del Rio and Ken Jacobs into that Blakean frame, and piling it high with veils, gauze, tapestries and cocks, dirty, wiggling feet and prosthetic noses, dancing, jiggling, writhing—it’s nonsense, but it has a clearly discernable narrative if that’s really what you want to ferret out of it. But that’s kind of not the point. Not the point of Smith’s whole legacy. After the vampire rises from her tomb and feeds on Francis Francine, the cast just embarks on a 20-minute dance party. That’s the point: the undoing of formal structures for sensual, even hedonistic ones, where pleasure informs an aesthetic more than logic—wrestles the formal drive from the hands of narrative into giddy revelry.

It’s a joy to watch a younger generation indulge in these works. But watch them again and again and again and this is what you’ll find. This is what comes out of Smith teasing the surface. It’s not just the pastel, pasty aesthetic (which is still so sumptuous and thrilling) but this overall political logic built on glee. “Let art continue to be entertaining, escapist, stunning, glamorous, and NATURALISTIC,” Smith wrote in the LAICA journal in 1978. “but let it also be loaded with information worked into the vapid plots of, for instance, movies… Thus you would have Tony Curis and Janet Leigh busily making yogurt; Humphrey Bogart struggling to introduce a civil law course into public schools; infants being given to the old in homes for the aged Ginger Rogers… soft, clear plastic bubble cars with hooks that attach to monorails built by Charlton Heston that pass over the Free Paradise of abandoned objects in the center of the city near where the community movie sets would also be; and where Maria Montez and Johnny Weismüller would labour to dissolve all national boundaries and release the prisoners of Uranus. But the stairway to socialism is blocked up by the Yvonne de Carlo Tabernacle Choir waving bloody palm branches and waiting to sing the ‘Hymn to the Sun’ by Irving Berlin.”

Like this deceptively eloquent text, and all great Baroque art, Smith builds image upon image, layer upon layer, to show a vertiginous world, one where an innate sensual politic is socialist, escapist, crude and glamorous, is dialectic with the landlordism that pervades our world of Capital, our lobster metropolis, converting it into a flaming playground for debris, glee and subversion.

10/13/11 9:50am


Bradford Nordeen, who curates the Dirty Looks queer experimental film series, reports on this year’s recently concluded Views from the Avant-Garde, the New York Film Festival’s annual experimental film sidebar.

The New York Film Festival’s annual Views From the Avant-Garde sidebar is the reigning festival of its kind. Which is to say, like other premier festivals, on offer here are the big budget, technically ambitious provocations and aesthetic explosions from celebrated festival regulars, with a few idiosyncratic newcomers thrown in for good measure. This years’ fest is noteworthy for its expansion, via the recently erected Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, adding a second screen and a plasma-walled amphitheater on which to launch peripheral programming. From university campuses across America, the leading contributors to avant-garde film assembled for a weekend’s worth of premieres. Sadly, there was a startling lack of creative innovation on offer from the impressive roster assembled.

While it’s a fact that strikes many passers by as (rightfully) ironic, avant-garde film is, itself, a genre. This has tended to generate generic structuring principles or conventions in a cinema fundamentally concerned with either dismantling viewing patterns or aesthetic advancement in film and video. There are different strains within the genre, to be sure, but these conventions have become a rubric for working for many involved, for a result that can possess the familiar air similar to other genre fare. And with 50-some odd years in, that genre has built a booming micro-industry, with museums and granting institutions standing in for the old Zugsmiths and the Selzicks who, alongside several choice academic departments, have ensured careers for the forerunners of the medium. If anything plagued this year’s annual Views, it is the creative Catch-22 that such a professional climate engenders.


Technically, the works have never looked so good: glowing Blu-Rays and 3D technologies saddled alongside the stalwart 16mm prints. Images were crisp and intoxicating. But there arose a shocking disconnect between the urgent voices ringing up from Wall Street and our Upper West Side theater. This year, more than in the recent past, the venerable Views curators, Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, presented countless pieces that weave crystalline images or push hi-def video technologies to extol the minutiae of the everyday. To this material effect, Views frequently lacked a politic. MM Serra’s Bitch-Beauty divided audiences, perhaps because it dashed those glimmering aesthetics, which stagnated so many offerings, for a messy and, ultimately thrilling, digital assemblage of found and original video, Super8mm and 16mm. There, the medium was not of primary concern, but the content it conveyed. Perhaps too explicit for many Viewers, Serra’s piece traced 20 years of life in the East Village as a woman: rape, heroin, performance art flowed into each other in her frenzied mash-up.


Placed within those same programs were recent Academy Film Archive restorations by preservationist Mark Toscano, which often overpowered the current output with pieces that were, while technically rudimentary, still culturally innovative or vital. In “Bitches Brew,” the program that featured Serra’s title, Daina Krumins’s 1982 Babobilicons reigned breathtakingly victorious. Her whirling surrealist masterpiece, created with old-school optical printing methods, constructs a rich tapestry of blossoming mushrooms, ladybugs and robotic crab-clawed critters who scurry about drawing room environs. Also impressing amid a smattering of promising filmmakers in the “Looking Through a Glass Onion” program (featuring Views regulars Dani Leventhal, Bobby Abate, Stephanie Barber, Michael Robinson, Laida Lertxundi, et al.), Peter Mays’s 1966 The Death of the Gorilla unleashed a burst of energy, which paired beautifully with Mary Helena Clark’s By foot-candle Light. Gorilla featured bright and primary-colored vintage adventure sequences, caught somewhere between Jack Smith and Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart and shot off of the television screen. May’s film spins a free-associative, dream narrative starring King Kong and Maria Montez, capturing the power of these images, beyond their often silly narrative premises. Clark’s film similarly drifted freely, between a theater scrim, a cave tour and one very expressive gentleman, holding your attention with his silent, performative tics and hammy mannerisms.

Lewis Klahr premiered his first feature film, The Pettifogger (pictured at top of page), an astounding progression for the single frame (a kind of cut and paste animation) filmmaker. The loaded psychology and inherent nostalgia triggered by outmoded magazine clippings, comic book cut-outs and other bric-a-brac and has for years preoccupied Klahr’s work, burrows deep into the unconscious, spurring liminal states. Here, the feature format grants Klahr the appropriate duration to introduce a compelling narrative (featuring casinos, a dame and a petty thief) and pull back—way back—into an extended sequence of inert screen time, flashed with fleeting frames of imagery, lulled with a monotonous soundtrack. The Pettifogger devolves consciousness into a fascinating dead zone of psychotropic entropy.


Ben Rivers’s exquisite Slow Action was another highlight. This dystopic post-apocalyptic sci fi fantasy layered gorgeous anamorphic 16mm footage with a collaborative text written with science fiction author, Mark von Schlegell. Slow Action dreams of future civilizations that colonize remote islands, once a catastrophic event wipes our slate clean. The accounts of island life conflict with the real-world visions, shot on location in Lanzarote, Nagasaki, Tuvalu and a final, tribal revision of the filmmaker’s native Somerset.

As glorious as that film was, alongside Ben Russell’s River Rites and Jonathan Schwartz’s A Preface to Red, these works showcased a suspicious trend towards ethnography. That strain of documentary would be a perfectly viable platform, were it not for the startling lack of racial diversity behind the camera. With a scant few exceptions, the only people of color that populated this year’s Views were caught within the far-roving lens of the astoundingly white (male) contributors. And while this weekend certainly showcased remarkable strides towards the advancement of the moving image, the politics of production and the interpretive content must be as carefully considered and vanguard. Otherwise, that counter-industry once trained to the fore might start to look a little behind the times.

07/26/11 8:54am


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.