blow up, break away: mod revolution

Blow Up (1966 dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) begins with David Hemmings playing the character of Thomas photographing a lithe blonde model (Vanessa Redgrave?). As he steps over her with his camera, the model writhes prone on the floor. Thomas shouts pre-orgasmic phrases usually relegated to a breathy moan, “give it to me”, “yes, yes, oh yes!” The mock sexual conduct climaxes as he leans over his camera and kisses the young model’s ear. The shot is taken and he exits to sit spent on the couch, as she rises, unsatisfied, and leaves the room. The scene establishes the unilateral direction of power given to the photographer and the blatantly sexual dynamics of the photographer/model relationship.

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The next scene is another photoshoot, this time with several models, one of them a cameo by Peggy Moffitt. Moffitt is in her classic Vidal Sassoon geometric hair and makeup of her own design– mirrored metallic triangles set beneath heavy liner and lashes. Moffitt poses snake-like, each hold a seamless reflection of the previous pose and a midpoint for the next.

The photographer, pedantic and patronizing, stops the fluid dance, shouting “re-think it! Start again!” and continues to berate and belittle the models before him. “Wake up!” “Smile, I asked you to smile- do you know what a smile is?” he barks before ending the shoot and the scene.

Blow Up’s intention, in part, was to mirror a phenomena of the swinging 60s, exemplified by designer Rudi Gernreich, his photographer/collaborator William Claxton and his model/collaborator Peggy Moffitt. The three came to define the mod look of the 60s, and created an entirely new paradigm for modelling, fashion and fashion photography. Despite her cameo in Blow Up, Moffitt’s modelling career with Claxton and Gernreich was defined not by a paternalistic exploitation of her choreography, but by a collaborative spirit in which she and Gernreich worked together to define a “Total Look” of the 60s.

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Gernreich’s designs stirred controversy (his monokini continues to shock even by contemporary standards) and defined the era. For a runway show in 1971, Gernreich outfitted the models in fairly standard knitted separates, but accessorized them with dogtags and rifles. Only a few months after the student shootings at Kent State, Gernreich reiterated his refusal of normative standards of fashion and voiced his politicization of the medium, stating “Women are on the warpath, they’re tired of being sex objects.”1

Surreptitiously using the medium of fashion to implode it’s own codes, Gernreich and Moffitt blew apart conventions in order to question them and their relevance in an ever expanding cultural zeitgeist. Reconstructing the troubling power binaries of photographer/subject, the collaboration brought about an entirely new lens for dressing and photographing the female body. Reversing the course of Dior’s “New Look” which structured and constricted the feminine form at the chest and waist, many of Gernreich’s designs were voluminous, taking inspiration from the caftan. Many more featured transparent panels or bared breasts to accentuate the body rather than conceal and reform it. Moffitt’s body in these clothes did not seem particularly more susceptible to the lustful eye, but rather engaged it– spoke directly to it as an equal participant rather than as a submissive.  

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No longer a sexualized object to inspire desire, Moffitt’s direct gaze and choreographed movements revealed her artistic control in the deployment of her body. Moffitt was able to animate a narrative for the designs that pushed them into the creation of a politicized, feminist world; one where the function of design is no longer to sexualize the female body but to assist in its liberation.

From the beginning of their collaboration in the early 1960s, Moffitt designed her own makeup for each shoot and runway show. The shared creative syncopation pushed Moffitt and Gernreich down similar aesthetic and conceptual paths simultaneously and wordlessly.

The most amazing example of our being on the same page occurred with the 1968 resort collection. By this time I was living in New York and had no idea what Rudi’s collection would look like. Just before he came to town, something compelled me to design a very exotic Siamese face. When I saw the clothes and Rudi saw the makeup, neither of us could believe it. It looked like the same person had designed both.2

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Released the same year as Blow Up and Gernreich and Moffitt’s 1966 collection film Basic Black, Bay Area-based artist Bruce Conner created BREAKAWAY (1966, dir. Bruce Conner), a 5-minute experimental film starring a 23-year old Toni Basil.

BREAKAWAY (1966) is unlike much of Conner’s body of collage and assemblage work while maintaining his line of questioning. Filmed by Conner himself, a rarity in his body of work, the film questions cinematic convention through medium and representations of the female body.

This notion of remixing found footage was key to almost all of his films, although he did also insert his own footage, here and there. BREAKAWAY is the big exception as it’s completely his footage, but its a driven, frantic, complex montage and its aesthetics show he’s continuing his exploration of the representation of the female body.” – Rudolf Frieling2.

Featuring Toni Basil as the object of the camera’s gaze and the singer of the accompanying title track, BREAKAWAY acts as a collaboration between Basil’s choreography and voice and Conner’s manipulation of medium.
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The film is five minutes long. It opens with a credit, “Antonia Christina Basilotta” (Toni Basil’s full name), followed by the title, BREAKAWAY. Conner often played with movie titles and authorship. A Movie (1958, dir. Bruce Conner), for example, disrupts narrative time by inserting the title cards and countdown sequences, “A MOVIE… BY BRUCE CONNER” throughout the duration of the film. Immediately crediting Basil, and only Basil, alerts the viewer of the collaborative nature of the film.

The first 2.5 minutes are a spasmodic, strobing exploration of Basil’s body and movement set to driving Northern Soul beats. Toni Basil is first introduced to us in an outfit that could have been a Gernreich design from the cutting room floor. She wears a black bra and leggings cut through with holes that double as polka dots. The polka dots both reveal and disguise her body as she hits poses. Her poses are smooth and articulate, but spliced with black frames that strobe and distort the movement.

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Bruce Conner, Breakaway, 1966. Collection of MoMA NY.

The song, composed by Ed Cobb and sung by Basil, is the main narrative force of BREAKAWAY. Piano riffs punctuate loose driving guitar and drums to push forward lyrics like

“I’m gonna break away from all the chains that bind/ And everyday I’ll wear what I want and do what suits me fine/ Hey, hey I’m gonna break away, break away from the everyday”

Like a manifesto for a newly liberated world, the lyrics follow Basil as she gyrates with the deliverance of a lone dancer in their bedroom.

Sometimes credited as being the father of the music video, Conner often drew inspiration from music, as in a video collaboration with DEVO for the song “Mongoloid”, Cosmic Ray (1962 dir. Bruce Conner) an experimental film set to the Ray Charles song “What’d I Say”, and his photographic exploration of the 1970s San Francisco punk scene (some photos also featured Toni Basil). BREAKAWAY syncs its strobing camerawork with the heavy downbeat to transfix the viewer.

The camera roves back and forth and Basil moves in and out of frame. Like a moth trying to absorb itself into a streetlamp, the movements are jarring and spectral. Despite the frenzy, it’s clear that Basil is an experienced dancer, at one point she twirls with the precision and expertise of a ballerina. Her choreography animates and narrates Conner’s camera histrionics. Cigarette burns pulse in an overlay through the frame, mirroring the polka dots of Basil’s initial outfit and grounding the film in the geometric zeitgeist of the mid-60s.

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As the song powers on, Basil jumps in and out of costume through nighties to nudity, and though the costumes have a sexualized air, the spastic camera eludes any eroticism. There is simply not enough time for desire to ferment in her image. The viewer is constantly trying to catch up.

Once the song ends, the film stops its forward motion and is set in reverse. The viewer takes in the entirety of the visuals again, this time in reverse motion– Basil’s movements seem even more convulsive when detached from linear time. Like a possession, the viewer soaks up the lyrics in their warped retrograde.

Though the lighting, camerawork, time reversals and the synaptic structure of BREAKAWAY create the film’s reverie, Basil’s ownership of the screen and her movements imbue the work with a feminist re-reading of the cinematic starlet– un-fixing them from the static subjectivity of the silver screen. BREAKAWAY not only ruptures this subject/object relationship, but, in reference to the title, breaks from traditional cinematic narrative by denying a fixed beginning-climax-ending structure.

Scott MacDonald: “Have you assumed that people would look at your films on a rewind, as well as watch them projected?”

Bruce Conner: “I look at them on the rewind.”3

Conner and Basil’s collaboration spanned from their first meeting in the early 60s and included many other famous faces. The collision of creative forces also brought in Teri Garr, Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper. Hopper recalls holding the lights as Basil danced for BREAKAWAY, and later cast Basil in Easy Rider (1969 dir. Peter Fonda). This collaborative network was one of many for Conner, as he flitted through different crowds and subcultures.

“I really did have the same vision as he did, and since I was the vehicle, I knew I could help drive the vision.” — Toni Basil4

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Bruce Conner (in tub), Toni Basil, Teri Garr, and Ann Marshall, 1965. Photo by Dennis Hopper. Courtesy of and (c) The Dennis Hopper Trust

After her collaboration with Conner, Basil herself began working with film as a medium. She created 8mm films involving superimposition, still frames, and physically manipulating the film. Her experience exemplifies how collaborative nodes and networks span outward, influencing and providing the backbone for movements.

BREAKAWAY existed in the same moment as Blow Up and Gernreich’s designs as modelled by Peggy Moffitt. The three depict a similar world, one driven by a collusion between art, film and design–  a new paradigm, geometric, swinging and liberated. The failure of the opening scene of Blow Up in contrast to the two artifacts of the time is in it’s depiction of a unilateral power dynamic between the photographer and model. The relationships exhibited by Basil/Conner and Gernreich/Moffitt showcase how collaborative work can transcend normative power dynamics to incorporate politicization and radical world making. This division of authorship allows for creative capacities and possibilities that would not exist in a vacuum of power.

1.Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton, “The Rudi Gernreich Book” Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1991
2.Leigh Markoupolos, “Rudolf Frieling: In Conversation with Leigh Markoupolos” SFAQ, 2016. http://sfaq.us/2016/11/rudolf-frieling-in-conversation-with-leigh-markopoulos/
3.Chuck Stephens, “Exploded View: Bruce Conner’s BREAKAWAY”, Cinema Scope, vol. 53. http://cinema-scope.com/columns/exploded-view-bruce-conners-breakaway/
4.”Bruce Conner – BREAKAWAY – Art + Music MOCA TV.” https://youtu.be/5CHtEASlzG8

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king of the kiddie matinee

Christmas has just passed, and I’ve been high off the fumes of plastic blow-mold Santas and canned-snow on tinsel trees. One of my favorite cinematic masters of the holiday is producer K. Gordon Murray, and I’ve been meaning to write about him for some time. In my obsession with his camp treatises on Santa Claus and his mismatched band of “helpers” (the titular misfits of 1964’s short film Santa Claus and His Helpers inexplicably include Stinky the Skunk and Puss N’ Boots) I’ve never really understood the “King of the Kiddie Matinee.”
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A short biography of Murray may shed some light on his eccentric aesthetics and tastes (big thanks to the research of fellow odd blogger The Uranium Cafe.) Murray was born in 1922, the son of a funeral home director, in Bloomington, Illinois. Bloomington happened to be the home-base for many wintering carnival workers. Murray, who hung around the carnival as a kid, later toured with West’s World Wonder Shows Carnival as a game operator, and eventually rose to the position of manager. He slipped into showbiz by aiding fellow carnival workers find work as extras in such Hollywood flagships as The Wizard of Oz and by helping to promote Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Finding his calling, Murray and his wife moved to Miami to set up a film production company, K. Gordon Murray Productions.

Easily parlaying his carnival barking roots into the promotion of exploitation flicks, Murray released 60 titles in 15 years. IMDB gives K. Gordon Murray 23 credits as a producer, 8 as an actor (usually as the dubbed over voice of perennial nightmare-fuel character Stinky the Skunk,) 6 as writer, and another 8 as “miscellaneous crew.” Murray is known best for plucking foreign B-movies and dubbing them in English for an American audience. Beyond the live action/puppet character films that earned him his monarchic title, Murray also dabbled in explicit horror films of the 1950s and 60s, as well as an odd assortment of Mexploitation Luchador films. The titles on his IMDB page read like a schizophrenic grab-bag of the subversive and bizarre. (Bring Me the Vampires of 1963, appears right below Santa Claus and His Helpers of 1964.) He might be the most important curator that camp has ever seen, but producers are rarely lionized as auteurs in the same way that Murray has been.

Pitch, from Santa Claus of 1959
Pitch, from Santa Claus of 1959
Murray’s Christmas oeuvre includes Santa Claus and His Helpers, Santa Claus, Santa’s Enchanted Village, Santa’s Magic Kingdom, Santa’s Giant Film Festival of the Brothers Grimm, and Santa’s Fantasy Fair. The first in the series, Santa Claus of 1959 was released in theaters every few years for several decades. Although originially produced in Mexico, directed by René Cardona and co-written with Adolfo Torres Portillo, Murray’s english dubbing of the film is the version most remember, and can never forget. It is the oddball, live-action precursor to the stop-motion camp Christmas classics of Rankin/Bass (The Year Without A Santa Claus, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer) But K. Gordon Murray’s production of a seemingly benign holiday plot pushes the limits of subversion at a time that we typically relate with an obsession with normalcy. These films exploit the notion of Santa Claus as the purveyor of good and evil, literally pitting him against the Devil’s best henchman, “Pitch”, in Santa Claus.

Pitch is sent to Earth to convince children to lie and steal and engage in general juvenile delinquency. (As he says, “The devil loves rude little boys.”) Sometime after Christmas moved from the dark reign of the Krampus and into the world of Coca-Cola, it lost its glaze of religiosity and alternatively, I argue, some of its base pleasures. Santa Claus, for a time, was a simpler, psuedo-secular version of God, a seer of sinners, a punisher of evils. Now a figurehead of the capitalist state, Santa stands less as a symbol of discipline and punishment, and more as an emblem of the rewards of capital. All children of means receive gifts, only the poor are punished. (And just imagine the disappointment in the dedicated suburban bully’s eye when he woke not to lumpen coal but to a bounty of gifts! Try harder next year, asshole!) But I digress..

The Magic TeleTalker, Santa Claus, 1959
Santa Claus, meanwhile, polices the children from above in his panopticon. “Santa’s Laboratory” hovers above the North Pole… in space! A tour of the lab reveals the tools of Santa’s police state: “The Magic Teletalker”– a set of plush velvet lips undulating from within a riveted brass frame set with jewel-tone buttons and toggles. The Magic Teletalker is connected (somehow) to the “Hear-All Ear”, which floats, disembodied, in the dark of space and the “See-it-All Telescope.” These sensorial appendages are ultimately controlled by the “Behavior Tracker Computer”. Anthropomorphic and obviously sexualized, these components all aid Santa in his quest to delineate naughtiness. Although I still don’t know what the Magic Teletalker does, other than talk nasty to Santa about the baddies…

1964’s Santa Claus and his Helpers regurgitates some choice scenes of Santa Claus but mixes it with a few of K. Gordon Murray’s favorite characters and places them within the context of a promotional film for a franchise of Christmas-themed amusement parks. Joy! After an establishing shot of Santa’s space Laboratory, SC&H then pans, via the See-it-All Telescope to look down upon Earth from the heavens and focuses on the whimsical painted mushrooms that line the entrance to Santa’s Village.

The view of Santa’s Village is indeed magical and mysterious, reinforced by the narrator’s insistence that by “using the 5th dimension, Santa can be seen everywhere.” An engineering Easter Bunny motors us through the outside of the village by conducting a small train.

Stinky the Skunk, Duke the Dog, and Puss N' Boots, Santa and His Helpers, 1964
Stinky the Skunk, Duke the Dog, and Puss N’ Boots, Santa and His Helpers, 1964
Inexplicably, we change course to an ensuing argument between the horrifying fur-suited Stinky the Skunk and Duke the Dog (recylced characters from Murray’s english-dubbing of Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters of 1962.) Stinky the Skunk is voiced by Murray himself, recorded like the Chipmunks at 45RPM and played at 75RPM. The argument, of course, is about Stinky the Skunk’s offensive odor and lasts for FOUR of the twelve minutes that make up this short film. As Duke condemns Stinky, he carries a huge assault rifle, adding some immediacy and menace to the otherwise prolonged and benign quarrel. Puss N’ Boots then appears to break up the fight, but is forced to side with Duke, as Stinky apparently lives up to his moniker.

Good Witch, Easter Bunny, Alice, Jack the Pumpkin Head and Santa at Santa's Village in Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz
Good Witch, Jack the Pumpkin Head and Santa at Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley, Santa Cruz
The Stinky the Skunk scenes of Santa Claus and His Helpers were filmed on location at three different “Santa’s Village” parks across the country. These Santa’s Village parks influenced some of the oddball circus of characters featured in the short film (the Easter Bunny Engineer was a Santa’s Village original.) In addition to a sleigh pulled by imported Arctic reindeer, Santa’s Village in Santa Cruz featured such odd characters as a good witch and “Jack the Pumpkin Head” (Tim Burton, I’m looking right at you, man.) Opened first in Santa Cruz in 1957 by H. Glenn Holland, with franchises later in Southern California and Dundee, Illinois, Santa’s Village was the first franchised theme park in the world. It’s rides are kind of lame, although the Santa Cruz park featured a small roller coaster and a snowman and snowball themed version of the Disneyland teacups ride. What a perfect storm that brought Christmas camp masterminds H. Glenn Holland and K. Gordon Murray together. I’d love to be a fly on the wall of this meeting.
Peppermint Slide at Santa's Village in Dundee Illinois
Peppermint Slide at Santa’s Village in Dundee Illinois

Back in the twisted world of Santa Claus and his Helpers, the plot ends with Santa breaking up Stinky, Puss N’ Boots and Duke’s fight before the rifle has to be used. Santa then forces the three creeps to go make toys, because he underestimated the number of good children this year. (Distracted, perhaps, by the Magic Teletalker?) A final (ish) shot cuts between a tight focus of human hands assembling toy guns and Stinky operating a spark-firing band saw for 2 of the 12 minutes that make up this Christmas classic before abruptly, and without closure, sending up a “The End” title card.

Stinky the Skunk at the end of Santa Claus and His Helpers, 1964
Stinky the Skunk at the end of Santa Claus and His Helpers, 1964

Although Santa Claus of 1959 is undoubtedly a better film in the twisted cult sense, K. Gordon Murray’s involvement was only in Americanizing the film– dubbing it in English, giving it his name and a sensationalist pitch. Santa Claus and his Helpers was a direct product of Murray’s astounding filmic ineptitude. Splicing scenes from his appropriation of Santa Claus with out-of-context original scenes featuring recycled characters and costumes from Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters and promotional video from Santa’s Village theme parks, Santa Claus and his Helpers is a perfect Frankenstein’s monster featuring the highlights of K. Gordon Murray’s eccentricities. I believe the film was also used to promote Santa’s Village theme parks…

Well, the one in Dundee, Illinois still exists. Let’s go!

You can watch Santa Claus and His Helpers here, and Santa Claus here.

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wrong side of the tracks

"So Young, So Bad" promotional release
“So Young, So Bad” promotional release

So Young, So Bad (1950) opens with a scream. The camera pulls in to the front door of a two story brick Colonial, which erupts violently as Loretta Wilson bursts through the door and past the garden, swings over a wrought-iron fence, and plants herself in the drivers seat of a work truck. Another young girl follows her into the cab of the truck, and Loretta fumbles turning over the engine. The camera frames her legs, exposed above the knee in a pencil skirt as she slams her foot against the pedal. The two drive off, leaving in their wake a frantic crowd. The camera drags behind the truck as it turns a corner and reveals a signpost that reads, “Elmview Corrective School for Girls”. The cut jumps to a police station interior, where dispatch is issuing a warning for two runaway girls aged 16. Three paddy wagons peel out from the exterior, sirens blaring. This hyperactive opening sets the scene for the rest of the film, as it takes us retroactively through the runaways’ stay at Elmview.

So Young, So Bad, directed by Bernard Vorhaus in 1950, throws its focus on the abusive disciplinarian methodology of Elmview Corrective School for Girls, a fictional school whose social injustices border on enslavement. As a tenacious new-hire, Dr. Jason, steps in to save the school through his more humane psychiatric approaches, he becomes enamored with the wayward teens and attempts to save them from a life of continued crime. The films focus is institutional reform, and as Dr. Jason conducts psychoanalytic sessions with each troubled teen, the blame is squarely placed upon poor parenting or abandoned childhoods. Blatantly absent from the film is any discussion of the criminal behavior that placed the girls in the reformatory in the first place, nor the conditions of state violence that mandate juvenile enslavement in the name of “reform” or “correction”.

Loretta Wilson
The women of “So Young, So Bad”
In the 1950s, more than sixty films were produced with a narrative of juvenile delinquency1. With titles like Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and So Young, So Bad, the films usually painted a portrait of attractive, suburban white teens engaged in some mild form of rebellion. As the narrative protagonists, typically their criminal tendencies are shallow and the films trace their predilection for delinquent behaviors to the supposed social short-comings of their past, be they familial disputes or poor (monetarily & morally) upbringing. The juvenile delinquency films of this era are less a commentary on the improper moral compasses of youth than an accusation against the disbanding of the nuclear family. The focus seems to be an enforcement of “national cultural uniformity/conformity heavily motivated by Christian morality and the dread of racial (and class) mixing”2.

As the girls in So Young, So Bad go through Dr. Jason’s rehabilitation programs, they are increasingly motivated by a suburban family ideal to replace their troubled pasts3. Anne Francis, a stunning blonde starlet who, at the time of filming, was barely a legal adult at age nineteen, plays Loretta Wilson, the film’s central bad girl. Anne Francis’ hyper sexualized femininity appears to be her only crime in So Young, So Bad. During the course of the film, and after special attention from Dr. Jason, she transforms, craving the suburban family home… wishing to wed Dr. Jason and reclaim her abandoned baby.

News media is responsible for the most transparent rhetoric of a juvenile delinquency “contagion” in the 1950s. Newsweek and The New York Times ran articles with sensational headlines like “Our Vicious Young Hoodlums”, “Who the Teen Killers Are”, “The Kids Grow Worse”, “Why the Young Kill”, and “Playing with Dynamite”5. These articles fanned public hysteria, reporting the spread of juvenile delinquency beyond borders previously policed by race, space and class. Colin Dayan, in “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies” examines the rhetorical effects of criminality coded as contagion, “the diseased body must be extirpated from civil society; and once removed, the convict became the visible record of the sacrifice upon which civilization maintained itself.”6 As middle class white suburban teens began to be the subject of sensationalized news reports, the public reacted with hysterics to the perceived “spread” of criminalized youth.

A 1953 article in Newsweek titled “All Our Children” reported, “Authorities agree that juvenile criminality is spreading. Frequently it crosses the tracks from the wrong side to the right side”7. The report encodes juvenile criminality as contagious, racialized and spatial, locating a dubious “wrong side” in opposition to the right side on the other side of the tracks. This lackadaisical reporting also conceals the source of its information, naming instead, generalized “authorities”. Although FBI reports recorded “skyrocketing numbers of arrests of those under 18 years throughout the 1950s”8, these statistics were based on the voluntary reports of arrest numbers and neighborhood crimes volunteered by members of the police department and average citizens9. Problematic statistics and rhetorical jargon such as the Newsweek report served as part of the precarious scaffolding upon which juvenile justice was constructed.

Anne Francis as Loretta Wilson in "So Young, So Bad"
Anne Francis as Loretta Wilson in “So Young, So Bad”
In 1938, the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act was passed “with the essential purpose of keeping juveniles apart from adult criminals”10, and was amended in 1948 to incorporate new federal agencies in the policing of adolescents. Prior to the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, persons under the age of 14 were presumed incapable of criminal intent and were thus not considered for legal punishment. During the ten-year period following the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, policies for juvenile detention were based upon discipline and punishment for crimes committed. Barnosky, in his article for Polity, describes the methodology of juvenile reprimand after the reform in 1948 as a turn toward rehabilitation11. He credits this to the creation of the first national strategic attempt to control juvenile delinquency, the efforts of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. The Senate Subcommittee, rather than investigating effects of juvenile delinquency in individuals or the effects of incarceration in adolescents, instead entwined itself in popular culture on a witch-hunt to locate the source of criminal behavior. Formed in 1953, the Senate Subcommittee pigeonholed comic books and celluloid as prime producers of violent behaviors in adolescents, eventually forcing defense testimony from leading figures in cultural industries (including a testimonial from Ronald Reagan). Despite their moral crusade, the Subcommittee eventually ruled to allow cultural producers to self-regulate content on the basis of morality.

Between the efforts of moral policing through news media, film and legal outlets, a restrictive category was formed: the juvenile delinquent.

Not quite adults, juvenile delinquents are legally barred from the civil rights afforded to adults, based on arbitrary age distinctions. Thus, although their crimes incur parallel punishment to crimes committed by those over the age of eighteen, juvenile offenders are not given the same distinction of limited, though beneficial, legal rights as adult offenders. Colin Dayan, in “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies” examines the notion of depleted personhood through avenues of law. Although specifically speaking to the condition of the “freed” slave in the eighteenth century, the parallels between the two conditions are clear: “…we begin to see how the law, invoking the double condition of the unborn and the undead, can eject certain beings from the circle of citizenry, even while offering the promise of beneficent protection.” Juveniles, not able to fully benefit from the civil rights afforded to full personhood, live in this legal liminality of the unborn and the undead. Rejected from the realm of the adult offender, and relegated to the space of undone personhood, the juvenile delinquent’s legal status is malleable, and therefore subject to inconsistency in representation.

Rather than being granted individual personhood, it can be said that juvenile delinquents are merely afforded a slice of the civil rights of their parents. Indeed, Parental Accountability Laws12 can impose fines, or defer responsibility for juvenile offenses to legal guardians. Films like So Young, So Bad expose troubled childhoods as a direct influence on juvenile criminality, citing single parent households and abusive parentage. The tagline for the film, “What Made Them This Way!”, questions their subjective formation, implying a lack in parentage. Further entrenching the nuclear family as the preeminent mode of familial relations, criminality is culturally embedded into those homes that do not follow the nuclear structure.

Anne Francis as Loretta Wilson and Paul Heinreid as Dr. Jason in "So Young, So Bad"
Anne Francis as Loretta Wilson and Paul Heinreid as Dr. Jason in “So Young, So Bad”

The reason for Loretta Wilson’s containment at Elmview Corrective School for girls is never fully revealed. However, the film repeatedly mentions her unwanted pregnancy and subsequent adoption. An unwed mother who has abandoned her child, and a sexually charged, attractive young blonde, Loretta Wilson’s explicit criminality remains seamlessly unnamed and irrelevant in light of her implicitly criminalized identity13. According to Dayan, “inmates are not warehoused because of their crime, but for their ‘nature,’ which makes them ‘institutional risks.’”14 This transgression from the nuclear structure codes Loretta Wilson’s identity as criminal.

The women in So Young, So Bad have been stripped of their criminalized identities, and rebuilt in a manner that fits the constructed norm of civilized society. The Elmview Corrective School for Girls is a factory where criminalized identities can be “fixed”, “rehabilitated”, “reformed” or “corrected”, such that they may rejoin society. Reform replaces previous “corrective” modes of discipline and punishment, resulting in an even more intrusive form of radical transformation as controlled subjectivity. Returning to Barnosky’s claim for rehabilitative juvenile justice in the 1950s, we can clearly trace the development of the “juvenile delinquent” as a victimized subject category requiring reformation.

So Young, So Bad concludes with the narration of Dr. Jason: “Well, the depot train is due in again. That means a new batch of problems. Most of our old girls are ready for the outside, Loretta, Jane. Jackie still needs a little time here, but she’s making real progress.”16 Loretta Wilson, properly reformed with a pressed, white peter-pan collar on her sensibly demure dress, appeals a tearful goodbye to Dr. Jason as she boards a bus. On her way to begin her new life and reclaim her child, Wilson waves teary-eyed through the window at the group of girls who have not yet been saved.

Anne Francis as Loretta Wilson in "So Young, So Bad"
Anne Francis as Loretta Wilson in “So Young, So Bad”

Although the move from discipline to reform seems a milestone in the handling of juvenile delinquency, it belies obvious problems in the creation of juvenile delinquent subjectivities. The Elmview Corrective School for Girls functions as a fictional murder factory, one where self-authored identities enter, die through reformation, and exit as reborn, redefined and reformed agents of the state. I might side with the Senate Subcommittee here, in that, by promoting reformation through films like So Young, So Bad , juvenile corrective institutions have become a symbol of deliverance, although their methods remain deeply flawed and constitute the creation of dangerous subject categories. Ultimately, coding juvenile justice institutions as redemptive sites capable of reform antithetically produces subjects capable of juvenile criminality.


1Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006)
2Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006)
3Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006)
4 Barnosky, p. 318
5 Barnosky, p. 318
6 Colin (Joan) Dayan, “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies”, Nepantla: Views from South, vol. 2, issue 1, 2001, 3-39.
7 “All Our Children”, Newsweek, November 9, 1953, 28-30. (Found from Barnosky, “The Violent Years”)
8 Barnosky, p.320
9 Barnosky, p.320
10 http://www.justice.gov/usao/eousa/foia_reading_room/usam/title9/crm00116.htm
11 Barnosky, Jason, “The Violent Years: Responses to Juvenile Crime in the 1950s”, Polity vol. 38, no.3 (July 2006). Barnosky claims that the efforts toward rehabilitation change in 1961 with the passage of the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act, and digresses further in the 1970s as juvenile delinquency falls deeper buried in bureaucracy in the hands of the federal government. So Young, So Bad and films like Blackboard Jungle take the system to task, lobbying for reform via psychoanalytic methods.
12 “California’s law imposing criminal parental responsibility is one of the most stringent in the Nation. Enacted in 1988 as part of the Street Terrorism and Prevention Act, the law amended the State’s CDM law by making it a crime when parents or guardians do not ‘ exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control’ over their children.” http://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/reform/ch2_d.html#71
13 The first two “plot keywords” for So Young, So Bad on IMDB are “Unwed Mother” and “Tension” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042982/)
14 Colin (Joan) Dayan, “Legal Slaves and Civil Bodies”, Nepantla: Views from South, vol. 2, issue 1, 2001, p. 22
15 Eva Hayward, “Lessons from a Starfish”, Queering the Non/Human, Ashgate, 2008.
16 So Young, So Bad dir. Bernard Vorhaus, United Artists, 1950.

Continue reading “wrong side of the tracks”

tropícamp.

Over the last two weeks, I have been whisked away into a fantasy world; an indistinguishable utopia of jungles, exotica, and Vera West costumery, dripping with beads, sequins and eleganza. Following up on my research with Jack Smith, I dove head-first into the work of his muse, Maria Montez. Captivating, the magic of Montez is in her elusiveness; she slips in her accents, she slips between cultures, and she slips through the frame in dangerous seduction.

maria montez in arabian nights, 1944
maria montez in arabian nights, 1944

In Helio Oiticica’s “Mario Montez, Tropicamp,” from which the title and concept of this essay is born, he defines Tropicamp through filmmaker Jack Smith: “Jack, in his oeuvre as in his general influence on underground cinema and theatre, is some sort of pop-tropicália: more than simple nostalgia for fox-trot and latin american [sic] music, his work is, contrary to the pure american [sic] pop of WARHOL, the search for the latin american cliché, and its incidence within the super-american context…”1

Maria Montez is a symbol of Hollywood’s complete fabrication of a Latin American cliché, which led to its camp appropriation by Jack Smith and drag star Mario Montez. I’d like to unpick the fabric of this cliché, to see the seams of its cultural operation, what the resonance of 1940s tropicália has done for the Latin American starlet in Hollywood today.

maria africa antonia gracia vidal de santos silas.
Known as the ‘technicolor queen’ of escapist cinema during the ravages of World War 2, Maria Africa Antonia Gracia Vidal de Santos Silas was born in June of 1912 in the Dominican Republic. She signed with Universal pictures at the age of 21 and changed her name to the far less fabulous, pan-Latin American and religiously white-washed, “Maria Montez.”

maria montez in cobra woman, 1942
maria montez in cobra woman, 1942

Her films cast her in all sorts of ethnically ambiguous roles, from the fabled dancer Scheherezade in Arabian Nights (Rawlins, 1942, US) to a King Cobra-taming island queen in Cobra Woman (Siodmak, 1944, US). Along with her co-star Sabu, (a stereotypical sidekick, smart for all his outward stupidity, who appeared in both Cobra Woman and Arabian Nights to save unwieldy [and clearly Western] men that beckon at the starlet’s feet) Montez created a non-threatening pan-ethnic characterization for starlets of color in the age of Technicolor.

studio system.
During the 1930s, Hollywood’s newly developed studio system pumped out assembly-line style films free of complicated plots. Basic structures and compartmentalization prevailed and films began to rely heavily on genre specificities, making for easy production and severe type-casting. Stars and starlets of color were either negatively type-cast, reduced to roles which exploited their culture, or resorted to denying their cultural specificities in order to present a universal, yet distinctly foreign, identity. During this period, Latin America began to protest the promulgation of Hollywood films which left Latin American stars in a few rather undesirable stereotypic roles (seductress, comedic relief, villain etc.)

Jungle and exotic scenes particular to these exploitative stereotypic roles were particularly well-suited to Hollywood’s adaptation of Technicolor in the 1940s. Color film processing was invented as early as 1916; wherein color processes were added after the film was developed. Technicolor, a three-strip film process, was perfected much later on, and was not adopted by Hollywood until the mid-1930s, because of the bulky Technicolor camera, the three-strips of film necessary and high-lighting demands. The high saturation of color allowed for dreamy compositions of color and light- wherein the colors were so suffused they seemed imaginary.

maria montez in ali baba and the forty thieves, 1944
maria montez in ali baba and the forty thieves, 1944

Without the veiling shades of gray which reduced all that was captured by the screen to a series of textures, patterns and scaling values of gray-tone, the rise of “Technicolor” resulted in people of color being represented on the screen differently. Although this could have been a large advancement for representations of Latin Americans on the screen, the assembly-line structure of the Hollywood studio system used exotic tropicália narratives to create indistinct “ethnic” complexions to stand in for multiple ethnicities, cultures and races. This universal “ethnic” complexion depicted on screen is utilized by (aptly named) Universal Studios in the form of Maria Montez, a Dominican Republic beauty, made to play Arabian seductresses and exotic island queens.

In each film, whether set in the exotic jungle of Cobra Island or among the golden dunes of the desert, the rose hues of Montez’s skin are paired against swaths of brilliant green tones, her costumes sticking to a palette of emeralds and sea-tones. Her association with tropí-pop, a tropicali American association with exoticism, luxury and life of leisure, strips Montez of her Latin roots, leaving her as a rosy embellishment upon a sea of green. Her exotic foreignness becomes a fetishistic obsession, forcing her to become different, othered, while simultaneously disallowing her to be anything specific. The Hollywood studio system stripped space of its particularity of localized culture, its specificity, forcing everyone that wasn’t clearly trapped within the narrow boundaries of an American standard to become “other”, or “exotic”: an ever-enticing and desirous term, implicating seduction and imploring caution.

maria montez in cobra woman, 1942
maria montez in cobra woman, 1942

But its not all evil Hollywood studio plots. I came to this because I was captivated by Montez’s screen presence, and I still am. What is particular to Maria Montez is her fluidity, her ability to slip between Scheherezade and the Cobra Queen, all the while captivating the glare of the camera, commanding the attention of the narrative and the viewer, and dominating the film until the bolstering WWII plots of command and conquer are lost beneath her strong gaze.

The coldness with which Montez strikes against the screen veils her ambiguity. Refusing the clean-cut flattened role of Tropi-Hollywood, Montez, whether playing Scheherezade or the Cobra Queen utilizes her sharp, clear accent to bark out phrases with calculated acidity. This seems to me the key to her inclusion in Oiticica’s tropícamp designation. That she can drag as a Hollywood starlet, drag in the stereotypes given to her, but transform them into a clear refusal of cultural homogeneity, allows her to stand as an object of obsession for camp enthusiasts. Says Susan Sontag, “the camp eye has the power to transform” and, watching Montez on the screen, you can watch the flat faltering plot lines of films like Down Argentine Way.. falter under her resilient eyes. In these moments, you can see the martyrdom of the string of Catholic Saints which she struck from her name.

maria montez in ali baba and the forty thieves, 1944
maria montez in ali baba and the forty thieves, 1944

The specific strength that is gleaned from her cold attitude separates her from other starlets of the period, whose warmth and amiability would garner them the objects of their affection. Montez, however, is generally cast in roles wherein power is the ultimate goal, above the ever-present power of love. Although this may align her with the foreign seductress stereotype, typically her roles insist on the usage of love as a tool to obtain a restricted form of power. Like hemlock or blood flower, Maria Montez is that combination of beautiful and deadly: tropical, inviting, poisonous, infectious.

works cited.
1 Hélio Oiticica, “Mario Montez, Tropicamp”, Afterall, 1971.
2 Susan Sontag, Notes on Camp, 1964.

the great pasty triumph.

I’m late out of the gate with this one, and I know it. But! I was recently introduced (through my favorite channels, classroom gasps and whispers) to independent filmmaker and queer visual poet Jack Smith. I know everyone is gasping, ready to read me down for cultural dilettance. But just in case there are those out there, who, like myself, are sleeping Jack Smith disciples unknowingly dreaming, here is a primer and dreamy elocution on the patron saint of NY queer trash cinema.

film still, normal love, jack smith, 1962-63
film still, normal love, jack smith, 1962-63

Although filmmaker Jack Smith is known primarily for his infamously banned film Flaming Creatures (1962-63), his reduction to the land of shock-cinema boils out his richer contributions as an artist in all forms: as a photographer, a live theatre performer and director, and as a filmmaker. Under each of his artistic hats, Smith elaborated upon his total utopia- an alternate reality of exotic sets, vibrating against his subjects in muted Technicolor. Smith’s medium was a bricolage of life, an aesthetic performance of identity.

film still, normal love, dir. jack smith, 1962-63
film still, normal love, dir. jack smith, 1962-63
A photographer in his initial days in New York, Smith revived the photographic medium with his specifically cinematic mise-en-scene constructions of sets. If we think of photography as a medium of index or trace, Jack Smith’s photographs, films and performances are indexes of an ever unfolding daydream, of a lucidly exotic, decadent and vapidly Technicolor tableaux that exists only in the careful calibration of Smith’s vision and then let loose into the realm of the real.

Smith moves from form-as-content to form as a decadent luxurious fullness, overriding content with an optic hedonism. Reclaiming the Baroque, the screen seems to burst forth with layered images, characters, colors, sets. Within the screen space, the images kaleidoscope and collage together. Outside of the screen space, Smith staged elaborate performances, often to correspond with the screening of his films. Although Flaming Creatures ran as a complete cinematic feature, Smith’s film Normal Love (1963) is literally pasted together, edited in-house during screenings at Smith’s house/performance space titled
‘The Plaster Foundation of Atlantis’
. These performative screenings collaged together mediums from live theatre, photography, cinema, and sculpture. His filmic performances unfolded, unending, into the wee hours of the night, meticulously calculated and entirely improvisational, polished and perishable… the perfect paradox of performativity.

experiments in celluloid.
In the early 1960s, Smith experimented in the film format, releasing several films. Scotch Tape, a 100-foot reel of Kodachrome edited in-camera, was released in 1959 and can boast of being one of only two “complete” films in Smith’s oeuvre (the other being Flaming Creatures). In 1962, Smith released Flaming Creatures, which was confiscated from its premiere and later banned because of “pornographic” content. Flaming Creatures is arguably the only feature that Smith ever created. While Normal Love (1963) has a conventional length of 105 mins (with an extra 20 mins of addendum footage, titled “The Yellow Sequence”), each screening of the film under Smith’s supervision was constantly edited, in-house, during the screening, to allow for an infinite number of combinative forms for the film. This performative aspect of filmmaking and editing may have been a partial catalyst for Smith’s later endeavors in live theatre.

film still, Normal Love, dir. Jack Smith, 1962-63.
film still, Normal Love, dir. Jack Smith, 1962-63.

Smith, in his work, was constantly cross-referencing text and image. In a collection of his photographs, titles are written on the back, languidly describing scenes and giving them life beyond their visual splendor. Smith constantly invokes a specific and odd textual reference, using the term ‘pasty’ repeatedly throughout his work. In the flipbook edition of Buzzards over Baghdad, the only caption over the action reads, “Meboubeh, the slave woman, lifts the artificial elephant off the Love Bandit’s chair and creates a pasty novelty.” Smith’s first one-person photography exhibition in 1965 was titled “The Great Pasty Triumph”, and indeed, Normal Love was first titled The Great Pasty Triumph, before being changed, first to The Pink and Green Horrors and finally settling on its current designation. After the “sickeningly pasty reception” of Flaming Creatures, Smith translated the term into the color palette and demonstrable theory behind Normal Love, calling it a “pasty, pink and green color movie that is going to be the definitive pasty expression…1

An odd descriptive term, ‘pasty’ invokes a pastel color palette, a gelatinous texture, and the adhesive qualities of glue, or paste. The last signification seems especially astute as a trope through which to read Smith’s adhesive artistic process. Constantly melding mediums together, Smith is as much a collage artist as he is specific to any one medium. He pastes together pastel photographs with the cinematic mise-en-scene of still live paintings and the Baroque, gluing the liveness of theatre with the precise indexical motion and sound capture of cinema.

pasty performances.
This performative cinema was a moment explored in the “expanded cinema” movement, but embodied fully by Jack Smith. In “Ontology of Performance”, Peggy Phelan outlines performance’s fleeting temporality in the present moment. Averse to documentation, the performance lasts only in the time shared between the audience and performer. It is an irreproducible act. As Phelan outlines, “performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”2 In this sense, Smith’s films are already outside of the realm of the performance. The films are always already indexes of lived traces. Though they are fantastical and ethereal, they are still traces of constructed moments. As traces, the films themselves survive to be reproduced and copied, digitally transferred, updated and thus saved from obsolescence.

film still, normal love, dir. jack smith, 1962-63.
film still, normal love, dir. jack smith, 1962-63.

Instead, the film strips themselves act as accomplices to Smith’s constant performative upending. Each performative gesture of Normal Love remakes it, an instantaneous utterance of its own history. The degradation of the film through in-house edits allows for the type of slow entropy usually saved for traditional mediums, such as painting. During each performance of the film, the entropy is quickened to the pace of performance itself, a witnessed ‘now’ in a lived present; once it is over, the pace is slowed once again to the gradual decay of emulsion and film. Without access to pasted together filmstrips, the only recreation of the Normal Love performances lies with the trace of witness accounts and documents.

Smith worked on constantly unfinished projects, their never-ending infinitude a testament to their constant performing. Smith’s films and filmic performances wait for an apocalypse, the end of civilization, they wait to be abandoned and discarded, awaiting an end to their immortality. Smith himself, never declaring an end, only created and created, never ceasing or proclaiming finitude, because nothing is ever done when you are building a world. Performances are never finished- they are only documented to end, when they are forsaken by their audience, when the critics leave… But for Smith, the performances just go on the next day, and the day after that and so on and so on until one day he isn’t around to imagine the world’s creation anymore, himself taken object by entropy.

Smith mimes the illusionary nature of the Hollywood film, but usurps its temporal constraints into an unending, constantly unfolding world. If performance’s media limitations locate it to a specifically authored space and time, the viewer is a necessary completion to the work. But for Smith, the viewer is simply eavesdropping, spying, a reluctantly accepted voyeur, allowed the pleasure of the look but denied access to the totality of immersion in Smith’s inhabited visual world.

works cited.
1 Hoberman, J. On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (and Other Secret-Flix of Cinemaroc). New York City: Granary Books/Hips Road, 2001. Print. Page 89 Cited from Jack Smith “Wait For Me…”
2 Phelan, Peggy. “The Ontology of Performance” in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993. (p 146)

notes on ‘cult’.

i recently read susan sontag’s “notes on ‘camp'”. sontag introduces the camp sensibility through a numbered list of definitive qualities. one of my favorites:

#34.Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. it doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. what is does is to offer for art (and life) a different – a supplementary – set of standards.”1

inspired, i wanted to adopt the format to work through the concepts of cult cinema that i’ve been researching and workshopping for my thesis. however, a major starting point for my argument is that cult film rests upon intertextuality and a postmodern identity- one that is constantly referencing and remixing existing cultural objects. if formation of discourse relies upon dialectic layering of ideas, is it even possible to write a definitive list of characteristics for anything?

because of this, i’d like to make perfectly clear that this list is open source. i’m ready to add, subtract, multiply or divide any of the ideas presented here. like cult film events themselves, your participation is necessary in order for this project to be successful. furthermore, as Sontag notes of ‘camp’, it seems impossible to treat cult film in a dry, academic manner. to do so would be to extract both the irony and the humor from it.

so, i’d like to open with a vignette of one of my favorite cult film experiences. i was on the verge of moving from the city i’d grown up in. i’d never moved before, and i was terrified. a few weeks before the actual move was my birthday. by some divine providence, my favorite independent theatre in town (tower theatre for those who live in utah) was showing PeeWee’s Big Adventure at midnight during the weekend of my birthday. i attended with bells on. the whole theatre knew the entire script. they would answer questions, anticipate lines, laugh LOUDLY & i think someone may have cried when PeeWee’s red cruiser bike was discovered missing. when PeeWee hopped up on the counter of the biker bar and danced to Tequila? FORGET ABOUT IT. the Time Warp seemed about as interesting as the lindy-hop. as an audience, we came to the theatre strangers, but during the flick, we were all the best of friends. our proximity and familiarity with the movie united us. then the lights came up and we dispersed outside the theatre.

so, with your favorite cinema experience in mind, I ask you to come along with me in an analysis. let’s begin at the beginning and figure out what the term ‘cult’ may mean in general.

1. ‘cult’, as a term, is typically used to refer to overwhelming veneration or religious devotion to a specific figure or object. often, the ‘cult’ term is used to negatively describe fanaticism. the term’s root is from the latin cultus meaning “care, labor, cultivation and culture”.

2.cult film, refigures the relationship of the term. film historians often use cult cinema to refer to a certain genre of non-mainstream films that garnered a specific type of attention. the films had few shared characteristics, among them: late-night show times, low budgets and poor distribution. additionally, they usually represent the lives of outcasts.2

3.however, repurposing ‘cult’ to refer to a genre of films disregards the ‘cult’ itself, the audience, who are responsible for the films reception and subsequent inclusion in the cult canon. also, many films have been considered cult that fit none of the above characteristics. The Wizard of Oz, for example, is considered a cult movie, and yet was a major blockbuster.

4. it follows that the relationship between the audience and the screen is, potentially, the only distinguishing characteristic in creating a canon of cult cinema.

5. typically, the audience for cult films have seen the flick many many times before. this element of repetition is key to a definition of cult cinema.

6. because the audience has seen the film before, the narrative of the film is almost unimportant- but the film must be either complex or incoherent enough to be watched over and over (and over and over).

Pink Flamingos, John Waters, 1972

7. cult films operate on familiarity and detachment simultaneously.

8. because cult films operate based on audience reception, it is nearly impossible to define cult cinema as a genre because it is constantly changing.

9. the act of reception: cult cinema requires the watcher to transform from spectator to participant.

10. cult witnessing means taking authorship.

works cited.
1. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp'”, Against Interpretation, Dell Publishing 1966.
2 Anne Jerslev, “Semiotics by instinct: ‘Cult Film’ as a signifying practice between film and audience”, Media Cultures: Reappraising Transnational Media, Routledge 1993.

electrographic sinema.


when i received my acceptance letter to the San Francisco Art Institute last spring, I was buzzing with the prospect of my potential proximity to filmmaker George Kuchar. Unfortunately, as I arrived for my first semester of grad school last fall, George had been admitted to hospice, and less than a week later this legend had passed on to the great beyond. (i imagine him now in a whirling kaleidoscope of UFO’s, nudity, bizarre weather patterns and brightly colored starlights.) On the bright side, his brother, Mike, took over his classes and continues to teach “Electrographic Sinema” in the infamous Studio 8 at SFAI.

Anyway, i created this blog as a way of exploring micro-issues that occur in the chasm between high and low art. if any one person could embody that collapsed divide, it is George Kuchar.

In the 1960s, George Kuchar created artistic, critical films via vernacular means, carving a place in the canon for like-minded cineastes. From the 1980s to his untimely and tragic death in 2011, Kuchar taught others to do the same. His egalitarian approach to film epitomizes the style of participatory culture in which consumer becomes user.

Inspired by Hollywood melodramas, George Kuchar began making 8mm films with his brother Mike at the age of twelve. I like to think of Kuchar sitting in a theatre with 3D glasses over his black-rimmed spectacles. I like to think of his process as he translated the cinema on the silver screen into his own environment, casting his friends and putting garish makeup onto his sidekick-cum-starlets.

Kuchar would exaggerate the melodrama and styling typical of Hollywood films, reveling in extreme excess.

Hold Me While I’m Naked, 1966

“The faces, bodies and gestures of Kuchar’s actors and their environments may seem bizarre, even outrageous in their failure to live up to the standards implied by the filmic forms Kuchar is using; but these are in fact the real people and places Kuchar knows, and the stories they enact are based on Kuchar’s experiences.” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).

Molding Hollywood tropes inspired by the silver screen into low-budget DIY versions, Kuchar was able to translate the models of big-budget filmmaking into a vernacular form.

Kuchar’s greatest success is his ability to digest cultural industry, from didactic and unilateral Hollywood mass culture films, into a democratic form.

Underground films such as Kuchar’s fit in the interstice – where the distinctions between producers and consumers become blurred. Devoid of the Hollywood production values, anyone with a Super 8 and a vision could produce a motion picture.

Hold Me While I’m Naked, 1966

“One of the more provocative developments of the 1970s was the use by a group of filmmakers in New York of inexpensive Super-8 technology to reject both the big-budget, mass-entertainment assumptions of Hollywood and the artistic pretentions of the formalist cinema that fascinated and frustrated many critics and viewers during the late 1960s and the 1970s.” (MacDonald, A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers 1988).

The idea of “picture-making” (over directing, producing, or writing) democratizes the form, leaving it open to anyone. It serves to deconstruct inherent cultural hierarchies and class structures wherein the director or writer or producer of the film is in some way better than its viewer. The culture industry becomes less mystical. It is less of an industry, more of a job, and therefore something anyone can participate in. Kuchar recreates the unilateral cultural mode into a participatory model.

Liberating film from its Hollywood cage and liberating the 8mm film format into the feature-length realm, “in Kuchar’s world anyone can, and should, be a movie star; everyone can use movies as a vehicle for self-expression and interaction.” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).

His individualized aesthetic, coupled with the accessible filming format, proved galvanizing for many would-be picture makers. This democratized cinema process was later adopted by ingénue filmmakers like John Waters and Andy Warhol to create feature length films like Pink Flamingos and Chelsea Girls. Inspired by Kuchar, these consumers became successful users and producers.

Kuchar later joined forces with the San Francisco Art Institute, to teach a series of semester long classes, titled “Electrographic Sin-ema”. The goal of the class was to transmit Kuchar’s unique knowledge of DIY picture-making.

By virtue of the class, Kuchar transferred his knowledge, allowing every student to have direct insight into his working process. Kuchar enacted a version of participatory culture that allowed for immediate and direct interaction and collaboration.

Each class collaborated with Kuchar to make its own picture. The students act simultaneously as producers, actors and writers, inventing plot turns and scripts, characters and lighting combinations. At the end of the class, the picture is screened for the students, who serve as the audience. Given a copy of the film to keep, the class is then in charge of distribution, dispensing the film among friends and family. As the controls of the circulation methods of the film, the students are able to manipulate the films reception from the immediate class members to a wider array of viewership.

Kuchar’s class in Studio 8

I hope not to valorize Kuchar’s work in some utopic realm where the concerns of production, commodity exchange, consumerism and capital do not exist, where they can be seen as merely overlapping qualities. I hope instead, to show Kuchar as a working alternative, where producer and consumer collapse and unify. Scott MacDonald, in the preface to his interview with George Kuchar, says, “I would contend that Kuchar’s approach to film is essentially an attempt to humanize and democratize a medium which conventionally has been for the people without being of them or by them” (MacDonald and Kuchar, George Kuchar: An Interview 1985).

The active viewership necessitated by Kuchar’s electrographic sin-ema is one of community engagement and formation of inspiration. The life of his films are prolonged indefinitely, to inspire future filmmakers and future productions ad infinitum. By working in the valleys between cultural consumer and producer, the argument follows that Kuchar also created a bridge between the islands of high and low art. Such an act illuminates the incongruity between the artistic elite and forms of easily digested culture, while still allowing for criticality.

Alright, enough with academics. Let’s just bask in the radiant gel colored lights and titillating titles and props forever and ever, amen.

here’s to color, here’s to light. Here’s to UFO’s and weather diaries; to mongreloids and mothers. here’s to the underground, the aboveground and the middle ground between. here’s to trying and failing, trying and flying; here’s to Thundercrack!, The Fury of Frau Frankenstein(2005), The Devil’s Cleavage(1975), I Was a Teenage Rumpot(1960), and here’s to Hold Me While I’m Naked(1966). Here’s to George Kuchar and every life he touched, saved, inspired or just made more colorful.

works cited.
MacDonald, Scott. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
MacDonald, Scott, and George Kuchar. “George Kuchar: An Interview.” Film Quarterly (University of California Press) 38, no. 3 (Spring 1985): 2-15.