Performance art is one of those genres where the criteria for critical assessment get a little slippery. Is it sloppy theatre with bad acting? Would this have played better at a 12 step meeting? What is my motivation as a potential audience member to leave my bunker? Over the past couple of decades, the performance artist who best embodies what I love about the genre is Stephen Holman.
My first encounter with Mister Holman was at a very haunted vaudeville theatre in downtown Los Angeles. In the guise of a sort of Punchinello, he co-hosted a variety show of extremely hard to categorize acts. My very first impression was that this was either the most sinister person to ever tread those boards, or somebody who could really act. Over the years I was happy to discover that his range for inhabiting odd characters was but one of many talents.
How might one characterize what Mr. Holman does on stage? In the most recent performance I caught, he managed to combine a serious lecture (as if inhabited by the entire cast of Monty Python) with the tactile aspects of Paul McCarthy. Props appeared and vanished with a magician’s skill, and there were enough costume changes to make Cher jealous. When I studied the audience to see who else had been moved to attend, I realized that the entire audience would have been bold face names in a review. He is an artist’s artist (and a much too well kept secret).
Until recently, the only available documentation of Holman’s offerings were contained on a CD of his audio mayhem unit called Torture Chorus (which is currently available on the rare used market or as a download on various MP3 sites). While this works stands alone as a fine example of noise music at its best, it lacks the visual punch of a full Holman experience. Holman now offers a DVD of his performance work from 1987 to 2005. It runs about two hours without chapters or index headings. Happily an occasional bit of text will flash on to let you know what year the work was filmed, which troupe he was performing with (there seem to be multiple repertory companies) and the title of the performance. These are all filmed with a single camera, as unobtrusively as possible. Thus the camera is able to capture a kind of spontaneity that a film crew usually chases away.
Watching the disc one gets the sense that although Holman has grown as a performer, he also landed pretty much fully formed. The early Theatre Carnivale work gives the impression of what those 60’s still photos of happenings might have looked like with better art direction. As the spectacles grow bigger in the 1990’s (more props, sets, and performers) there is a consistent logic to their growth. The most recent offering on the disc is quite a good chunk of his one man show: Goodbye Normal Genes. Anybody teaching or learning about performance art would be well advised to secure a copy of this DVD.
Five words that always cause me to be suspicious are: rock and roll fiction film. People occasionally get it right, but all too often the rocks get neutered. Rock and roll in its truest form has a feral quality. Practice sessions have a mind numbing repetition, unless the whole band is composing as they go. Bands tend to function like marriages. Not many of these are blissful. There are power struggles, arguments, flaring tempers, and all manner of things that fall under the heading: familiarity breeds contempt. All of this should make for much better films than this category usually produces.
A recent film from Belgium actually gets these dynamics right. Ex Drummer is the story of a group of misfits who decide to form a band for a one-time Eurovision style contest. Their song will be Devo’s Mongoloid. They decide to approach a famous author to be their drummer. Ex Drummer is his account of what follows.
The motley crew that approaches the author has decided that everybody in the band will have a handicap. They call themselves The Feminists, because “a bunch of handicapped men are just as worthless as a bunch of feminists”. (While researching this film I discovered that this premise gets many reviewers especially worked up) There is definitely a streak of misogyny running through this story, but as a portrayal of the hard rock lifestyle, it rings true. The “handicaps” include a skinhead with a lisp (who is so angry he is often upside down on the ceiling. The ability to make this feel logical, is one of the films strengths) another member (the wife beating guitarist) is deaf, and one of them has a useless arm caused by a masturbation accident. The author’s handicap is that he can’t play the drums.
Early in the film we start to see that the class divide between the author and the band is a major topic. The author has a beautiful home and wife. The rest of the band lives in squalor. Although it was their intent to use the author’s fame to their purposes, he quickly turns the tables, using the band to play out scenarios for his own misanthropic amusement.
The film opens with the author explaining how he got involved with the band followed by a long extended tracking shot of the band filmed in reverse. This doesn’t look nearly as arch as it sounds. There is a weird logic to the band members in reverse. Much of the film is structured like a reality show where people “confess” things to the camera. This is an especially powerful effect after a mass murder, when the victims ruminate on their wasted lives. The Feminists win the competition (over a band called Six Million Jews) with a coin toss.
If one can use words like ugly, misanthropic and squalid as compliments, there is a lot of praise to heap on this film. The soundtrack album is currently the best rock compilation on the market.
While there are plenty of cult films, there aren’t many of these that spawn actual cults. Decoder is a film which can boast that it was the origin of an artist collective. They are interviewed as a bonus feature on the first US release of this film in any format. Based on ideas that were postulated in the William Burroughs book Electronic Revolution, Decoder was actually shown with a handbook on implementing these ideas.
The original idea was to convey on film the idea of audio and video tape as weapons. This is especially ironic given the official release date of 1984. These ideas were not as farfetched as might be imagined. During riots of that era, tape recorders, tapes and speakers were actually confiscated as weapons. The Burroughs idea that was being explored had to do with an experiment he conducted. Using a small portable tape recorder, he recorded the ambient sounds of a diner. He then spliced into this tape, sounds of war, cries of distress and low frequency sounds that upset the digestion. He took these back to the café, where he played the spliced tapes at the ambient noise level in the restaurant. By the end of a week, nobody was dining there.
To the extent that there is an actual plot to Decoder, it would involve warring factions that want to use this to different ends. The restaurant ownersused music to sooth and promote the appetite. The rebel faction brings portable recorders that send people fleeing into the streets. There are dream sequences about toads and a woman reciting passages from Macbeth (either a homage to Jodorowsky or a reference to a Burroughs statement that he could call the toads, depending on which of the crew you ask), retro electronics that were meant to look futuristic, and miles of the kind of scenery that Godard used to create the “future” in Alphaville.
One of the funniest things about this story of control fighting guerrillas is that it was funded by a German version of the NEA. Most of the people involved in the film were members of various artist collectives working for free. When musicians from British collectives offered to donate their time for free, a British studio was hired. This turned out to be the same studio where most of the Muzak of the day was actually recorded. On their system, the low frequencies actually caused loosened bowels. When the filmmaker interviewed the president of the Muzak corporation as research (posing as a journalist), he was offered a job, because he knew so much about subliminal sound.
The new Transparency release of this film is especially deluxe. Besides a completely remastered print, it includes riot footage (Reagan visits Berlin) filmed by the cast (those riots aren’t stock footage). It includes a 45 minute interview of the filmmaker by Jack Sargeant, a short film by Derek Jarmen (filmed on the set), and the interview with the Decoder artist collective in Milan.
SFMOMA has a very cool new feature on their website. It is called the Collection Rotation. Guest artists are allowed to choose from the museum collection to curate an online show. Last November the guest curator was Fayette Hauser. Her selection was meant to coincide with a celebration of her artist collective The Cockettes. As Ms. Hauser explains, “I grew up in a world of my own, raising myself in fantasy. This world was much more real and vital to me than the other, the actual world. When I first came to San Francisco in 1968, I was already deep into my Victorian fantasy, so excruciatingly dense, but all in my mind. What I found was that everyone was living out their fantasies, seriously. I was home at last.”
While many people who came to San Francisco in the 1960’s were content to turn on and bleat like sheep at the wonders they saw, The Cockettes combined LSD with a work ethic. Their mission was to make the fantasies in their heads into a tangible reality to everybody they encountered. They staged scripted shows, but often the real magic was encountering them offstage. Hippies for all of their free-love rhetoric were often as provincial as the “straights” they railed against. Their claims of open mindedness were often tested by the appearance of what might appear to be human Christmas trees of indeterminate gender. This ambivalence towards gender roles made them outsiders among poseurs who claimed to have rejected society.
One of their best art actions involved the wedding of Tricia Nixon. Back in the era when the press could actually be managed (and before the advent of youtube) there was a hunger among the press and public to see the president’s daughter married. The Cockettes raced into action and staged their own version of the wedding, which was rushed to theatres to time out with the actual private wedding. This made a sufficient impression on the powers that be, to occasion a private screening of the Cockettes film at the Nixon White House. Limited editions of this film and their other major opus, Elevator Girls in Bondage are starting to turn up on DVD. But the best way to understand the importance of this collective is a documentary called The Cockettes, which is readily available at Amazon and Netflix. This documentary does a wonderful job of explaining their importance.
And their importance cannot be overstated on the culture as we know it today. Whether one is a student of altered states in art, gender definitions, performance boundaries (their entire lives were conducted as a happening), or the nature of collectives, there is a lot of material here for a thesis. One has only to look at Ms. Hauser’s selections for her Collection Rotation to understand that the Cockettes have deep roots in the world of fine art. If any readers out there are teaching performance art, a workshop about or with the Cockettes (also available for lectures) might be just the thing to wake up those apathetic students.
If there is such a thing in the world of cinema as an Outsider Artist, that honor is probably held by George Kuchar. In 1954 at the age of 12 he started making 8mm films with his twin brother Mike. The brothers who spent much of their childhood watching movies, proved to be savants. Their attempts to recreate the work of the likes of Douglas Sirk and the great directors of Hollywood, were embraced by the emerging New York underground film scene. Barely out of their teens, they were being featured on programs that included Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage. Despite their worldwide reputation, they have always embraced technologies meant for home movies.
Until the advent of online video, the only way to see a Kuchar film was to attend a screening at a museum or other high art venue. Part of the magic of these screenings was George himself. Q&A sessions often took a turn for the surreal, when an earnest film student would offer a ponderous theory question. One gets the impression that George has plenty of theories, but that’s not why he makes films. He makes films because he loves to. Thanks to an insightful administrator of the SF Art Institute, he has held a full time teaching position since 1971. A new documentary called It Came From Kuchar, shows him at work instilling his love of making films to a whole new generation. It also helps to explain him to a generation that might have a hard time imagining that some things can stay underground, even if the art museums notice them.
It Came From Kuchar showcases both Kuchar Brothers. (they began working separately in the mid 1960’s) Mike has kept a lower profile over the years, but this documentary fills in the gaps for fans of both brothers. (there are currently no films in print by either brother in the US). The filmmakers had amazing access to the Kuchar archive, so one can get a sense of their aesthetic from the many clips included. Among these clips are scenes from Thundercrack. George wrote the script for this feature that tried (three decades before Shortbus) to show actual sex in a narrative comedy. Featuring dialog that could make Tennessee Williams jealous, this film is still so shocking that Fox News couldn’t find a “decent” clip to show on television, when they recently tried to vilify a screening of it.
If one really wants to gauge the influence of the Kuchars on the larger world of cinema, one has only to look at the talking heads in the documentary. John Waters (only 3 years younger than the Kuchars) raves that they inspired him to make films. Buck Henry, Guy Maddin, Atom Egoyan, and Wayne Wang all appear as talking heads.
Hopefully this wonderful documentary will cause more arts venues to start having more Kuchar programs. Until it does, this film serves as a great introduction to a phenomena that will no doubt lead to many a Masters thesis.
If you were alive and cognizant during the 1960’s and 70’s, it might have seemed like the sexual revolution was an inevitable force. It was hard to imagine that once ground was broken, that the genie could ever be put back into the bottle. A counter-revolution that started in the 1980’s has taken such a hold on the world psyche that we can now can now gasp in wonder that certain movies of that time were ever able to get made. Among the most wonderful curiosities in this category was a baffling collage of the Zeitgeist called Sweet Movie.
Made in 1974 in a world where anything goes, such narrative as one can hope to follow focuses on two women. One of these women is a beauty queen who competes for and wins the title of “most virgin” in a gynecological beauty pageant. Her prize is marriage to a dairy fortune. When the wedding night goes horribly wrong, she is kidnapped and whisked off to the Eiffel Tower, where a group of nuns catches her in the act of sex with a stranger. She is rescued by an artist collective, whose feral behavior runs the gamut of bodily functions. These are acted out with the most horrifying results during a group meal. Of special interest to art historians is the fact that the artist commune is played by Otto Muehl’s actual artist collective in their actual quarters. Until a series of his art films began to surface recently, it was the only chance to see Muehl in action. (thanks to Ubu Web and Youtube, you can now more easily access these) By the end of her story arc, she is performing naked and covered in chocolate in a pornographic commercial.
The other woman the movie follows is the captain of a peculiar ship filled with sugar that sports a giant Paper Mache masthead of Karl Marx. When she lures a viral young lad aboard, he is warned that if she falls in love with him, that she will kill him. Love arrives and she stabs him to death in a snow white pile of sugar. Throughout her story arc, she has also been luring children onto her ship of sweets. After she is apprehended and arrested, the police remove plastic bags full of dead children from the ship’s hold. As the credits roll and more police come to arrest the entire cast, the bodies of the dead children wrapped in plastic return to life.
This is one of two paradigm shifting movies the director made in the 1970’s. The other (W.R. Mysteries of the Organism) was made in Soviet era Yugoslavia in 1971. Reaction to this film was so caustic that the director fled the country to make this one (in Canada, the Netherlands and France) Despite the fact that both films are still banned in many countries, Criterion has bravely given these films a deluxe release. As it manages to matter of factly break so many taboos, one is advised to secure a copy post haste. This is one genie the Puritans will want back in the bottle ASAP.