[reprinted from the exhibition gallery guide]
Film, more than any other medium, has the capacity to mirror—and manipulate—our perception of everyday phenomena, to effect startling disjunction, and bring seemingly disparate images into revelatory proximity. Ordinary Madness presents a unique opportunity to showcase Carnegie Museum of Art’s extraordinary collection of experimental films from the 1960s and ’70s, and to bring together works that reflect the ambiguous, simultaneous, and fragmented nature of personal experience. Many seminal films of the ’60s and ’70s entered the Carnegie collection by way of innovative programming initiated in March 1970, when newly appointed curator Sally Dixon launched the museum’s Film Section (later the Department of Film and Video) with a series of single-artist retrospectives and in-person appearances. Dixon, and Bill Judson after her, delivered artists such as Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Malcolm LeGrice, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, and Michael Snow to eager audiences of up to 300 people, and many of these artists left prints of their work in the museum’s care. The Carnegie’s Film Section was one of the earliest programs of its kind in an American museum, and the collection begun at that time continues to grow today through the efforts of the contemporary art department. For Ordinary Madness, we have selected 11 films for two screening events and the opening reception.
The exhibition opens with a screening on October 14 of Harry Smith’s collage film Heaven and Earth Magic (1957–1962) in the museum’s Hall of Sculpture. Composed of elements taken from Victorian-era clothing catalogues and exercise manuals, the film frustrates traditional narrative interpretation and evolves through simultaneous cycles of metamorphosis. The transformations center around an unchanging male magus character who, after injecting a female figure with magic potion, finds she has disintegrated and must be reassembled. Inspired by the Surrealist practice of automatic writing, Smith used sortilege (a randomizing selection process like drawing lots) to structure the film and adopted a strategic regimen of sleep deprivation, working to the point of exhaustion and then transferring his dreams to film upon waking. The resulting animation includes obscure references to the Kabbalah, 19th-century philology, and the writings of Dr. Wilder Penfield on open-brain surgery and the concept of the Homunculus, evincing Smith’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of esoterica and mysticism. A collector of everything from pop-up books and forgotten folk records to Native American costumes, string figures, and Fabergé eggs, Smith’s interest in ethnic artifacts and everyday ephemera was rooted in a search for universality underlying the diversity of human endeavor. In synthesizing and recontextualizing his findings for such collage films as Heaven & Earth Magic and audio compilations as Anthology of American Folk Music (released in 1952 by Folkways Records), Smith was working a form of alchemical magic, reconfiguring common elements to produce something extraordinary.
With the Anthology, which reintroduced America to the “weird” old songs of its marginalized populations and hardscrabble rural past, Smith helped usher in the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, a period marked by widespread social unrest and skepticism. Many dissenters of that time embraced subversive, subcultural identities opposed to the ideological certainties of postwar America. Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), which leads off the first screening event, on October 22, focuses on one such group—a biker gang—and does so from an off-center perspective that reads alternate meanings (both homoerotic and sinister) into pop songs and cultural icons. Set to a score of ostensibly “straight” love songs like “Fools Rush In,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and “You’re the Devil in Disguise,” Scorpio Rising depicts a black leather-clad gang cleaning their bikes, getting dressed and posing for the camera, attending a party, and speeding recklessly through city streets, which ultimately results in a deadly accident. Eroticized shots of the bikers’ activities are intercut with images of such popular “rebels” as James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Gary Cooper as well as Nazi imagery and kitsch representations of Jesus Christ. This interweaving of mass media images, loaded historical and religious symbols, and “deviant” anti-heroes doomed to destruction produces a complex and deeply ambiguous film. Anger seems to simultaneously celebrate the mobility of popular meanings and equate the homogenizing ubiquity of the mass media with totalitarian oppression and religious mythology.
Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965)—a fragment of an unfinished 30-minute production set to the song “Dream Lover”—applies a similar treatment to American hot rod culture, suggesting fetishistic worship of (mechanized) idols animates that phenomenon as well. Shot in campy pastel colors, the film opens with fluid pan shots of glittering chrome components and then focuses in on the movements of an anonymous figure who strokes the customized cruiser with an oversized white powder-puff. The film finishes with a shot the man, revealed as an attractive, blonde greaser, getting into his pristine ride and zooming off, having seemingly attained his ideal “dream lover.”
Rounding out a compilation of experimental films set to contemporary pop tunes, Bruce Conner’s Cosmic Ray (1962) repurposes Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” syncing it with a rhythmic stream of found images from old newsreels, cartoons, and other film fragments to evoke a beguiling sense of interconnection. Pictures of everything from fireworks and Mickey Mouse to atomic bomb blasts, gunships, and the flag-raising at Iwo Jima pass before the viewer’s eyes almost too quickly to be apprehended. The montage sequences are interspersed with speed-manipulated footage of naked women dancing, suggesting the proximity of desire and danger, sex and death.
Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1964–1967), on the other hand, looks at sex as an element of everyday home life, replete with ineffable emotion and sensation, but as ordinary as the passing of the seasons. Disregarding the taboos of dominant American mores, Schneemann and her partner John Tenney filmed their sexual activity over several months, editing in shots of their cat to create the impression that the bedroom sequences are seen from its (morally neutral) perspective. The artist then manipulated the filmstrip—bleaching it, baking it in the oven, soaking it in urine, etching it with a razor, and painting it frame by frame—thus depositing a visible, physical residue of daily life on the celluloid. As the title intimates, Fuses is a personal document that strives to represent the fusion of physical and psychic experience, while overturning the objectifying (male) gaze of pornography.
With shots that draw visual parallels between objects in nature and parts of the human body, Fuses advances an analogical way of looking at the world, outside the imposed order of causal, narrative structure. Ed Emshwiller (also known as “Emsh” to fans of his science-fiction illustrations) used a similar strategy to organize his film Relativity (1966), which explores correspondences between seemingly unrelated details such as roots, plumbing, and entrails; geographic and bodily topographies; and technological networks and solar systems. The film opens with Man enclosed in a cave and progresses to his relationship to Woman, and then spreads outward to evoke the overwhelming simultaneity and connectivity of everything to everything else. Recalling Einstein’s unbounded universe, in which the movement of bodies in space can only be described in relation to other bodies, Emshwiller’s film dwells on the beautiful and terrible little symmetries discernible within the chaos of the cosmos.
If space and time are relative, as Einstein theorized, then reality may never be comprehended absolutely, only perceived subjectively. The films in the second screening program, on November 10, highlight this problem, plumbing the divide between reality and its distortion in fantasy, fiction, and individual perception. George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966) and I, an Actress (1976) do so in a way that is disarmingly funny, featuring over-the-top acting and blatant staging to reflect on the artificial nature of melodrama. Hold Me While I’m Naked is a loosely autobiographical camp classic, featuring Kuchar himself as a lonely, sexually frustrated filmmaker trying to produce a Hollywood romance. The steamy scenes he directs continue after he’s left the set (or so he imagines), his amorous actors too involved with each other to even answer his phone calls. Tacky décor and cheesy props, bad acting and Bronx accents, all reinforce an ironic distance between what the viewer sees and is ostensibly supposed to feel. Nonetheless, Hold Me While I’m Naked does convey a simultaneously sad and hilarious sense of stifled longing and underscores the unattainable desires that media images conjure in all of us. I, an Actress, filmed in one 10-minute take by Kuchar and his students at San Francisco Art Institute, similarly parodies artistic expression of existential suffering. The film shows a female student practicing lines of tawdry, overdramatic dialogue. Her delivery, directed toward a “costar” that turns out to be a tall plastic tube in a jacket and wig, becomes increasingly exaggerated and outrageous as Kuchar demonstrates the “correct” technique.
Roger Jacoby’s Kunst Life (1976) opens with a shot of another actor, Ondine (one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars,” known for his role in Chelsea Girls among other films), trapped in knight’s armor, having seemingly collapsed during an impromptu performance of a homespun Arthurian drama. This rather unglamorous glimpse of the legendary Ondine was afforded by the filmmaker’s intimacy with him—he was Jacoby’s partner of many years—and the informal, home-movie approach of the opening shots carries through the rest of the film, which includes segments featuring other members of Jacoby’s family. A Pittsburgh resident from 1972 until his death in 1985, Jacoby hand-processed his films in the bathtub of his apartment on Walnut Street, a complex undertaking that made it impossible to predict what kind of chemical distortions would result. The warping of the emulsion is also audible—at a one-second delay—because Jacoby shot Kunst Life using an Auricon camera, which recorded an optical soundtrack on the edge of the filmstrip. This gives the film a self-reflexive character, calling the viewer’s attention to the physicality of the celluloid and betraying the illusionistic cohesion of filmic reality.
Hollis Frampton’s film Nostalgia (1971) creates a similarly destabilizing experience. A series of Frampton’s own photographs are placed one after another on a hot plate and burned as the filmmaker narrates from outside the frame, providing background about the image, interpreting its iconography, or describing the scene shown. But the commentary is not in sync with the images, pertaining to the next photograph in the sequence rather than the one on screen. Even after the viewer understands what is happening—that the image seen now is the one already described—the film divides the mind between past and future, memory and anticipation. This decoupling of sound and image dismantles the linear flow of traditional narrative cinema and thus calls attention to the illusory naturalness of cinematic time.
The program concludes with Valley Fever (1979) by Stephanie Beroes, who cofounded Pittsburgh Filmmakers in 1971. The film focuses on a man and woman, who, according to Beroes, “carry on a disjunctive conversation…about the effects of illness on perception” and subsequently show each other film footage that evokes their separate perspectives on a single scenario. While the footage purportedly shows the man and woman’s “respective hallucinations under fever—images of the desert, palms, swimming pools, and the American suburban landscape,” the real concern seems to be the embodied and singular nature of perception, our inability to see the world through anyone’s eyes but our own. In the context of Valley Fever, which pivots on the display and spectatorship of film within a film, and in the context of Ordinary Madness in general, this idea resonates with the situation of the artist, as an individual attempting to convey personal vision through means available in the external world.