Transmodern Age's Opening Night Spotlights Women and Their Experimental Films
“Sexism exists—that’s the rule,” says Catherine Pancake, Transmodern Age co-organizer and sometime filmmaker ("Tragic Mountains," March 28), laying down her take on women in film. “There’s definitely a level of marketing and money and intensity that tends to skew genderwise. You have to maneuver in that world. It’s like in rock music, where’s there’s a plethora of competition from wound-up dudes.” She laughs. “But a lot of it comes down to the content of the work.”
The content of work by Joanna Raczynska, Karen Yasinsky, Jennie Livingston, Nancy Andrews, and Martha Colburn (all selected for this year’s first-time film program at Transmodern Age, Baltimore’s annual experimental culture festival) is not explicitly “female” in that hoary “women’s art is different from men’s” way. But it still contains imagery—torsoless skirted legs hypnotically clicking ruby slippers, leather dykes and “vanilla girls” in a Busby Berkeley dance-off, gyrating porn-loop women skinned to the bone—that provides a parallax view on the canards of female beauty, sexuality, and acceptable behavior.
That estrogen-tinged vista goes largely unexplored, due to the misconception (not discouraged by Hollywood) that a generic male perspective is equivalent to a neutral point of view. Female filmmakers, especially those who want to plumb so-called “unacceptable” topics, find their struggle to find an audience increasingly deadlocked. (Pancake has experienced this phenomenon firsthand: her own menstruation-themed movie, “Klumpki Heart Wonderful,” claims the distinction of so horrifying the male judges on the 1996 Psychotronic Film Festival panel that a separate women’s festival had to be created just for her.) Luckily, when choosing work for this year’s festival, Pancake says she was unbound by such squeamishness: “I just asked myself, If I could have my own private film festival, who would I have?”
Including the work of Martha Colburn is a no-brainer. Her delightful/horrific cinematic visions—1970s porn loops where the flesh is overlaid with painted skeletons and oozing sores like a Dia de los Muertos orgy, disarticulated cutouts of Mexican wrestlers making Nureyev-like leaps, human-faced bugs shot from a gun—stick to the brain like bathtub mildew. She delights in the grotesque and unacceptable, heaping the most disfigurement (and implied scorn) on that which makes a stab at beauty, perfection, and allure.
Colburn’s reputation as bohemian ascetic (living a heatless, showerless, carless Baltimore life for close to a decade) and a fearless peripatetic (in the past six years she has had stints in Holland, China, and New Zealand) is no fiction. “As an artist you need to move a few times in your life,” she says, speaking from inside her new digs—a vast abandoned office space near Wall Street, temporarily gifted to her as a studio space by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. “It helps you view things differently.”
Her most recent film, “Cosmetic Emergency”—screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and now included in the 2006 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art—slathers wartime photos with fake breasts and mascara and warps illustrations of blandly pretty advertising women with swaths of painted decay and deformity, reattacking the favorite feminist theme of beauty and its mythology with the destructive glee of a billboard vandal. Inspired by the revelation that the U.S. Armed Services offers free cosmetic surgery to its recruits, “Cosmetic Emergency” is more political and pointed than her cruder earlier work.
“Going from Baltimore, which was this oppressive, frantic, frightening environment, to Europe, where it’s quiet, it’s safe—the way they look on art is completely different—my work did change,” Colburn says. “It became more refined. I had more time to reflect on what I’m doing, so by default I grew as an artist.”
The same pattern of growth applies to Nancy Andrews, another Baltimore expatriate (formerly of performance group Lambs Eat Ivy), who has continued to make films after relocating to Maine. Andrews’ “Monkeys and Lumps” shows her performance pedigree, as she, in character as the no-nonsense chalk-talk virtuoso Ima Plume, catalogs several centuries of breaches in the gaps of mystery and communication, including the account of several separate instances of furred lumps of flesh washing ashore on Tasmanian beaches, the experiences of the first space monkeys, how even a toddler primate can count to 50, countless specimens of facial expression, and a musical number about Jane Goodall performed by rod puppets of the primatologist and her chimps.
“We live in an information age,” Andrews says over the phone from her Maine home. “We know so much, but there’s still new types of animals being discovered. There’s phenomena we don’t understand.” Her films are as crisp, clinical, and rational as Colburn’s are lurid and grimy, recalling a quaint 18th-century impulse to catalog oddity as science and vice versa. Rather than draw explicit conclusions, Andrews gathers all the players and achieves an alchemic gelling of her ineffable thesis.
Both Colburn and Andrews have done OK for themselves. Their self- or grant-financed shorts require a certain outlay of funds—film stock, equipment, puppet construction, source imagery, etc.—but much less than is needed for a feature. And neither has sought multiplex distribution, choosing instead to stick to festivals and other art-related screenings. “I’ve always been fortunate,” Andrews says. “I don’t make that much effort to show, but I’ve been able to show my films.”
But once you step out of the reasonably egalitarian experimental film circuit—where, even, as Colburn points out, “film is mechanical—anyone I call about labs or equipment, it’s predominantly men”—into the ironclad fraternity of Hollywood, women filmmakers fare much worse. Once serious money comes into the picture (usually backed by the atavistic industry belief that when a man and woman go on a date, the man chooses the movie), the entire game changes.
As the Guerrilla Girls art activists have pointed out, there are more female senators in Washington than female directors in Hollywood. And for the few who crack the system, they still don’t find the same opportunity awaiting them. An attention-getting debut movie like Reservoir Dogs or Bottle Rocket may cause male studio heads to garland the likes of Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson with second-film guarantees, but female filmmakers find the gap between their first and second movies a much longer span, if the shot at an encore exists at all.
Jennie Livingston’s career could almost be a case study for this phenomenon. In the late 1980s Livingston took a New York University summer filmmaking class and became acquainted with the young black gay men “voguing” in Washington Square Park, eventually recording their drag ball glitterocracy in the documentary Paris Is Burning. A two-week gig at Film Forum spun quickly into a nationwide Miramax-backed release and a 1991 grand jury prize at Sundance. Even though Burning outpaced its original investment considerably—and even raked in a million more than Reservoir Dogs in original release—Livingston wasn’t offered the opportunity to direct another movie.
Undeterred, she plunged into her second project, a feature-length surrealistic erotic comedy about the “lesbian sex wars” of the early ’90s titled Who’s The Top? The screenplay was completed in 1995, but Livingston couldn’t get any financiers to sign onto a project that she described as “Woody Allen’s younger dyke sister goes to the S&M dungeon . . . with musical numbers.”
In 1998 Livingston teamed up with producer Ruth Charny—who had found financing for Allison Anders’ 1996 Grace of My Heart—raised $40,000 from private sources, and from the fruits of a five-day shoot crafted a “trailer” to show prospective investors how the finished movie would be done. The end result created buzz and applause but convinced no one to lay down money. Frustrated, Livingston wiped her hands of the project until a colleague convinced her to re-envision her footage as a short.
The over-too-quick version of “Who’s the Top?” screening at Transmodern is extremely hot, honest, and clever, a vignette of romantic comedy truer to the volcano-molten, earthquake-unsteady interior landscape of female eros than any chaff Nora Ephron ever wrote. Lusty nebbish Alixe (Marin Hinkle) spends her time trying to convince her lukewarm girlfriend, Gwen (Brigitte Bako), that a little role play might be fun, especially if it’s of the kind that’s been fueling her increasingly Scorpio Rising-meets-On Our Backs fantasies. A trip out West away from spoilsport Gwen leads Alixe to Mars (Shelly Mars, as pretty-boy as Eric Stoltz and twice as butch), a bulldagger top who is happy to give her exactly what she deserves.
“Who’s the Top?” is not about the apprehensively dry-sounding lesbian sex wars any more than it is about being in any relationship, hacking one’s way through the irrational jungle of love and appetite and helpless fetish one tangled step at a time. Its lesbianism is no less striking than that in Bound (which earned the Wachowski Brothers the go-ahead to make the Matrix trilogy), its S&M no scarier than that in Secretary (whose director Steven Shainberg is now directing Nicole Kidman in the Diane Arbus biopic Fur), and its fantasy music sequences no less comprehensible than those in Velvet Goldmine or Moulin Rouge (directors Todd Haynes and Baz Luhrmann remain household art-house names). Nevertheless, something about the toxic triangle of slippery genre, nonvanilla sex, and a woman at the wheel caused potential funders to chicken out and left Livingston no choice but to move on to other short films. It’s absurd to imagine that a young director can debut with a surprise crossover hit and then spend the next 15 years—and ticking—struggling to convince someone to let him make a second feature. But substitute “her” for “him” and suddenly the bottleneck is clear.
“I think that, from a curatorial standpoint, having a festival that explicitly puts this work in the center of discussion is important,” Pancake says. “I don’t know how much that can change patterns, but it’s celebrating that kind of work.”
All of which means that little festivals like Transmodern 2003 grow into midsized festivals like Transmodern 2006—which, pending the collective’s soon-to-be-ratified nonprofit arts organization status, might grow into even larger festivals still. Hopefully that ends up being gender-neutral good news.
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