DIRTY LOOKS: A Monthly Platform for Queer Experimental Film and Videoby Eve Perry
LAST WEDNESDAYS, MONTHLY, VENUE ROTATES
Dirty Looks, a monthly “roaming” program of experimental film and video, showcases contemporary works by queer artists alongside works by their historical predecessors in queer-oriented film and video. With past screenings at various New York locations, including White Columns, Participant Inc., and the Judson Memorial Church, the thoughtfully curated series highlights the contribution of LGBTQ artists to film and video while underscoring their ongoing affinities from the 1950s to the present.
Early films in the series have emphasized the hedonism-tragedy binary associated with gay culture in the 1950s–80s, addressing subjects such as drug abuse, S-and-M, orgies, AIDS, and drag in a stylistic range from the intimately diaristic to the fantastically absurd. Dirty Looks presents a rare opportunity to view influential films by cult visionaries of the underground era—including Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, and George and Mike Kuchar—on the big(ish) screen alongside lesser-known important pieces such as “Race d’Ep!” (1979), by pioneering queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem and Lionel Soukaz. Upon its release in France, the film was censored for its candid portrayal of cruising and has not been screened in this country since its initial U.S. debut in 1982.
A strength of the series is organizer Bradford Nordeen’s approach to organizing the program line-ups. Drawing out related subject matter, themes, and aesthetic sensibilities in works across generational divides, old and new pieces are juxtaposed so as to encourage new insights into each selection. Early experimental filmmakers, who helped to forge radically new concepts of gender and sexuality before the concept of “queer” was fully formed, are placed alongside younger artists born in the post-Stonewall era, who have inherited an academically sanctioned canon of queer theory.
The February screening at the Judson Memorial Church combined Anger’s lush and mystical “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” (1954/66) with Michelle Handelman’s stunning and slickly produced “Dorian, a cinematic perfume” (2009). Anger’s film typifies the parodic camp extravagance that characterized gay aesthetics in early experimental film. Handelman picks up that tradition in her piece, which explores the underground club scene of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Both artists touch on themes of decadence, performativity, and artifice as they spotlight eccentric stars of the underground—Anger with his homage to bohemian Hollywood and Handelman with her tribute to club culture, re-interpreted by drag legends and luminaries of contemporary queer culture.
Pieces from the 1960s by Warren Sonbert and Tom Chomont represent the porous art/life divide—a crucial experiment in time-based media in that decade—from a queer perspective. In the vein of Jonas Mekas’s D.I.Y. documentary style, Sonbert and Chomont’s intimate and lyrical scenes provide a glimpse into a day-to-day existence that poses a new normalcy beyond the hetero-centrist status quo. The contemporary artists in Dirty Looks tend not to exhibit this type of self-reflective, raw immediacy in their approach to film and video, instead gravitating toward chronicling—with a certain reverence—not themselves, but influential figures in the history of queer culture. The June screening at White Columns, titled “Yesterday Once More,” was dedicated to this phenomenon and featured works by Matt Wolf, Chris E. Vargas, and Mariah Garnett that reinterpret the lives and creative legacies of Joe Brainard, Liberace, and Peter Berlin respectively. The pieces at once pay homage to their subjects and define their own territory as experimental narratives in film and video.
The September screening at White Columns paired Tom Rubnitz and Dynasty Handbag (a.k.a Jibz Cameron). Working in the late 1980s and early 90s, Rubnitz drew his inspiration from New York’s East Village drag scene, capturing the essence of its dazzling fabulousness in works that feature iconic drag figures—RuPaul, the Lady Bunny, Hapi Phace, Lypsinka, and others. Rubnitz’s connection to Dynasty Handbag is most evident in works like “Pickle Surprise” (1989) and “Strawberry Shortcut”(1989), which parody television conventions and formats with the same kind of humor and confusion as does Dynasty Handbag’s “Eternal Quadrangle” (2012). Ms. Handbag, as a performative character in her colorful and comedic pieces, is charmingly spastic, deranged and gender-irrelevant in a Muppety sort of way. Both artists incite the kind of What the fuck? delight and bewilderment that sustains sleepless nights spent on YouTube. “Pickle Surprise,”—in fact, has enjoyed a kind of second life on YouTube, where it has attracted over 1.5 million views.
Dirty Looks has garnered full audiences from the start of its monthly run in January 2011. The program continues with Andy Warhol’s “Hedy” (1966) at Judson Memorial Church on November 28.