Feb 4, 2015

The Decaying Body & Its Reanimation

by Dan Streible

Here's the program of films we screened last week. 

The Decaying Body & Its Reanimation

Mouseholes (1999) 9 min. 
Helen Hill
“Anywhere. . .”
The House Is Black (1962) 22 min.
Farough Farrakhzad
My whole being is a dark chant.

Portraits of Anorexia (1987) 43 min.  
Wendy Zheutlin
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) 43 min.    
Todd Haynes
Before the rising sun we fly.

birth / death 
Scratch and Crow (1995) 4 min. 
Helen Hill
If I knew, I would assure you we are all
Finally good chickens
And will rise together,
A noisy flock of round,
Dusty angels. 

These temporary tattoos were given out at Helen's memorial service.
Her nickname from childhood was Chicken.

Among the other threads we might discuss is that, until Wendy Zheutlin got replaced by Todd Haynes, these were works by women filmmakers. Karen Carpenter's presence trumping Haynes, perhaps, that sex/gender theme remains pronounced.  

Other continuities? Poetic form. Experimental techniques. Voice-over narration. Spiritual and religious content. These films are also from early in the careers of young filmmakers. Two of them are MFA student films. Todd Haynes made Superstar while at Bard College; Helen Hill made Scratch and Crow as her thesis film at CalArts. Both made films in high school too (and in her case in elementary school). 

The screening of Superstar has something of an aura because it cannot be commercially distributed or publicly exhibited due to its copyright infringement on the music of The Carpenters (not to mention Elton John, Dionne Warwick, Leon Russell, Gilbert O'Sullivan). Haynes never sought permissions or did clearances; when Richard Carpenter sued, he of course won and the film has since been contraband. Nevertheless it has enjoyed a cult following, mostly via VHS bootlegging. 

The quality of the VHS dub experience is at the heart of Lucas Hildebrand's great essay “Grainy Days and Mondays: Superstar and Bootleg Aesthetics,” Camera Obscura 57 (December 2004) [written while he was a cinema studies PhD student at NYU]. Also of note is Hildebrand's dissertation-turned-book Inherent Vice [catchy title, eh]: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Duke University Press, 2009). Prior to Facets releasing The House Is Black on DVD in 2005, a small number of quasi-bootleg VHS tapes were the only way to see the Farrakhzad film. 

Contrasting VHS aesthetics of Superstar (low-resolution, nth generation dub, now enhanced by the very noticeable drop out in the image) with the beautiful look of the preserved (in 2007) Helen Hill films was another consideration in putting this program together. Although Helen was in part a DIY artist (forced to become a DIY archivist-preservationist when Hurricane Katrina floods destroyed much of her work in 2005), the films also have a fine arts quality to them, particularly Scratch and Crow.  Such rich color!

For more about this remarkable soul, I point you to two pieces I published: “Media Artists, Local Activists, and Outsider Archivists: The Case of Helen Hill,” in Old and New Media after Katrina, ed. Diane Negra (Palgrave McMillan, 2010), 149-74; and "In memoriam Helen Hill,” Film History 19.4 (2007): 438-41. 

Read about the Helen Hill Award conferred by the Orphan Film Symposium here:  http://www.nyu.edu/orphanfilm/orphans8/helenhill.php

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