Friday Editor’s Pick: “Normal Love” (1965-ongoing) and Underground Opulence

by on April 15, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

7:00 at the Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
The third installation of the fabulous, globe-trotting biennial Fashion in Film Festival makes its stateside debut in the borough of (you guessed it!) Queens. Co-presented by the Museum of the Moving Image, the two-weekend festival kicks off it heels with a program of shorts climaxing in Normal Love, a 1963 work by the experimental underground’s anti-auteur, Jack Smith. J.S. is joined by artfag-in-arms Kenneth Anger–repped by his glorious film fragment Puce Moment–and three 1906-07 Pathe-studio shorts. (They called it the “French vice” for a reason, kids.)
Per the official program notes:

Bursting with color, this program reconnects the avant-garde queer sensibility of the underground with some genres in early film that—with their ornamental costumes and décor—anticipate some of the richness of the underground’s camp aestheticism.

Congratulations to the Museum of the Moving Image, now poised to take the 2011 prize for NYC’s most ovah cinematic event. Luxuriant in multi-hued taffetas and ostrich-feathered elegance, the Fashion in Film Festival is like a Heaven-themed counterpart to the Black Party’s leather-clad Hell. So get out your powderpuffs, girls, cuz we gon’ do our thang.


Lucia Davies for AnOther Magazine:

Film has been an important medium for fashion since the opulent movies of the silent era. Now in its third year, the Fashion in Film Festival will be turning its attention to the significant role costume has played in cinema. This time around entitled Birds of Paradise, the festival will explore the beguiling and alluring presence of costume in the movies, and looking at it how has helped to showcase the basic elements of film – movement, light and colour – throughout the history of European and American cinema.


Laura McLean-Ferris for The Independent:

One of the earliest films was made by France’s Lumière brothers in 1896, and features a lone dancer enveloped in a white costume with many elaborately constructed folds and billows. As she spins and dances, the dress flies up around her in fluid layers, so that she starts to resemble a floating jellyfish, strange-winged insect or heavy-petalled flower. The film print is hand-tinted, so that the figure changes colour, emulating the coloured lights that were shone on to the white costume in live performances. The dancer becomes, quite simply, a moving piece of magic, and a joy to behold. This kind of dance was known as the “serpentine”, and was created by the stage performer Loïe Fuller; the Lumière brothers’ film depicts one of Fuller’s many imitators enacting the dance. […]
Marketa Uhlirova, the Fashion in Film Festival’s director, explains that these early dance films were a source of inspiration for Birds of Paradise. “These films are a celebration of cinema in a way, right at the moment that cinema is being born. Early film-makers embraced these costumed performances because they showed so beautifully that film is a medium of movement. On a level of technical invention, they helped to communicate what cinema is about.”


Normal Love
Gary Morris for Bright Lights Film Journal:

Much of [Jack Smith’s] work is about the importance of style and, specifically, the pose; he practically rubs our noses in the idea that logic and progress and movement are always secondary to experience and stasis and the tableau, as long as it’s beautiful. His films are at once coy and brazen. Their much-vaunted orgies and nudity (which some courts called “hardcore” with nothing in the films to support that) appear sometimes in flashes, where you have to squint to see it; or there may be a dick or a breast wagging quietly in the corner of a frame chiefly occupied by a muscular drag queen dressed as an ungainly mermaid.
As serious as he was about his own work, Smith did not view it as inviolate. His view of an ideal world of constant change and pleasure no doubt accounted for his peculiar, perhaps unique, habit of re-editing some of his work while it was being projected. According to archivist/restorationist Jerry Tartaglia, Smith developed a lightning-fast technique of removing a take-up reel during projection and resplicing whole sections before they were sucked back onto the other reel and onto the theater screen.


Bradford Nordeen at his blog, Being Boring:

If Flaming Creatures was a claustrophobic world of decadence and rebirth, in Normal Love Smith’s creatures (here even more iconic than in the preceding film) lay siege on the garden of Eden, overturning it to, yet again, revel in the fantastic opulence of the body and, sadly, yet again, they are punished. The genius of Normal Love lies in the films’ “normalcy.” In Smith’s world, only those things that are not faked are fraud, and cannot therefore be trusted. […]
This is a bizarre world of Mummies and Werewolves, of Cake ladies and Mermaids, but this idea of normalizing the abnormal is eventually what makes it work, and it does quite well. Smith maps a world whose oddities are far more traditional than anything we know as traditional. This is what made him such an essential contribution to the world of experimental cinema. Warhol, who apparently makes a cameo in Normal Love would never have made the same movies without him, and Warhol’s films (though mainly because of his other media contributions) are the post-modern holy grail of experimental film. You will also see bits of Kenneth Anger (the white bat of Normal Love) and as I have previously mentioned, a lot of [John] Waters.

Puce Moment
From Guy Maddin’s love letter to (ex-child actor) Kenneth Anger in Film Comment (May ’07):

My transportation into Anger’s world, which is the world of anyone who has ever fantasized, daydreamed or night-dreamed anything, is so total and thrilling as to take me through to the other side, to be thrilled anew with pure process. And I am allergic to process!
Further fascination comes from considering what must be the single most complex relationship with Hollywood that any filmmaker ever had. Anger was disabused of the wonders of cinema much earlier than most of us: at three he saw the klieg and the cameras, cavorted with the strong men in caps and neckties who labored to create the magic, and smelled the dust and glue holding all this enchantment together. He was able to pass through the process and back into the magic before he had even entered his teens. At the same time, he was rejecting the Hollywood myth that so many of us hold sacred and dear – reinventing it to suit his own purposes, plucking the valued Puce Moments like baubles from a shabby estate-sale table, and hanging them from his own burning Christmas tree. Anger venerates Hollywood while delivering unto it a firm kick in the aitchbone. He fled it (stealing silver to fund the trip) while so many others were stepping off the bus from Peoria ready to give their lives to the place–but he could never really escape its thrall. He became, through his movies, just like one of those crazed killers who pump bullets into Mother while screaming “I love you! I love you!”


Alice L. Hutchinson in her generously illustrated monograph, Kenneth Anger:

Puce Women, 1949, was originally conceived as a feature-length film on the women of Hollywood in the 1920s, and Anger’s first use of color. It was to be a study of their lifestyles, their clothes, their cars, their houses, their social patterns, with an all-woman cast (including their elegant wolfhounds). Anger stated, “Puce Moment was my love affair with mythological Hollywood. A straight heterosexual love affair…”

[Editor’s note: ha!]
Hutchinson also notes that Anger was directly influenced by “…and particularly fond of the proto-psychedelic, Beardsley-inspired Salomé (1923), Oscar Wilde’s historic fantasy, starring and produced by Alla Nazimova, in which she appears in a number of fantastical costumes.” And quelle surprise! You’ll be able to see this production of Salomé (with live piano accompaniment) next Sunday (Apr 24 at 4:30).

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