Kaleodoskopska distorzija raspadajućeg pornića.
Film napravljen od komadića filma nađenih u napuštenom kinu u Bejrutu.
Beirut Outtakes. (2007) 7:24 min., color, 2007. By Peggy Ahwesh. Ubuweb's description:
Composed entirely of film scraps salvaged from a closed Beirut cinema, Beirut Outtakes is a collage of sensational visions. Ed Halter writes in the Village Voice: "Outtakes appears to be a ready-made, albeit one tailor-made for Ahwesh's career obsessions, pre-filled with her signature elements: gleeful disruptions of high and low, affection for decayed textures, a peeping eye for lurid sexuality, and a fascination with unlikely images of the Middle East. Just one sequence of a go-go-booted belly dancer wriggling in an Arabic-language cinema advertisement for home air conditioners alone has the power to shatter more stereotypes than 500 pages of Edward Said."
None of the works of Bill Morrison, Decasia included, are yet available on Ubuweb. But Peggy Ahwesh's Beirut Outtakes is, and it strikes me as at least a little Decasia-like in its use of found footage in less-than-pristine condition. The Beirut cinema from which the content was salvaged must have been a little more than just closed. Shelled? Flooded? Swallowed by a towering alien monstrosity, then partially digested? Some of these clips haven't aged well at all — they've decayed, one might say — and that only adds to the fascination.
Most of the footage seems to date from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s: cowboy movies, appliance commercials, war movies, underwear commercials, harem movies ("Swingtime at the Potentate's Pad"), Gitanes commercials. Some is in English, some has (what I assume to be) Arabic subtitles, some is in (what I assume to be) Arabic, some has French subtitles. One of the potential pitfalls would have been to fall into the well-defined "Behold the extent of the depredations of Western cultural and commercial imperialism" groove by stringing together a bunch of garish U.S. produced spots, and the influence of the midcentury U.S. advertising and mainstream cinema aesthetics don't fail to represent, but the overall product looks as if sourced impartially from all available nationalities.
But does the air-conditioner-selling go-go dancer do more to promote cultural understanding than your average Said tome? It's possible. And besides, I'm not sure how down I am with the concept of "Orientalism." The Orient's pretty neat.
From Romance to Ritual (1985)
The Deadman (1989)
Martina's Playhouse (1989)
She Puppet (2001)
The Third Body (2007)
Over the last twenty years, Peggy Ahwesh has produced one of the most heterogeneous bodies of work in the field of experimental film and video. A true bricoleur, her tools include narrative and documentary styles, improvised performance and scripted dialogue, synch-sound film, found footage, digital animation, and crude Pixelvision video. Using this range of approaches, she has extended the project initiated by 1960s and '70s American avant-garde film, and has augmented that tradition with an investigation of cultural identity and the role of the subject.
Ahwesh started out working in Super-8, attracted, like Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas before her, to the medium's evocation of home movies. For her, this was a subversively amateur form, and also a discourse that yielded traditionally female-gendered themes like home and family, relationships, and confessions, which she appropriated as scenarios. She and other filmmakers of the time, including Sally Potter, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton, had little use for the primarily formal strategies of the structural materialist film tradition (which was in any case dominated by men), and viewed conventions of direction, character, and performance as tools. For these filmmakers, feminism presented a viable avant-garde praxis: unlike the radical formal dislocations of materialist film, the political narrative inherent in feminist art was exceedingly resistant to cooptation by dominant media or advertising.
Ahwesh's work, for all its reliance on theoretical concerns, isn't dry or forbidding. She values humor, playfulness, and, ultimately, the pleasure of the audience. The cluttered sets and fragmented stories in much of her work evince a baroque and almost mystical sensibility, with a lineage including the ornate films of Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. Of course, this is a mysticism that locates its systems of meaning in mass culture, and in recent years Ahwesh has expanded her work to consider the techniques and critiques of nascent digital culture, including videogames and the Internet.
Ultimately, Ahwesh has developed a practice that insists on political and social topicality, handled with theoretical and formal rigor, while remembering the audience. It is her lighter touch that has helped make her work, densely critical as it is, so accessible to so many people. She draws them into the world and traditions of avant-garde film and video, where, as she has remarked, "there's nothing to prove and no money to make," only the pleasures of the text.
Peggy Ahwesh was born in 1954. She received her B.F.A. from Antioch College. Her work has been widely shown, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the Balie Theater, Amsterdam; the Filmmuseum, Frankfurt; the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Rotterdam; Museu d'Art Contemporani Barcelona (MACBA), Barcelona; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, among other venues. Her numerous awards include an Alpert Award in the Arts, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and grants from the Jerome Foundation, Creative Capital, and the New York State Council on the Arts. She teaches at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Ahwesh lives in Brooklyn, New York.-- Biography by EAI
The Color of Love (1994)
Screencap from Peggy Ahwesh's The Color of Love (1994)
"Peggy Ahwesh is a cinematic alchemist with a penchant for transforming the banal into the sublime. A rare combination of technophile and mystic, Ahwesh has been making experimental and avant-garde films and videos since the seventies, when she first started shooting Super 8 films in Pittsburgh while programming for Pittsburgh Filmmakers and working on George Romero's films. In her own early films, she assembled "a kind of sketchbook of people's behaviors in relation to the camera," as she describes it; "people always 'sort of performing. But somehow some Sisyphean act of performance." Jeremy Lehrer, The Independent, March 1999
"In Peggy Ahwesh's The Color of Love (1994, 16mm), the “cinephiliac moment” finds its object in the detritus of cinema’s history: the ruin is doubled over, in the appropriation of an extant pornographic reel, an 8mm film which appears to be from the late 1960s. The film strip is in a state of florid decay. The ten-minute film has been re-edited and optically printed to preserve the evidence of deterioration, which appears as a fluid, leaking emulsion on the surface of the image, obstructing vision, forming ornate patterns and resembling an organic presence unto itself." Elena Gorfinkel, World Picture 4.1, 2010
"The Color of Love resurrects a piece of garish silent found footage from a hardcore porn film discovered in a state of advanced chromatic decay: through the lurid poetics of film decomposition, the tawdry is transformed into sublime. It's a triumph of exquisite disfigurement, of the beneficial defect. Found footage films are sometimes called cameraless filmmaking because they're creations of pure editing. The Color of Love is not entirely cameraless, however. Although Ahwesh presents the optical/color deterioration exactly as found, she optically reframed, step-printed, and reedited certain passages for emphasis. The reediting lends the film's rhythm an intermittently abrupt, slightly disintegrating lilt that suggests the jumpy, disjunctive quality of print wear-and-tear." Gavin Smith, Film Comment, July/August 1995
Peggy Ahwesh's work [...] seems to be marked by the consistent drive to subvert the institutionalized patriarchal narrative codes faithfully reproduced by pervasive hollywoodized film production. Her films refuse to conform to the myth-weaving category of dominant, hierarchically determined discourses; instead, they deconstruct them and re-form them into new meanings, and into images whose meaning is still unutterable but definitely perceptible. In The Color of Love, Ahwesh transposes the bodies featured in a decaying porn flick from the early seventies into a painterly, sophisticated choreography under the rhythm of Astor Piazzola's nostalgic tango. The eroticism — usually lacking in pornography — is evoked here by images imbued with pulsating blotches of color, reminiscent of art nouveau, Klimt in particular. As Peggy Ahwesh once commented: "Erotic is completely subjective. Erotic is a smell of a flower, the wind in the trees. Bodies are not the easiest things to evoke erotic feelings with. It's easier to do it with other things: sheets, patterns of color, food." In short the 'male gaze' is undermined not only by the visible story, driven entirely by the two women's desire, where the man "isn't even a prop-he's set decoration" (Gavin Smith), but by the blatant refusal to conceal the 'falseness' of the narrative, renouncing any claim to its 'truthfulness.'" Maja Manojlovic, San Francisco Cinemateque, 1999
The use of the tango music seems a clear nod in the direction of Un Chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1928). Like its surrealist predecessor, The Color of Love is an assault on the norms of vision. It is explicit; it shows too much.–”Great Directors: Peggy Ahwesh” by John David RhodesA few years ago I had the privilege of studying avant-garde/experimental cinema with Ron Green at Ohio State. He introduced me to a lot of amazing and unsettling work. One of the most uncomfortable films I recall experiencing in that period was a voyeuristic film called “Martina’s Playhouse” by Peggy Ahwesh. I won’t go into detail about it, other than to say that it was my one and only experience with Ahwesh’s work until last week when I watched “The Color of Love.” I’ll give you a link to where you can watch this film at the end of this post. Beware, though, it is (arguably) a work of pornography.
The image of a vagina fills the screen. Fingers caress and pry, pulling the labia apart. The lurid pink of the vulva stands out against the white of the fingers and thighs. Now a head enters the screen from above. Lips move down to the clitoris. It’s a sequence from Peggy Ahwesh’s 1994 short film, The Color of Love. This film has no plot to speak of, no real characters, no dialogue, and no metaphors. The only thing it has is bodies.–”Decomposing” by Steven Shaviro
Peggy Ahwesh once commented: “Erotic is completely subjective. Erotic is a smell of a flower, the wind in the trees. Bodies are not the easiest things to evoke erotic feelings with. It’s easier to do it with other things: sheets, patterns of color, food.” In short the ‘male gaze’ is undermined not only by the visible story, driven entirely by the two women’s desire, where the man “isn’t even a prop-he’s set decoration” (Gavin Smith), but by the blatant refusal to conceal the ‘falseness’ of the narrative, renouncing any claim to its ‘truthfulness.’”–Maja Manojlovic, San Francisco Cinemateque, 1999
In “Color Of Love” Peggy Ahwesh’s ‘ready made’ appropriation of a distressed 70′s pornography whose damaged surface glows with found colors. Ahweash’s manipulations of the Super-8mm porn, her repeats, slowed and sped-up sections, all to a tango score, created a kaleidoscopic appreciation of sexuality. Fruity images of the cunt, vegetal in its lush power are simply unforgettable.–”Looking back at Counter Culture, Counter Cinema: An Avant-Garde Film Festival” by Robin Menken
In classic pornography woman is a commodified entity where the exchange of females among males is the main currency. Female desire in moving picture imagery is often equated with prostitution, rape or bondage where the female body is displayed fragmented and dismembered. Pornography which literally means ‘writing about prostitutes’ is a tool for the reproduction of imagery and text to facilitate this equation.–”Lesbographic Pornography” by Moira Sullivan
MacDonald: The love/sex trilogy—Dead Man, The Color of Love, Nocturne—includes narrative, but ultimately it’s like dream narrative. The viewer gives up on figuring out the story. This sounds pretty straightforward.Ahwesh: The reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution. By the end, you’re supposed to be able to figure out why things happened the way they did. And I’ve always been more into presenting a problem and getting you into an emotional place where you understand the calamity or joy or desire within a person’s life. It’s like a texture, or a mood, a moment—not this is the story and this is how it turns out.–Peggy Ahwesh Interview w/ Scott MacDonald (2003)Watch “The Color of Love” here, thanks to the amazing online scholarly publication World Picture. -Christopher Higgs
Arousal in Ruins: The Color of Love and the Haptic Object of Film History [pdf]
Film History is the Outcome of An Absence. It proceeds by trying to explain the meaning of disappearance of moving images, and the value of these images in the cultural memory of a given period of time . . . If all moving images were available in their ideal state, equally visible in their integrity, there would be no such thing as a history of cinema. - Paolo Cherchi Usai1
It may be that over the history of pornographic cinema the films themselves have not changed so much as the organization of the senses. - Gertrud Koch2
In the numerous and divergent writings on the status, characteristics and historical resonance of cinephilia, a relationship to film is posited, one of an ineffable affection, bordering on obsession, coded through the collection and recollection of ephemeral moments from the cinematic archive. What Paul Willemen, Christian Keathley and others have called the "cinephiliac moment" is studded with a tension, caught between the repetition of a privatized recognition or communion, and the public resonance of a collective identification, both which trade on the traversal of the senses.3 Cinephilia is a narrative of loss and recovery, of the suspension of sublime fragments within filmic memory, as Serge Daney suggests in his comment that "there is a dimension to cinephilia which psychoanalysis knows well under the name of 'mourning work;' something is dead, something of which traces, shadows remain."4 In Peggy Ahwesh's The Color of Love (1994, 16mm), the “cinephiliac moment” finds its object in the detritus of cinema’s history: the ruin is doubled over, in the appropriation of an extant pornographic reel, an 8mm film which appears to be from the late 1960s. The film strip is in a state of florid decay. The ten-minute film has been re-edited and optically printed to preserve the evidence of deterioration, which appears as a fluid, leaking emulsion on the surface of the image, obstructing vision, forming ornate patterns and resembling an organic presence unto itself.
Ahwesh's serendipitous discovery of this film in a dumpster positions the filmmaker as a gleaner and archivist, a film historian collecting remnants of an overlooked cinematic past. If we recall, the cinephilia of the Cahiers era, as well as in other historical moments, circulates in some way around low cultural texts, be it the B films of Sam Fuller, Ado Kyrou’s encounter with an Italian exploitation film,5 Paul Willemen's confession of his attachment to the films of Jess Franco, and Jonas Mekas' and Andy Warhol's patronage of skin flicks on 42nd Street. Even in the construction of the velvet light trap architectonic of the Invisible Cinema at Anthology Film Archives in the early 1970s, Annette Michelson observed that, "it was these very features, while conceived as a means of sacralization of the filmic object and essential in the conception of a temple for the ritual celebration of cinema as an artistic practice, that had, from the first, alternatively suggested this structure as an ideally appropriate site for the viewing of pornographic film."6 All of these anecdotes literalize the "desire for cinema" through a marginalized, low object. We need no reminder that the history of avant-garde practice in film and the plastic arts consistently forged the mutual articulation of art and an eroticized mass culture.
Pornography, popular and unpopular at once, functions as a limit case for filmic representation. In an ontological argument regarding the realist ethos of the cinema forwarded most prominently by Bazin, pornography is seen as perching on the threshold, at the limit of the representable. Bazin's insights conceive of cinema as a "molding of the object as it exists in time and makes an imprint of the duration of the object."7 Thus Bazin heralds the principle of indexicality as the privileged function of the cinema, as well as the site for its uncanny effects. Linda Williams has noted how Bazin's realist ontology collapses at the site of the pornographic and “real” sex, in his essay on Lo Duca's Eroticism in the Cinema.8 Bazin equivocates, countering his own penchant for the realist tendencies of cinema; he reverts to the benchmarks of imagination and fiction, over and above documentary explicitness, as film’s purest aim, stating that: “actual sexual emotion…is contradictory to the exigencies of art.”9 Bazin goes further in making an analogy between the obscenity of death and sex, suggesting that if a film can show the beginnings of “sexual consummation” he would also have the right to demand that in a “crime film, you really kill the victim…”10 Death becomes the inverse figure of a pornographic ontology. Stanley Cavell makes just as forceful a categorical argument that "the ontological conditions of the motion picture reveal it as inherently pornographic."11 Thus, pornography becomes film history's embedded symptom, and Ahwesh's camera-less film enacts the conflation between the entirety of film history and the pornographic fragment through the traces of the decay that overwhelm the film frame. Thus, linking the pornographic with the cinephiliac via the palpable specter of cinematic mortality, can offer a paradigm for understanding the conditions for the visibility and redemption of the film image in its doubled materiality.
The paradox of Ahwesh’s punk-inflected and feminist cinephilia is in the positing of pornography as its lost object, an object that must be mediated through its immanent destruction. On the one hand, the film refers to and engages the critical debates waged over pornography, disputes that fissured the feminist movement in the 1980s. On the other, the film in its preserved temporality returns us to the approximate historical moment of its production—the late 1960s and early 1970s—and to a period that saw the convergence of the ecstasies and subsequent disillusionments of an international cinephilia; the efflorescence, proliferation, and commercialization for the market for sexually explicit films (in adult cinemas, storefronts, and urban theaters); and the emergence of a politicized, ideologically attuned screen theory, shortly thereafter. These intersecting histories—not teleological occurrences but proximate developments—are summoned by The Color of Love’s dense and complex opacity, its indexicality to cultural, as well as chemical processes, seen in retrospect.
In its melancholic recycling of an extant, decaying stag film—in which two women engage in sexual activity over and with the body of a male “corpse”—The Color of Love proffers its own theorization of the relation of perceiving and receiving senses to film history. Ahwesh's film is able to create a conceptual bridge between the seemingly opposed realms of history and tactility, using both the suggestive chemical processes that are operating across the physical body of the film, and the epistemological and cultural legacy of pornography.
In his sensitive consideration of the critical legacies of cinephilia, Christian Keathley writes,
“Cinephiliac moments mark not only the recovery of sensuous experience, they also mark the possibility of the recovery of history . . . that is in the very technologies which precipitate the obliteration of history, one finds to use Siegfried Kracauer's terms, the possibility of its redemption.”12 Ahwesh's film operates as an illustration of a redemptive cinephiliac moment, a type of core sample rendered historiographic through the material substance of the film strip itself. In positing the failure of technology, the film encourages erotic modes of perceptual experience, re-instantiating the auratic at the site and stilling of disintegration. The failure of cinematic technology—which highlights not the failure of history but the contours of historical conditions of embodied perception—activates a philosophical mode of conceiving sexed spectatorship as coextensive with cinephile modes of looking. Decomposition materializes one instantiation of the “asystematic” contingency of the cinephilic sensibility, as suggested by Mary Ann Doane, yet directs it outwards towards a more generalized horizon of filmic historicity.13 At the same time, a film’s decay inverts the logic of the “cinephiliac moment,” chosen as it is by the conditions of film’s extra-diegetic handling and mishandling, and consequently gestures not to the contingency within the pro-filmic but to the eventuality of the extra-filmic.
Thus, The Color of Love deploys the haptic sense as a political strategy for reorienting eroticized vision toward the film historical past. Embodying an imaging of history, the film invokes an unpredictable, anti-telelological causality—as a field of effects, affects and contacts. The film is the evidence of an exacerbation of chance—in that the culturally denigrated "shameless" object of pornography is the material acted upon by the chemical processes of decay, a certain and allegorical punishment. Deterioration performs an auto-critique of pornography, a reorganization of historical causalities, cultural and political indictments through a materalist literalism. The historical immediacy and sense of "presence" which Ahwesh's camera-less film embodies is conditioned on a loss, the visible transformation of the film image in the knowledge of its sobering mortality.
Found Footage: Filmic Ruins
Scholarship on found footage consistently returns to the senses of failure, dread, and disaster that seem to inhere within this mode of cinematic practice. Perhaps some of these apocalyptic overtures are informed by recent debates around the possible extinction of film as a viable medium, in light of the encroachment of digital modes of production and exhibition, as well as the difficult politics of film preservation. These effects and affects are also linked to the explicit, artifactual materiality of deploying found film footage. William Wees, discussing the texture of Bruce Conner's Marilyn Times Five (1973) states, "the repetition of shots and the extreme graininess of the film increasingly draw attention to the body of the film itself, to the films own image-ness. And that. . . is the effect of all found footage films."14 Catherine Russell implicates found footage films as a genre constitutively mired in the concerns of history and obsolescence,
Found footage filmmaking, otherwise known as collage, montage, or archival film practice, is an aesthetic of ruins. Its intertextuality is always also an allegory of history, a montage of memory traces. . .
And she writes further,
The found image doubles the historical real as both truth and fiction, at once document of history and unreliable evidence of history. Within this slippage of representation, the ethnographic body emerges as a sphere of referentiality. Its indexical claim to the real belongs to a contingent order of time that resists the narrative of history implied by the salvage paradigm, and it is this counternarrative of the memory trace that is produced in found footage filmmaking. The appropriated image may, in fact, be the exemplary dialectical image. Indexicality does not make an image more real or more accurate but inscribes a difference within it that Walter Benjamin understood as the fundamental allegory of the photographic image.15
The origins of The Color of Love are comparably narrativized in terms of ruins, debris; the 8mm reel was found by Ahwesh in a dumpster. Therefore the ontological spontaneity of the "found" in found footage takes on another level of archival significance, as Ahwesh's authorship is complicated by the existent condition of the silent porn reel. The inscription of difference within the index is doubled in Ahwesh's film: the memory trace is a memory of a historical moment, of a represented sexual scene. The excess difference is that the footage is pornography. But the physical deterioration of the film is the most privileged testimonial of indexicality to another—extradiegetic—register of the "real."
The lack or loss of the object is not masked in The Color of Love, as the facticity of the film's visible chemical decomposition matches melancholia with a reinstatement of cinephilia. That is, the indexicality of the filmic body to history and to decay is conflated with the index of sexed bodies in the porn film. Lyricism and seduction emanates from the meeting of these two constitutively different sets of bodies—the patterns of bleeding emulsion and the pallid, coital nudes—on the tactile surface of the screen.
Elaborating and contextualizing the use of pornography as found footage means asking, what does it mean for pornography to become an historical object which has presumed to have been lost? What sort of "memory trace" is this staged fantasy? Pornography is one of the premier sites for sexuality’s historicity, exposing as it does the conditions of the production of sexualities through representational codes. Russell comments elsewhere that found footage allegorizes the practice of historiography in the instrumentalization of the archive.16 As a retrospective historiography of sexuality, The Color of Love is selective and intensive, rather than temporally extensive. In contrast to Ahwesh's use of the pornographic text, Ken Jacobs in his Nervous System performance of XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX, (1981) extends the duration of a short clip of porn footage, to examine the structural processes of perception. Ahwesh's film, on the other hand, functions as a "core sample," a condensation of the pornographic universe into a re-edited, optically printed ten minutes. In the occlusion of vision manifested by the decomposition on the film's skin, Ahwesh is able to evince arousal out of ruin, re-eroticizing the allegorical image through the logic of its own fatality.
Other uses of pornography as found footage in experimental film practice are diverse.17 In many of these works, the pornographic imagery encourages an editorial focus on the screen surface and the manipulations and obfuscations of that surface. Paul Arthur isolates some of these tendencies of the contemporary avant-garde and its “(anti)romance of the body,” noting, somewhat edgily, that “explicit sexual acts serve as yet another paradigm of de-psychologized solipsistic performance.”18 Pornography’s discourse of excessive visibility necessitates counter-argument that questions the limits and capacities of the form’s production of knowledge through vision. Ahwesh's film is distinctive in this respect, as it documents the collapse of an embodied vision onto its historically embodied object.
Laura Marks has outlined the ways in which "haptic visuality" engenders an eroticism that acknowledges and embraces the limitations of vision as a sensual faculty. She writes, "haptic looking tends to rest on the surface of its object rather than plunge into depth, tends not to distinguish form so much as discern texture."19 Although Marks employs video as a site for this play between the haptic and the erotic, she does not exclude the film medium's capacity to engage with the same synesthetics. In what follows, I would like to assess the haptic in The Color of Love, exploring both the occlusion of vision and the means through which perception is addressed synesthetically and historiographically via the pornographic fragment.
The Dustbin’s Embodied Abstraction
Ahwesh's intervention and authorial stamp is mediated by the evidential nature of the footage. The filmmaker explains how she discovered the film,
There was one film in a big box of damaged reels and cans in the garbage outside school—and that was the film. On the reel were two regular 8mm porn films—the second being a sun drenched beach cabana sex romp thing with characters seemingly out of UCLA, which didn't appeal to me… The film had been rained on and stuck together (that's why some images look double exposed) and wouldn't go through a projector—the undulations in the picture (the rhythmic pulsing of the emulsion damage) comes from the fact that the area of the film being protected by the spokes of the reel look pretty normal and the other areas exposed got damaged. The film had more scenes—I can't remember now what--but I improvised on the printer with sections of the film—slowing it down mostly and messed with it in editing until I liked it.20
Apart from editing, optically step printing, and repacing the film, transferring it to 16mm, and adding a lamenting tango by Argentine composer Astor Piazzola, Ahwesh presents the film as it was found, stating “I like it because I found it that way.”21 Ahwesh's signature is in the speed and pacing of the motion, its synchronization with the sound rhythms, and the temporal guidance of the editing is constitutive to its effects and affects. On initial viewing, however, one can experience skepticism regarding the extent of the filmmaker's control over the imagery and the state of the print; the decay resembles decisively painterly effects, and this further complicates the film’s epistemic status—a perceptual experience caught between the formal manifestations of the aleatory and the (seemingly) alchemical.
The dye seepage forms alternating patterns on the skin of the film, varying from fine mottled, granular, pixilation-type markings, to large chunky patterns that resemble fleshy intestinal shapes, organic liquid forms, streaming watercolor-like textures, and dense staining blotches. The seeping color varies from deep sanguine red to brownish purple to swampy green and yellow, although the tonality of the red dominates the substrate of the film's painterly palate. In turn the color of the naked bodies is a flat, drained pallid white, at times the edges of their bodies garner a shade of lurid pinkness. There is no gradation of dark to light, no real perspectival shadow to establish depth of space. The colors all congeal at the surface, invoking an embodied circulation system. The blood motif calls forth not only the film as body but also summons one marker of sexual difference, manifest in the female menses.22
Texture is extraordinarily important as it operates on numerous registers, working both in terms of indexicality (historical knowledge: "this image is decaying"), in terms of associative processes and mimesis, (activation of fantasy: "this shape resembles flesh, bleeding, painting, landscape"), as well as on the level of temporal and spatial interpretation, ("this pattern charts time passing," "this texture collapses depth,") and in terms of bodily response and affect (arousal, dizziness, sadness,) all of which require the integration of vision with other bodily senses, most prominently the sense of touch.
The abstraction of these decomposing patterns blankets the naked bodies, alternating from a level of translucency to a dense opacity in which the pulsating moving colors and shapes take over the frame. It is very difficult to take in the film and be able to isolate whole frames, as the patterning forces a certain submission to the motion of the image and an effect of proximity to the image. In this vein, Marks writes,
The viewer is called upon to fill in the gaps in the image, engage with the traces the image leaves. By interacting up close with an image, close enough that figure and ground commingle, the viewer gives up her own sense of separateness from the image . . . When vision is like touch, the object's touch back may be like a caress, though it may also be violent - a violence not toward the object but towards the viewer . . . Haptic visuality implies making oneself vulnerable to the image, reversing the relation of mastery that characterizes optical viewing.23
Marks assessment illuminates some of the conditions of viewing The Color of Love. I would add, however, that the power and alterity of the image in this film is in the fact of its historical vulnerability. Ahwesh's film also complicates attributions of subject and object, as the physicality of temporal processes mediates between the action on screen and the viewer, introducing a third term and another position of viewership coded as both historical and sublime. Violence has already been enacted onto the film itself, ostensibly the object, and the viewer acts as its alibi, the witness that satisfies the text's triangulation of positions, positions unfixed by their allegiance to temporal and material processes. The decomposition can be figured as another object, or itself subjectivated, attributing to it a bodily presence.
The pornographic film is narratively framed by a vampiric, necrophile motif that supports the affect of the morose, decadent, and elegiac: there is fake blood, a dagger, and a heavy red curtain. We need only recall Paul Willemen's association of the "cinephiliac moment" with "overtones of necrophilia, of relating to something that is dead past, but alive in memory."24 The dead (or sleeping?) man never revives himself and becomes a prop for the sexual activities between two women. The trope of death precedes the film's death by disintegration, and the dead man functions allegorically, the "dead object" of porn and heterosexual masculinity. Yet he has to be present, stagily symbolic, to mediate the enactment of “lesbian” sex. He is playing dead, and the women are playing lesbians. This is part of the generic, tacit convention of pornography, and one that this pornographic film, typical and atypical at once, is enacting. Significantly, the fragment that Ahwesh has chosen to comprise the film offers no erection—the man’s penis remains flaccid through the film— and no "money shot," two staples of the generic phallic "coherence" of commercial pornography.
The film begins with a slowed image of a dense, cracked painterly surface out of which emerges an image of a woman on a bed with a man. There is no depth to the space of the boudoir, and directly behind the bed is a baroque red satin curtain that encases them. Ahwesh edits and repeats her turning over on the bed twice, and her sitting up and turning to the left is followed by a burst of gray moldy film, which obliterates the entire image. Another woman enters and slowly undresses and gets on the bed. A knife is drawn, and we see that the body of the man is indeed a corpse, with (fake) blood on his chest. One woman toyingly outlines his body with the point of the knife, circling his genitals. His un-erect penis is held in close up, and then eclipsed by a fuzzy blot mark on the screen, as one of the women mounts him.
The tempo and sound shifts, as there is a closeup to the woman’s spread vagina, bordered by chromatic fibrillations of decomposition that move from the edges of the screen into the center, paralleling the vaginal lips and mimicking the motion of a curtain. The opening and closing of the curtains seems to act mimetically with the imaginings of a filmic body, which is contracting and expanding. The materialization of sexual sensation takes on the appearance of an imitative body, the filmstrip touching itself, embodying the point of contact between the eye and the screen as a self-regarding caress.
The curtain effect—in concert with and in juxtaposition to the actual red curtain that marks off the bedroom in the profilmic space—is also one of the tropes of retrogression which imbues The Color of Love with an early cinema aesthetic. Antonia Lant has commented on the visual components of the haptic aesthetic of early cinema, and the scrim or screen, which draws attention to flatness.25 The deterioration, which resembles a curtain or scrim, brings the look to the surface of the image, and along with the pallid whiteness of the porn bodies, denies perspectival depth, composing the frame of action along a horizontal axis. Perhaps this retrogression, which can be associated with a kind of "primitivism" taken up by the avant garde, as per Noel Burch, depends on the manipulation of motion in the frame.26 In addition, the original reel has no sound, reinforcing the silent film analogy. The tango music, as its only aural accompaniment, is synchronized with the speed of the images. The tango’s overfull, flooding sentimentality, as John David Rhodes suggests, bears an implicit reference to Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1928), performing an earnest and insistent affective intensity that bleeds over into tinges of histrionic excess, of “showing too much” and implicitly feeling/hearing too much as well.27 The music paces the speed at which we can see the details of the dye seepage, accentuating the mournful tone of affective investment.
This editing technique, of slowing and stilling the image, takes on its most pointed and poignant quality during the sexual interactions between the two amateur porn actresses. The music slows to a crawl as the women kiss, caressing each other's bodies, while the flow of the chromatic decay undulates around them, as if a halo or protective shield of enclosure. The stop-start motion of the step-printing focuses attention and isolates the shape of the women's bodies, their facial affectation, and the shapes of the leaking emulsion. The streaming patterns that accompany and border the kiss and embrace have a pulsing effect. The kiss, repeated twice, the second time haltingly slower for emphasis, frames the two bodies of the women in medium close up, the photographic aesthetic seeming for one moment to capture glimpsed evidence of pleasure, as well as structuring the viewers' pleasure in its most poignant iteration. Is this what has been lost and re-found in the salvaging work of this film? The sexual relation between these two women seems to motor the melancholic feelings and erotic mobilizations of the film. Cinephilia is reinvested here, at the nexus of "primitivism," arrested motion, lesbian sex and the texturing of vision.
The scene just prior to this one also manipulates temporal disjunctions around the same-sex encounter. One woman leans back with her legs spread as the other massages her reclining body and rubs her genitals. These actions seem to catch the frame, splitting the screen, as if a malfunction in the projection has disordered the coherence of the image; we see the lower half of the reclining woman's body in both frames, she is doubled in the screen, the hands of the other touching her. Ahwesh's editing, as the mark of her viewing practice, reinstates the responsive characteristics of the framing cinema to its sexualized content. The instability of the decay is countered with a retrogressive instability that freezes motion, allowing brief moments of reverie and erotic absorption. The rhetoric of insatiability that informs pornography is countered with a calculated repetition and a challenging of teleological progression. In this sense the literalized "lost object" of porn is supplanted by a fantasmatic lost object of an alternative, potentially queer and distinctly feminist spectatorship, which has been foregrounded through the condensation of aesthetic texture and temporal transgression.
The Surrealist filmmaker Germaine Dulac wrote of the virtues of time-lapse cinematography, its ability to condense motion as a feat of synthetic conceptualization:
A grain of wheat sprouts; it is synthetically, again, that we judge its growth. Cinema, by decomposing movement, makes us see, analytically, the beauty of the leap in a series of minor rhythms which accomplish the major rhythm, and, if we look at the sprouting grain, thanks to film, we will no longer have only the synthesis of the moment of growth, but the psychology of this movement. . . The cinema makes us spectators of its bursts toward light and air, by capturing its unconscious, instinctive and mechanical movements.28
While Dulac is speaking of a visualization of growth, Ahwesh's film operates on an inverse logic, coextensive with the process of decay. The stilling of the frame serves as a temporary and artificial stopping of that decay, at the same time as it "decomposes" movement. The speed of the film comes to signify the onslaught of deterioration, and slowing it down gives access to the mnemonic characteristics of visual address. This arrested moment makes the privileged image visible and accessible, inserting it as a "memory trace," a reorientation of the uses of the visible. Equally, if not more, affecting as the conceptualization of the sprouting growth, the stilled images throughout The Color of Love accumulate and archive decomposition itself as indelibly tied with moments of cinephile recognition and erotic, tactile spectatorship. Making the "invisible visible," the motion of time materializes as the decaying inscription on the film strip. Time, in the form of a formal violence which exacts a sensation of fleshiness from inorganic matter, operates on it as it attempts to represent spaces of time.
Making the "invisible visible" also corporealizes the filmstrip itself, as the emulsion makes it appear as though a body is turned inside out, animated as flesh. Being drained of its "content," color, the "insides" of the film rush to its surfaced exterior, like the draining of a corpse. At the same time that the siphoning off of the color drains the image of its perspectival depth, it produces a spatial conceptualization of the film strip as a body.29 In this regard, it is striking how much the decomposition approximates x-ray photography, a scientific realm of "epistemophilia" which concerns itself with making transparent the surface of the body and specularizing interiority.30 Akira Mizuta Lippit, in a phenomenological excursus on the intersection of the unconscious, cinema and the x-ray, writes: "the x-ray situates the spectacle in its context as a living document even when it depicts, as it frequently does, an image of death or the deterioration of the body that leads to it."31 What is the impact of seeing the filmstrip as embodied? Whereas the x-ray renders transparency an instrument of depth, and in effect glorifies the effaced surface of the skin in its transposition to screen, The Color of Love situates “liveness” in the emulsification process and its revivification of a sensuous perception. In some regard, this is the central paradox of the film, which motivates sensation and vitalism out of an evidentially perishing object.
The early cinema aesthetic that the film employs also intersects with a pre-cinematic tradition of motion study. Linda Williams has explored the implications and motivations of Eadward Muybridge's and Etienne Jules Marey's motion studies for a study of pornography. Motion studies contributed to a technological production of knowledge about bodies and sexual difference that could not be severed from a spectatorial pleasure that depended on the fetishization of the female body.32 If the trajectory of pornography is to make sex visible and make female sexuality speak some truth, as Williams claims, Ahwesh plays with this impulse, arresting motion for an alternatively eroticized enjoyment. Yet Ahwesh's film seems to both concatenate and complicate three conflicting strata of movement: the movement of the sexed body in the porn film, the movement of the film strip through the projector, and the movement of history along a physical surface. The first term in this series is displaced onto the last term, a syllogism between embodiment and history, and the stop motion effect thus attains a redemptive, preservationist tenor.
The film continues from these moments between the two women to a flurry of activity, the tango playfully speeds up, positions are re-arranged, as the granular and densely laden patterns of disintegration run quickly past the eye, resembling art-ified television static, interference, and sudden blotches of sanguine color. One such abstraction yields to an entirely different scene, and perhaps another space. A seemingly more naturally colorized female body (there is less chromatic decay in sections, making the woman look less vampishly pale), partially dressed, in underwear and opened shirt, lying on her side and masturbating with one hand. The figure is headless, alternately blending with and emerging from the onslaught of throbbing deterioration. The film ends within this equally depthless diegetic space, the final frame stopped on an image of pure seepage and abstraction, cracked dye, bold patterning of red, green and white, with no bodies in view.
The bracketing of the finale of the film within this seemingly disjunctive leap to another space, another scene, another sexual actor and evidently the beginning of the reel of another film (the California sex romp mentioned above)—also raises the question of embodied spectatorship thematically, and in terms of narrativization. Ahwesh explains, “the last shot in The Color of Love—a girl masturbating—is the first shot from that second film. As I was optically printing, it ran into the head of the second film and I ended up using that shot. Kinda like the viewer or the filmmaker, or the whole thing is a dream—some metaphor along those lines.”33 The masturbating observer references cultural anxieties about the indexicality and intentionality of pornography—its mimetic capacity for arousing. The vernacular of porn's direct effect on the viewing body, its "shame lies in the fact that it has one unequivocal intention: to excite its consumer." 34 This "corporealized observer,"35 the masturbator-spectator, is the reviled subtextual figure of pornographic reception. As Williams writes, in correction to the presumptions of porn's engagement with an inaccessible object, "touch is activated, but not aimed at . . . though quite material and palpable, it is not a matter of feeling the absent object represented but of the spectator-observer feeling his or her own body."36 Ahwesh re-signifies this masturbating figure as a woman, inserting her into the text as a point of identification for her film’s viewers, structuring a fantasy within a fantasy. Conversant with feminist film theory and film practice, Ahwesh asks, “If the lover (man) is gone or dead who activates the film space and conducts the film's look and where can it go and who killed him off? Can a female point of view enact the film? If the woman leaves the movie in the first scene of The Man Who Envied Women, as a Lacanian gesture, how do you put her back in?”37 Within the impulse towards narrativizing the film, viewers may ask: were the images that preceded her appearance a product of her lascivious imagination? Was what we saw previously a flashback or a travel in time? Was she one of the women involved, now masturbating to the memory of the events? Or was she also watching a pornographic film? Sexuality and reception are orchestrated around the articulation of positions within fantasy. This masturbating figure thus tropes both the female spectator so sought after within two decades of feminist film theory and the feminist cinephile, caught in retrospective repose within her fantasy/ memory; a riposte to the figure of the “dirty old man” which so animates the febrile pornographic imaginary.
As a relay of sensation-effects, the film connects the faculty of touch—in terms of both autoeroticism and the tactile visuality of the molding filmstrip—with a curiosity about historical contexts in light of our own retrospective viewing. Who was the audience for this film? The fact that it is 8mm and silent suggests that it was either a private stag film screened in male spaces of homosocial bonding, such as Elks Clubs and beer halls or a “split beaver” film, an intermediate form between the stag film and the rise of the publicly exhibited hardcore feature, shown in storefronts and on loops in developing red light districts in the late 1960s. However, since most storefront theaters were using 16mm film as a transitional format in this period, the 8mm film Ahwesh found is likely the former—a pornographic film made for the home market.38 The films privatized status, and the exclusion of a possibly female spectatorship, brings us to the presence and presentness of its erotic weight. Ahwesh’s reworking and salvaging of the text, in its mode of address, embraces and installs the female spectator as cinephile. The working of the film is contingent on these series of desires and identifications which structure both the tenor of the lesbian love scenes and of the exteriorized female spectator who speculatively contains or produces the phantasmatic operations which have come before.
Therefore, the question of pornography's capacity to be a lost object turns out to be somewhat of a ruse. Instead, the evident melancholia present at the sight of the film's decay is displaced onto two objects. Ahwesh exposes the refused identifications39 that pornography, as a gendered representational system, depends upon, particularly the clichéd formulaic lesbian "number." By staging the sex between these women as part of the erotic authentication of the text, the refused identification is prohibited from being incorporated into the system of the film and into pornography’s conventional structures of viewership. Having disqualified the structures of visibility that produce pornographic coherence, Ahwesh re-signifies the sexual scene in terms of female pleasure, although there can be a faulty slippage between female pleasure and its representation as lesbian sex. The loss is not of pornography, but of a type of filmic experience, a type of reading practice that Ahwesh is re-constructing and revising. The sensual, tactile elements of the film cling to this constitutive same-sex relation, depend on it for its potency. The mechanisms of sensuous perception are part of this revision. If this was a type of reading that historically has been disallowed by the conditions of exhibition and by the presumptively male audience of pornography, Ahwesh's re-figuring and selective editing addresses her own audience in terms of seeing the sexual scenes as historically past, but experiencing them in terms of presence. Steven Shaviro expresses this sentiment in his reading of the film:
Watching it, I do not think: "this is happening now." Rather, I think: "this has happened already." Nothing is more fleeting than an orgasm, after all. It's over, almost before it has begun. It happens in the barest sliver of an instant, like the time between one frame of film and the next. But it is surrounded by stretches of empty time, in which nothing happens. A time of infinite longing lies before it. And a time of slow forgetting extends after. The Color of Love is all about these abysses of obliterated time.40
Time obliterated, time emptied out: yet what kind of experience of history does The Color of Love provide? Whose history is it and who has access to it? Despite the artifactual document being accounted for as an object from the late 1960s/early 1970s, it relays less in terms of this era—genre conventions and stag film representations notwithstanding, atypical as they are—and more as a treatise on the process of historical recognition itself. In this way, the film is a historiographic text. Ahwesh's appropriation places emphasis on the trans-historical motion of the film from one reception sphere to another, particularly in its re-signification as "experimental erotica."41
This bridges to the second displacement of melancholia, onto the evocation of film history. Figuring pornography, as the "limit" of representation (Bazin, Cavell) and classifying it in analogy to documentary and ethnographic modes42 has furthered this critical/conceptual trajectory. The momentum of the indexicality/intentionality argument, despite its technological and ontological determinism, facilitates the way pornographic film begins to stand in for all film. The Color of Love deploys this status to make a connection between material object-ness and tactility, and the subject of film history. Gavin Smith mournfully and tellingly wrote in Film Comment at the time of the film's initial release:
What was this film called? Who directed it? Movie history is built on the mainly modest, often worthless, contributions of hundreds of thousands of forgotten—not forgotten, but never known or noticed—lives. Why isn't it more haunted by the futility of all the work that has vanished into the void? Why does the resurrection of a decaying ten-minute fragment of something whose totality we would consign to that void without a moment's thought, cause such questions briefly to cross the mind?43
As a fragmentary artifact The Color of Love is able to allegorize a larger body of work, a disappearing archive. Therefore, a contemporary cinephilia transposes the sensation of revelation and private discovery onto the narrative of film history itself. Smith's lamentations about this allegorical loss address the shunted potentialities, the denied possibilities of future embodied perceptual experiences, which this film has revived. Knowledge of an inaccessible, irrecoverable loss is conditioned, trained by the instance of a single recovery. Jacques Derrida has stressed in his Archive Fever that, "the archive has always been a pledge, and like every pledge a token of the future . . . what is no longer archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way."44 Derrida's concern, with the mutual articulations of the storage of memory and the patterns of lived experience, speaks to the impact of the mode of accumulation of film as documents, their inscription into an embodied practice. The fact that film is already a mode of mechanical reproduction adds another layer of excavation for the archival project of both film historian and viewer.
Smith makes a distinction in the above passage between the loss of memory, the forgetting of uneventful lives, and the lack of knowledge about them, weighting the latter as the more egregious crime. He then directly shifts to a consideration of the lost archive. The crucial point is the unknowability of the depth, breadth, or horizon of the archive as abyss. The fragmentary nature of Ahwesh's film can only be a metonym in its condensation and saturation, for an irrecoverable site for potential classification. Its melancholy hinges on the cultural capital that is implicit in classification and the assignation of value to cultural texts. Pornographic film can be seen in terms of the hierarchical phylum—genuses, species—of film categorization. But after all, a pornographic film is still a film. The decay, in its most extreme ideation, by moving towards a goal of abstraction and destruction of the original image, will eventually strip the film of its most defining feature, the images which explain it as a genre, as pornography. By positioning the lost archive of film history as that which has yet to be known, Smith is thinking projectively towards the limits of perceptual and spectatorial experience in terms of the limits on what can or can't be seen, what can or can't be known, a historical horizon. Christopher Woodward suggests that, “when we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future.”45 The irony of such a futurity is not the infinite regress of the reproductive, but the certitude of material dissipation. And in the model of cinephilia outlined by Paul Willemen, the cinephiliac moment allows the viewer to speculate about a filmic "beyond:” "Cinephilia designates that process, indicating that this is an issue in the relationship, a kind of matrix which says that, in the relationship between film and viewer, the film allows you to think or to fantasize a 'beyond' of cinema, a world beyond representation which only shimmers through in certain moments of the film."46 In the case of The Color of Love, that beyond has become a horizon of visibility, entering onto the scene as both the physical imaging of disintegration, and its referential effect of pointing to an irrecoverable elsewhere of the cinematic archive. The politics of film preservation are summoned, the raw pragmatic materialism that seems the bottom line of the discipline of film studies. Pornography, not worthy of preservation, is evicted by the governing law, but reconstituted as the materializing object which "reminds" film history of the pleasures and dangers of sensuous, embodied spectatorship, and which reinstalls cinephilia as a function, rather than an effect, of reception. So the cultural fantasy of pornography's destruction by the archival abyss is imbricated in the use-value of its abstracted lessons about sexuality, recollected as historical memories. Again Derrida can interject here that "the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory,"47 and in this way there is no thinking the archive without the presupposition of destruction, Freud's death drive. The Color of Love as a ready-made micro-archive, arrives with the dispensations of its own dissolution.
Touch is often conceived as a phenomenon of presence, the definitive mode of contact which forms the impression that haunts Derrida's reading of Freud, particularly of the "Mystic Writing Pad." The invention of the mystic writing pad becomes a model for memory and the mnemonic structure of the psyche. Contact is equally crucial to the self-documentation of cinephilia, which recovers from ones' own sensorium memories of sensuous perception triggered and found in the body of films seen, films which have “pierced” the viewer, in the fashion of Roland Barthes' punctum.48 The skin of the body is less permeable, yet I would argue that the synesthesia induced by Peggy Ahwesh's film is able to outline the ways in which the historical impression of death, and indeed, the death of cinema, can leave a trace on vision, enabling the erotic faculties in the process.
Other filmmakers have engaged, before and after the making of The Color of Love, with filmic decay as a compelling historiographic process, one that highlights the chronos of film history through decomposition. Peter Delpeut’s Lyrical Nitrate (1991) and Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002), as two prominent examples, collect fragments of early cinema’s nitrate era ruins. Morrison scores his images with a soundtrack that emboldens the creeping horror of cinema’s frangibility and evanescence. Mary Ann Doane has deployed Decasia as an exemplar of the continued pull of the materiality of the analogical index of cinema—its “chemical base” —for film theory, in the wake of digital media and its utopian fantasy of a mathematically generated immateriality. Discussing the shroud of Turin as the transformation of index into icon, Doane traces how Decasia, in its effacement of the look through deterioration marks cinema’s fatality; rather than “straining” to see the stain as a movement towards figuration and iconicity, filmic decomposition reverses this signifying chain: “representation returns to the stain, to the sheer non-iconic marker of existence. What is indexed here is the historicity of a medium, a history inextricable from the materiality of its base. In the face of the digital, the image is rematerialized in its vulnerability to destruction.”49 In its mapping of the relationship between cinema’s material substrate and the field of representation, Doane’s insight can just as easily apply to Ahwesh’s film. However, what makes Ahwesh’s work distinct and considerably more radical, in my estimation, is its chosen historical and generic location, and its framing of vision in terms of an explicitly corporeal sexuality. The Color of Love induces another index, the meeting of the spectator’s implied (potentially mimetic) body and the represented bodies on the screen in a form that persists in challenging and cementing cinema’s realist ontology: that of “real” sex.
But “real” death is never too far off. In his treatise on the ultimate cinematic contingency, the filming of death, Andre Bazin writes,
Two moments in life radically rebel against this concession made by consciousness: the sexual act and death. Each is in its own way the absolute negation of objective time, the qualitative instant in its purest form. Like death, love must be experienced and cannot be represented…without violating its nature. This violation is called obscenity. The representation of a real death is also an obscenity, no longer a moral one, as in love, but metaphysical. We do not die twice.50
Ahwesh marries the two tropes and realist spectacles that animate the Bazinian imaginary—explicit sex and death, here allegorized through cinema’s form. Ahwesh playfully illustrates the intertwining of these figures, asking after the motivations of the film: “is the action read as Bataille's alternate sexual economy on film—an inverted porn and mis-managed act or perverse sex? A murder mystery? The little death and the big one together?”51 The perverse plenitude of The Color of Love preserves, and arrests the moment of film’s death, extending it into a prolonged perpetuity, its process of coming undone paradoxically preserved for our contemplation—in Bazin’s terms re-embalming the scene of failed reproduction, in another reproduction. What better testament then, to the cinema as a viable form than its imminent destruction? Bazin’s investment in the “qualitative instant” somehow rings hollow, as cinema dies multiply—an obscenity that perhaps leaves us in its most rapt fascination, but also continually renegotiates the dividing line between subject and object, living and dead matter.
Therefore, The Color of Love, having presented itself as a lost document recovered by chance from an incomprehensible and unknowable archive, re-directs its melancholia from its pornographic dejection, displacing it in two directions, towards the erotic scene of a staged “lesbian” encounter, held suspended within arrested motion, and towards the allegorization of an impossibly lost film history. Tactility and history are fused at the point of the film's inscription by historical process, layered over the obstructed pro-filmic lure of sensate and sexed bodies. Offering a revision of history, a way to see film historiographically, and an instantiation of a feminist cinephilia, Ahwesh's film illuminates the conditions and temporalities of modes of filmic reception, reorganizing the spectatorial senses and locating them in the physicality of mortal and erotic bodies, both animate and inanimate.
Elena Gorfinkel is Assistant Professor in Art History & Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her publications on cinephilia, erotic film culture and sexploitation film include articles in Framework, Cineaste, and the collections Cinephilia: Movies, Love & Memory, and Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon. She has co-edited, with John David Rhodes, The Place of the Moving Image, (University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming Fall 2011.) Her current book project concerns American sexploitation cinema of the 1960s and its contexts of production and reception.
Film stills courtesy of Peggy Ahwesh.
1 Paolo Cherchi Usai. "A Model Image, IV. The Art and Aesthetics of Moving Image Destruction." Stanford Humanities Review 7.2. (1999): 9.
2 Gertrud Koch, "The Body's Shadow Realm." Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power, eds. Pamela Church Gibson & Roma Gibson (London: BFI Publishing, 1993), 26.
3 Paul Willemen, “Through the Glass Darkly: Cinephilia Reconsidered,” Looks & Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies & Film Theory, (London: BFI, 1994); Christian Keathley, The Wind in the Trees, or Cinephilia & History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006).
4 Serge Daney, " Les Cahiers du Cinema, 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney," interview and trans. by Bill Krohn, The Thousand Eyes, Bleecker Street Cinema, New York, 1977. Archived on Steve Erickson’s website: <http://home.earthlink.net/%7Esteevee/Daney_1977.html >(Accessed March 2010.)
5 Willemen, "Through the Glass Darkly: Notes on Cinephilia," Looks and Frictions, 236.
6 Annette Michelson, " Gnosis and Iconoclasm: A Case Study of Cinephilia," October 83 (Winter 1998): 5.
7 Andre Bazin, "Theater and Cinema Part II," What is Cinema? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 97.
8 Andre Bazin, “ Marginal Notes on Eroticism in the Cinema,” What is Cinema? Vol. 2., trans Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 169-175.
9 Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 184-186.
10 Bazin, “Marginal Notes,” 173.
11 Stanley Cavell. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 45.
12 Keathley, The Wind in the Trees, or Cinephilia & History, 7.
13 Doane writes regarding the “cinephiliac moment,” “What cinephilia names is when the contingent takes on meaning…whether the moment chosen by the cinephiliac was unprogrammed, unscripted, or outside codification is fundamentally undecidable. It is also inconsequential, since cinephilia hinges not on indexicality, but on the knowledge of indexicality’s potential, a knowledge that paradoxically erases itself. The cinephile sustains a certain belief, an investment in the graspability of the asystematic, the contingent, for which the cinema is the privileged vehicle.” The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, The Archive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 227.
14 William Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993), 11.
15 Catherine Russell, "Archival Apocalypse: Found Footage as Ethnography," Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 238, 252.
16 Ibid. 240.
17 A synoptic and partial list includes: Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell, Abigail Child’s Mayhem,, Naomi Uman’s Removed, M.M. Serra’s L'Amour Fou , Lewis Klahr’s Downs Are Feminine, Scott Stark’s NOEMA, Paul Sharits,’ Piece Mandala/End War, Bradley Eros’ X Times X, Jerry Tartaglia’s Ecce Homo, Luther Price’s Sodom, Dietmar Brehm’s The Murder Mystery, alongside many others.
18 Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 136.
19 Laura U. Marks, "Haptic Video and Erotics," Screen, 39: 4 (Winter 1998): 338.
20 Peggy Ahwesh, interview with the author, May 24, 2005. (n.p.)
23 Marks, 341.
24 Willemen, "Through the Glass Darkly," 227.
25 Antonia Lant, "Haptical Cinema," October, no. 75 (1995): 45-73.
26 Noel Burch, "Primitivism and the Avant Gardes: A Dialectical Approach," Narrative Apparatus Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 483-506.
27 John David Rhodes, “Peggy Ahwesh,” Senses of Cinema. November 2003. <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/03/ahwesh.html > (Accessed February 12, 2010.)
28 Germaine Dulac, "Visual and Anti-Visual Films." The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1987), 32. Emphasis added.
29 Paul Arthur contextualizes the contemporary avant-garde sensibilities which treat the film strip as body: “the conceit of filmic apparatus as filmic body owes little if anything to the conceits of Baudry, Comolli, and others; indeed it might be better understood as an artisanal qualification of apparatus theory, in which sense organs and the responses they elicit, occupy the position, held by academic theory, of psychoperceptual or unconscious processes. Foregrounding the film strip as labile, quasi organic material has roots in Brakhage…yet unlike Brakhage’s metaphors on vision, the tactics of filmmakers such as Ahwesh, Klahr, Phil Solomon, Roger Jacoby and the silt collective are not geared to express inner subjective states but simply to mobilize sensory impressions through optical experience.” Arthur, A Line of Sight, 137.
30 Bradley Eros's film, X Times X (1998) pushes this association to its limit: projecting the images live within the frame of performance, Eros uses two projectors running two reels simultaneously to superimpose footage of x-rays with pornographic footage.
31 Akira Mizuta Lippit, "Phenomenologies of the Surface: Radiation-Body-Image," in Collecting Visible Evidence. ed. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 70.
32 For two versions of Linda Williams' investigation of motion studies, see: "Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions," Narrative Apparatus Ideology, 507-534; and "Pre-History," in Hard Core: Power Pleasure and the 'Frenzy of the Visible.' 34-58.
33 Peggy Ahwesh, interview with the author, May 2005.
34 Carol Clover, "Introduction." Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power. 3.
35 Linda Williams, "Corporealized Observers: Visual Pornographies and the 'Carnal Density of Vision.'" Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 3-41.
36 Ibid. 15.
37 Peggy Ahwesh, interview with the author. May 2005.
38 For the history of 16mm adult filmmaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s, see Eric Schaefer, “Gauging a Revolution: 16mm Film and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature,” Cinema Journal, Vol 43, No. 1 (Spring 2002): 3-26; Schaefer has also written a synoptic history of 8mm film production for mail order and home viewing, ”Plain Brown Wrapper: Adult Films for the Home Market, 1930-1970,” Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History & Method, eds. Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 201-226.
39 I am relying here on Judith Butler’s reading of melancholy and identification. Butler argues that heterosexuality is structured by a pervasive melancholia, haunted by a refusal of loss, in the form of an attachment to a love object of the same sex. The subject renounces this homosexual desire, and the loss is incorporated into the ego as an identification. Judith Butler, "Melancholy Gender/ Refused Identification." The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 132-150.
41 A recent DVD collection of experimental films distributed by Other Cinema takes the title of Xperimental Eros, and includes The Color of Love as well as films by Uman, Street, Klahr and others.
42 Christian Hansen, Catherine Needham, Bill Nichols, “Pornography, Ethnography and the Discourses of Power.” In Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, ed. Bill Nichols (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 201-228.
43 Gavin Smith. "The Way of All Flesh." Film Comment. Vol 31, No. 4. (July-August 1995): 18.
44 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 18.
45 Christopher Woodward, In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art and Literature (NY: Vintage, 2003), 2.
46 Willemen, 241.
47 Ibid. 11.
48 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982).
49 Mary Ann Doane, “The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity,” differences, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2007), 144.
50 Andre Bazin, “Death Every Afternoon,” Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed. Ivone Margulies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 30.
51 Peggy Ahwesh, interview with the author. May 2005.
All serious art presents a challenge to its interlocutors, resists paraphrase and frustrates interpretation. The strange richness of Peggy Ahwesh’s filmmaking throws us up against the paucity of our own language. “Do I have words for what I am seeing?”: watching and re-watching her films provoke this question – the spectre of ineffability. This experience seems ever more curious when we consider the place granted to language in the films themselves. The films often cite (or even recite) any number of literary, theoretical and philosophical texts. Yet this practice of citation, appropriation and allusion, of folding language into, or asking it to hover above, the image is predicated on an understanding of the shortcomings of language itself. For Ahwesh’s work proceeds first from the act of seeing, or more accurately, looking – at the world and the bodies that inhabit it.
Ahwesh was reared in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania, in her own words, “one of those sad industrial towns” (1) near Pittsburgh. She went to school at Antioch College in the 1970s where she studied with Tony Conrad (“a father figure”) (2) and was introduced to radical artists and filmmakers like Paul Sharits, Carolee Schneeman and Joyce Wieland. She returned to Pittsburgh after school, threw herself into its burgeoning punk scene and started shooting Super-8 films that documented, quite idiosyncratically, the things, people and places around her. In organising a film series at an art space called The Mattress Factory, Ahwesh decided to invite as her first guest George Romero, a Pittsburgh filmmaker himself, whose native city had paid him little notice before Ahwesh’s invitation. Their meeting led to Ahwesh’s working as a production assistant on Romero’s Creepshow (1982) (3). The immersion in Romero’s phantasmagoria seems so uncannily fitting, given the trajectory of Ahwesh’s career, as to be nearly over-determined, yet, as anecdote (Ahwesh recalls that she was “assigned to entertain Stephen King’s son and played ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ with him”) (4) it manifests the unstudied and nerdy cool of Ahwesh’s films themselves.
After the Romero stint Ahwesh moved to New York and continued making films and doing tech work at The Kitchen, one of the nerve centres of New York’s experimental performance scene. As her notoriety has increased over the past two decades she has been the subject of major museum retrospectives and the recipient of some of the most prestigious awards given to practising creative artists. At present she teaches at Bard College and continues to live in New York City.
Despite the Romero episode, biography does not go far in illuminating Ahwesh’s films, despite how much we actually sense her physical presence in many of the films themselves – behind the camera, on the soundtrack, etc. In fact, it is this palpable present-ness in her work that almost obviates the biographical crutch. For in looking at her work we feel summoned to participate in an epistemological experiment that is the very substance of the films themselves.
This is heady language – we might even think inappropriate – for discussing a body of artistic work in which memorable moments include a fake plastic hand playing a harp, a grown woman threatening to use a microphone as a dildo or Ahwesh herself playing the computer game Tomb Raider. Ahwesh’s is messy work – gloriously messy – and is deeply invested in the luxurious plenitude of the visual field. The films look great and yet are never merely pretty; they frustrate aestheticising, formalist tastes. Likewise, although the films often cite theoretical texts, they are never merely theoretical. They inhabit a strange stretch of territory in the world of experimental film and video, never exhibiting the formal shape of, say, a Hollis Frampton or the precise political clarity of a Su Friedrich. Ahwesh’s practice is a porous one, grounded on a radical technique of pastiche and aimed at unsettling categories and hierarchies.
As is always the case, it is better to attend to the films themselves than to belabour the qualities they share generally. I will start with The Deadman, a film Ahwesh made with her collaborator Keith Sanborn in 1990. It is one of her best-known films and one that immerses us straightaway into many of her preoccupations and methods.
The film grew out of Ahwesh and Sanborn’s interest in the work of Georges Bataille and in particular Bataille’s text Le Mort which Sanborn translated and on which the film is loosely based. Bataille’s investigations of the morbid and the transgressive found sympathy with Ahwesh’s Romero-inflected interest in the horror film. Shot in black and white 16 mm, The Deadman actually begins as a sort of horror film: its opening images are of a white frame house, shot from below, the time either dusk or dawn. On the soundtrack someone gasps in (what sounds like) agony. Next we hear the sound of breaking glass and the beating of bird wings, as the image cuts, first to a close up of chandelier, creaking as it sways from the ceiling, next to a shot of a man lying naked on rumpled bed sheets, his penis flaccid in the cradle of his thighs. Scoring the last image is the sound of a buzzing fly – a metonymic soundtrack of death and decay. The next shot is from the outside of the house again, as a woman, naked but for a thin plastic raincoat, leaves the house running. The naked man is the film’s ”Dead Man”, the woman, Marie. Ahwesh’s camera then follows her as she fucks, pisses, shits and vomits her way through the rest of the film.
The film’s events more or less follow those of the story. Ahwesh has said that she was drawn to adapt the text because she liked “how Bataille does not explain the emotions of the characters” (5). The camera actually seems to savour its exteriority to the events of the profilmic. The use of silent film intertitles, all actual lines culled from the original Bataille story, reinforces the exteriority of the film’s narration. For instance, as Marie flees the house of the Dead Man (who is named Edward, we learn) and runs into the woods, an intertitle in inserted which reads “When Edward fell back Marie felt a void open.” Then, just after this, a flat female voiceover intones “The time had come to deny the laws to which fear subjects us.” When Marie arrives, some seconds later, (having stopped to piss along the way) in darkness at the doorway of a bar, rain falling and the sound of rain falling, she waits more than two minutes to enter. The camera records this waiting in its entirety in one very long take. The image is poorly lit – so dark we can barely make Marie out only when she moves falteringly into a small sash of light on screen right. In the middle of this long take an intertitle appears which reads “Marie despaired but played with her despair.”
All of these pronouncements gesture towards human, psychological interiority, and yet the film gives us no entry whatsoever into the mental life of this character. The intertitles, in their archly archaic obsolescence, suggest the insuperable gap between word and image, between the signifying system of language and the phenomenological process of looking at something (a dead man, a woman, a film). In fact, the snippets of Bataille’s actual (though translated) language that the voiceover and intertitles give us clearly declare the film’s independence from its source.
The film might be misunderstood to have undertaken the uncomfortable burden of translating the “transgressive” acts described in Bataille’s text to the screen, as if to do so would itself constitute an act of transgression. Such a project would have been silly; Ahwesh and Sanborn’s concerns are elsewhere. Ahwesh has said herself, “I think of The Deadman as one long female jouissance, not a transgression at all” (6). Marie, the main character (played with fantastic abandon by the filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery) derives her jouissance from letting the patrons of the seedy bar pleasure and penetrate her body. The film itself, though, is grooving on its own jouissance – playfully pitting intertitle against image, the documentation of what looks to be very real sex among very drunk people with the make-believe phoniness of the set. (The actors are dressed like kids who have raided a thrift store, and empty beer cans posing as full give themselves away with the hollow sound they make when placed on the table.) As Marie rolls around the floor of the bar with Pierrot, one of the bar’s patrons, the camera records the whole of the sloppy encounter, again in what might be called an uncomfortably long long take. We think of Pasolini here, of Jack Smith, of Warhol.
While the rough, embodied (because hand-held), often over- or under-lit cinematography creates a squalid visual glamour and thus claims our attention, part of our interest is nonetheless in the mere – or very – fact of watching this amorphous “scene” unfold. When will it end? How much more will we see? What allows me to see this? Scott MacDonald, in his interview with Ahwesh, confessed to her his failure to appreciate The Deadman, saying “it felt like a student film” (7). But it is exactly the film’s deceptive slackness that constitutes its philosophical and even political rigour: only through its superficially amateurish (often hilarious) elisions and dilations, its mordant tautologies (8) and wilful omissions, its hokey dialogue and its raw display of female sexuality can the film succeed in forcing the kinds of questions it does from its viewers.
The mise-en-scène is less overtly dark in Martina’s Playhouse (1989), but the film has as unsettling an effect on its audience as The Deadman. The film switches back and forth between two Super 8 sound home movies: one of the young Martina (Martina Torr) and her mother (the performance artist Diane Torr) in their cramped New York apartment; the other of Jennifer Montgomery (Marie from The Deadman) clowning around in Ahwesh’s own apartment. In both cases Ahwesh is behind the camera. These two home movies are punctuated by beautifully fragile, seemingly decayed and scratched close-up footage of flowers and flashes of leader. Over this footage we hear recited texts from Bataille on the sexual meaning of flowers and Lacan on the constitution of desire in the field of the Other.
The editing back and forth between the child Martina and the adult Jennifer is fascinating. Both are incredible performers, fully aware of the way that Ahwesh’s camera interpellates them as such. Martina, preparing to go “on” whilst putting a dress on her plush toy frog, screams over and over, “I’m not ready!” as Ahwesh continues to film. Jennifer, on the other hand, reminds Ahwesh that she wouldn’t be there were it not for the camera. These slight gestures of resistance from her subjects (9), however, are displaced by the pleasure they obviously take in exhibiting themselves for the camera.
The scenes with Martina are the centre of the film. In them Martina narrates her interpretations of images torn from magazines and interacts with her mother and Ahwesh, who stays behind the camera but whom we occasionally hear. The scenes of playacting between mother and child are the most challenging. At one point Martina’s mother pretends to be a baby and nurse from Martina’s breast. The scene is a powerful document of the creativity and freedom that can be explored in the context of parent-child relationships. At the same time, because of the repressive nature of our own culture in regards to the subject of childhood sexuality, the footage makes its viewers somewhat nervous. Although it is not even remotely pornographic, the intimacy of the footage and its long, unstructured nature provoke us into thought. Why, when there is nothing perverse about the footage, does it make us uncomfortable? As well, there is a strangeness that results from the implicit acknowledgement that, although this is incredibly privileged footage in terms of its immediacy, the footage is also highly mediated – as much a performance as Martina’s narrating the meanings of the magazine pictures or as, at another point in the film, Jennifer’s threatening to use Ahwesh’s microphone as a dildo.
The flower footage is the neat, nearly formalist, counterpart to these scenes. Early on we hear a voice reading Bataille’s theory of the sexuality of flowers over the image. This text explains that the giving of flowers as a sign of love enacts the displacement at the very heart of sexual desire. Later we hear, again over similar flower footage, Ahwesh coaching Martina through reading aloud Lacan’s “The Subject and the Other: Aphanisis.” Martina reads hesitantly but with a persistent cadence. She mistakenly reads “point of lack” as “part of luck”; Ahwesh corrects her. Later, again over similar footage, Ahwesh reads the excerpt again, imitating Martina’s metronomic rhythm. While the appropriation and insertion (uncredited) of these bits of theory set up a broad field of resonance with the footage of Martina and Jennifer, there is clearly, as in The Deadman, meant to be no one-to-one correspondence between the texts and the film. Martina’s “misreading” clearly undermines whatever authority we might have granted to these texts (especially the Lacan, since that is the text whose reading is both enforced and bungled). Ahwesh’s enforcing Martina to rehearse the Lacan also seems to signal the filmmaker’s own acknowledgement of the burden she forces her footage to bear, both in its own terms and vis-à-vis Lacanian theory. As well, even our own desire to over-read the film in terms of its quotation of Lacan seems to be made suspect by the film’s own deceptive nonchalance. For a film seemingly rather lacking in rigorous form, Martina’s Playhouse actually sets up an electrifying network of correspondences.
The film of Ahwesh’s that most determinedly takes on the subjects of sexuality and vision is undoubtedly The Color of Love (1994). Essentially it is a found footage film. According to Ahwesh, a friend dropped off a load of old film canisters that had been left outside, prey to the elements. Inside one canister Ahwesh discovered a Super-8mm pornographic film of two women making love to each other and to a man who appears to be dead or unconscious. The film had become degraded and decayed which gave it an amazing richness of color and texture. Ahwesh “did an improv on the optical printer”, “slowing some sections down and speeding others up a bit, repeating some things, and elongating the cunt shots” (10). Then she added a score of tango music. What resulted is one of the most beautiful and provocative artefacts in film history. The use of the tango music seems a clear nod in the direction of Un Chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1928). Like its surrealist predecessor, The Color of Love is an assault on the norms of vision. It is explicit; it shows too much. The seductive surface of the film (if ever there were a case for haptic cinema or embodied vision, this is it) draws us into a pas de deux of attraction and repulsion.
The Scary Movie (1993) is another collaboration with Martina Torr, who by the time the film was shot, was some years older than she was in Martina’s Playhouse. Shot in wonderfully high contrast black and white with very low key lighting, the film is one of Ahwesh’s most beautiful and most light-hearted; it is also the most reflexive of her many nods towards the horror genre. The film features Martina and co-star/playmate Sonja Mereu. While Martina is costumed in cheap girls’ dress up clothes, Sonja has a fake moustache, black gloves and prosthetic monster fingers. The first shot is a repetitive and jerky hand-held pan of a hand drawn music score while the sounds of Psycho-like violins play on the soundtrack. So begins what might be called an anatomising re-reading of the horror genre. The entire soundtrack is a pastiche of music and sounds native to the horror film – screams, strings, squeaking doors, footsteps, etc – although with a few corny phrases and sound effects that sound as though they’ve been lifted from a Warner Brothers cartoon. At various points a prosthetic rubber hand (obviously manipulated by a human extending from offscreen space) reaches mock-eerily to caress Martina who pretends to be asleep. Sonja probes/assaults Martina with kitchen tongs and later stabs her repeatedly with a tin-foil knife, and in turn is stabbed by the rubber hand wielding a similar weapon. In the middle of the film’s duration, Sonja holds up a poster announcing the credits (she is credited as the “Doctor/Killer”, Martina as the “Patient/Hand Lover”). Then we see the girls screaming, then dancing. They seem to have escaped their outing into the horror genre. The film ends.
The Scary Movie toys with the creaky machinery of horror while simultaneously articulating an understanding of childhood as a joyously ludic domain, one part Romantic innocence, one part grand guignol. As well, it reveals the violence of the genre – violence usually directed against women – to be a play of silly and thoroughly controvertible conventions. While Ahwesh clearly enjoys indulging in the tropes of the horror film, she also is distant enough from it to end her film with her heroines fully alive and unscarred.
The horror film haunts Ahwesh’s work as a generic possibility (there are elements of it, for instance, in the found film source for The Color of Love), but Ahwesh treats it most elaborately in Nocturne (1998). Ahwesh based her script on a review she read online of a Mario Bava film The Whip and the Net (1963). Nocturne is loosely about a woman whose lover is dead but whose ghost continues to visit her. The plot is a pretext for Ahwesh to explore familiar thematic material (the irreducible excesses of life, death and sex) while giving free reign to her visual imagination. Nocturne is perhaps Ahwesh’s most unembarrassedly beautiful work. The film shifts back and forth between black and white film and pixelvision. The camera luxuriates in the play of light and shadow, landscape, the patterns of wallpaper, the sharp and forbidding beauty of the face of its main character (played by Anne Kugler). While ostensibly a ghost story, the film seems to want to lose itself in the phenomenal rather than the noumenal. Ahwesh’s pixelvision cinematography stages a kind of intimacy of infinite regress. The digital graininess of pixelvision makes it seem that the closer the camera draws to its object, the further the object moves away, or breaks into millions of tiny constituent parts, disappearing into what Lyotard has called the “unpresentable”. Here Ahwesh’s cinema opens out onto the sublime, which is itself an ecstatic, even religious, experience, one arrived at through the brooding swarm of the material.
Nocturne shares its pixelvision cinematography with Strange Weather (1993), a fake documentary about crack addicts that Ahwesh made with Margie Strosser, a fellow traveller of her Pittsburgh Super 8 days. Set and shot in Florida, Strange Weather‘s camera observes its pseudo-subjects from an almost unbearably close physical range as they arrange scores on the phone, freak out about being caught by the police and kill time telling stories while waiting for a hurricane to roll into town. The film’s feeling of hypnotic tedium and its milieu of grimy, nervous languor are achieved through its extreme close up cinematography and its near Warholian interest in duration. By threatening to swallow up its overdetermined “subject” (drug addiction), the film’s outlandish form (which is almost a kind of formlessness) produces a space for ethical reflection on this same subject that could not be accessed through the usual, tired discourses on drug use.
In recent work Ahwesh has continued to force serious philosophical questions from unlikely material. The footage that constitutes She Puppet (2001) was recorded directly from Ahwesh’s computer as she played the video game Tomb Raider, famous for its robotically voluptuous animated protagonist Lara Croft. As she seems to push the character to the outer edges of the Tomb Raider world, different female voiceovers read from the work of Sun Ra, Joanna Russ and Fernando Pessoa. As we watch Lara Croft fend off attacking huskies and machine gun wielding commandos, dying again and again, we catch ourselves attributing the content of the voiceover texts to Lara’s subjectivity. She Puppet therefore cunningly demonstrates the improbable persistence of the processes of spectator identification. But more importantly, the film performs this work in the context of posing larger questions about the incredibly abstract, but at the same time all too real and particular, nature of the category of the female in our cultural imaginary. There is nothing real or realistic about the animated image of Lara Croft, and yet, through the repetitive acts of violence and self-destruction, she becomes real and we find ourselves believing in her on the very basis of her being obsessively violated. In many ways She Puppet is the most succinct and powerful essay on the position of women in the field of cinematic vision since Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.
The contours of Ahwesh’s work expand far beyond the few examples I have discussed here (11). What holds the body of her work together is its global resistance to the notion of being held together, to boundaries, to resolution. Ahwesh’s explanation of her resistance to narrative might serve as a sort of ars poetica:
The reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution. By the end, you’re supposed to be able to figure out why things happened the way they did. And I’ve always been more into presenting a problem and getting you into an emotional place where you understand the calamity or joy or desire within a person’s life. It’s like a texture, or a mood, a moment – not this is the story and this is how it turns out. (12)This attitude has generated a labile openness and indeterminacy in Ahwesh’s work that has proved richly rewarding. While her films consistently engage and challenge us in their experiments with form, they do not present us with a closed textual or authorial system. They have, rather, the courage to act centrifugally – to fling us away from themselves and back into the world from which they come, of which they are a part and which they have enriched.
Filmography:Pittsburgh Trilogy (1983) 50 mins, film
Ode to the New Pre-History (1984–1987) 25 mins, film
From Romance to Ritual (1985) 10 mins, film
The Fragments Project (1985–1995) 50 mins, film
Philosophy in the Bedroom (1987) 10 mins, film
I Ride a Pony Named Flame (1988) 5 mins, video
Martina’s Playhouse (1989) 20 mins, film
The Deadman (with Keith Sanborn, 1990) 40 mins, film
Strange Weather (with Margie Strosser) (1993) 50 mins, video
The Scary Movie (1993) 7 mins, film
The Color of Love (1994) 10 mins, film
the vision machine (1997) 20 mins, film
Nocturne (1998) 30 mins, film
73 Suspect Words and Heaven’s Gate (1999–2000) 8 mins, video
She Puppet (2001) 15 mins, video
The Star Eaters (2003) 24 mins, video
Certain Women co-directed with Bobby Abate (2004) 72 mins, video
* Much of Ahwesh’s early work on Super 8 is uncatalogued
Peggy Ahwesh, “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider”, Film Comment, July–August 2001, p. 77.
Manohla Dargis, “On the Deadman”, Artforum, May 1990, pp. 29–30.
Tom Gunning, “Towards a Minor Cinema: Fonoroff, Herwitz, Ahwesh, Klahr, Lapore and Solomon”, Motion Picture, vol. 3, nos. 1–2, 1989–90, pp. 2–5.
Michelle Handelman, “Women’s Studies”, Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2002, p. 12.
J. Hoberman, “Attack of the Mutants”, The Village Voice, 14 March 2000, p. 115.
Scott MacDonald, “Peggy Ahwesh” (interview), Millennium Film Journal, 39–40, 2003, pp. 1–30.
Ivone Margulies, “After the Fall: Peggy Ahwesh’s Vérité”, Motion Picture, 3, Winter 1989–90.
Catherine Russell, “Culture as Fiction: The Ethnographic Impulse in the Films of Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton” in John Lewis (ed.), The New American Cinema, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 353–378.
- Scott MacDonald, “Peggy Ahwesh” (interview), Millennium Film Journal, 39–40, 2003, p. 1.
- This intersection of talents rates in my mind as one of those great footnotes of film history – up there with Georges and Sylvia Bataille (the latter would later become Mrs Jacques Lacan) and Luchino Visconti all working on Jean Renoir’s Une Partie de campagne (1936).
- MacDonald, p. 2.
- MacDonald, p. 23.
- MacDonald, p. 24.
- MacDonald, p. 21.
- For example, when Marie stops to piss in the woods and an intertitle appears declaring, “Marie pissed…”. The film recalls Bresson’s use of the tautological voiceover in Pickpocket.
- Catherine Russell sees this film as an example of postmodern ethnography. Cf. “Culture as Fiction: The Ethnographic Impulse in the Films of Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton” in John Lewis (ed.), The New American Cinema, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 353–378.
- Ahwesh in MacDonald, pp. 25–26.
- Currently she is at work, with her current collaborator Robbie Abate, on Certain Women, an episodic, multi-character, multi-plot work based on Erskine Caldwell’s eponymous collection of short stories. Ahwesh chose the source text precisely because of its shoddiness as literature. The stories all tend toward melodramatic studies in female abjection.
- MacDonald, p. 30.
Peggy Ahwesh Interview
Ahwesh: Yeah. I moved back to Pittsburgh after college. I went to Antioch from 1972 until 1978. I studied with Tony Conrad, who I still think of affectionately as a father figure, the elder statesman in the field who bequeathed upon me the esoteric knowledge of initiation that propelled forward . . . [laughter] whatever. I also studied with Janis Lipzin. And Paul Sharits was there. Cecil Taylor was artist-in-residence. Jud Yalkut had a radio show that I listened to a lot. There was a lot going on.
I particularly remember a show Janis organized: Joyce Wieland, Carolee Schneemann, and Beverly Conrad did presentations. It was a major event for me to meet these women and hear them talk about their work.
I’m from a little coal town down river—Cannonsburg (famous for Perry Como and Bobby Vinton), one of those sad industrial towns. But I loved Pittsburgh and still have a lot of nostalgia for it. I found it very freeing, artistically; I felt like it was mine; the landscape was mine, the people were mine. Everything about it was up for grabs. I liked that it was "nowhere." It was not overdetermined as an art melieu like New York
I got very involved with the punk scene there in the late Seventies and made a lot of great friends overnight. We documented the punk bands, and we were all making Super-8 sound films, and there were all these crazy characters to put in your movies.
My first job was at this place called the Mattress Factory, which was just opening in the north side in what’s called the Mexican War streets, a rough-and-tumble working class neighborhood with slight gentrification. I’m sure that neighborhood has changed. The Mattress Factory was this big art warehouse, and I ran a film series there. For my first guest I decided to call George Romero. He told me that no one in Pittsburgh had ever invited him to show his work locally. I was the first. I couldn’t believe it.
He came with his wife, and we showed The Crazies  and Night of the Living Dead ; one program at the Mattress Factory and another in a local high school. It was great. He was so friendly, open, vulnerable, not an egomaniac in any sense. I also knew a lot of people who worked in his movies, including several of the guys who were the red-neck bikers in Dawn of the Dead ; they were George’s lighting crew and worked locally.
I worked on Creepshow  as a production assistant, but I did all kinds of bizarre jobs--like I was Adrienne Barbeau’s assistant at one point, which basically meant going out and buying her specialty foods because she had very particular tastes. And for about a week I was assigned to entertain Stephen King’s son and played "Dungeons and Dragons" with him. I had a walk-through in a shot where Adrienne Barbeau gets shot in the head at a lawn party. And I worked with the camera crew in the scene where the guy finds this meteor and the green stuff gets all over his place. People had to make the green stuff and dress the set, and I helped the camera people get the right amount of out-of-focus green stuff in the foreground and in the background.
I had a very flamboyant best friend, Natalka Voslakov. She’s in some of my movies, and I shot some of her movies. She was one of the staples of my Pittsburgh years, an incredibly striking woman. Of course, she got a much better job with Romero than I did [laughter]—she was first assistant to the assistant director. My friend, Margie Strosser, who I’ve worked with over the years, was an assistant editor. We all got to know each other.
MacDonald: Were you a fan of the films? Dawn of the Dead is a favorite of mine. Romero was so good about gender and race—and class: he gave us the first working-class American horror monsters.
Ahwesh: Oh yeah. I’d seen all the films: Martin , and The Crazies , and Season of the Witch . Night of the Living Dead  is amazing.
At one point when I was working at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, George had given us a bunch of old film to re-use for slug--a whole collection of public service announcements he had done for local television, TV commercials about toilet cleansers, ads for candidates running for office, an anti-rape PSA, and a film about professional wrestling. I remember looking at this stuff to get the inside the enterprise that was George Romero. For me, he’s an important model for how to make independent personal films. I liked George’s style, and he was such a warm, human person. George’s groove was, "Have fun; make a movie; make friends; and mess around." I liked that he was a genre filmmaker and able to penetrate the popular psyche in a really profound way. I like that he’s a populist. There was as little hierarchy as there could be on a feature film. Working with him was really fun.
Ed Harris was very open to hanging out with us local kids. He went out dancing with me, Natalka, and a couple of grips, at one of the local watering holes, and I remember having such a good time. By that time Natalka had been demoted to Production Assistant, just like me! [laughter]
MacDonald: Pittsburgh Filmmakers is going by this time, right?
Ahwesh: Yes. I worked as a programmer there for two years, during the time when Robert Haller was on his way out. I was the next generation. As a programmer I was free to do what I wanted, and I applied for grants and I brought in a lot of interesting people and did collaborations with local clubs and the University—a lot of things that couldn’t have happened under Haller.
MacDonald: At what point in this history do you start making films?
Ahwesh: I made Super-8 movies before Pittsburgh, at Antioch and elsewhere, but when I landed in Pittsburgh, everything sort of came together. I was very involved; my boyfriend was a filmmaker--all my friends were filmmakers, musicians, photographers. The punk scene was us and various hangers-on. We would document the bands, and the bands would play at the clubs where we showed movies—we were our own on-going entertainment.
In 1980 at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, I did a big group show of local filmmakers. I was hot on the idea of group shows because they got everybody involved.
I did some shows where I’d put people’s names in the calendar and make up titles for films they hadn’t made yet. For one particular show I announced "Wrapped in American Flags" by one person; "Dreams Congo" by another. But often people did make films to go along with these titles. That wasn’t a thing you could sustain, but it was fun as a programming concept. We had a good time with it. It was a kind of cinematic match-making that went hand in hand with the parties and general flirtations among us.
MacDonald: Tell me about your Pittsburgh Trilogy—Verite Opera, Paranormal Intelligence, Nostalgia for Paradise [all 1983].
Ahwesh: It was the summer of 1983, a very hot summer, when I was hanging out with this odd trilogy of people. There was my friend Roger, this very eccentric older guy who lived with his mother, didn’t have a phone. I’d write him a postcard and say, "I’d like to come film with you on Sunday," and he would call me back from a pay phone.
His chess partner was a Black transvestite, Claudelle, whose boyfriend was in prison. Roger and Claudelle were a dynamic duo. I had gone over to film them playing chess at Claudelle’s house, so the scene of Verite Opera opens with Claudelle in her trashy apartment, cleaning up to get ready for me to be there. Then she puts on her costume, a blue evening gown and a turban, to play chess with Roger, this disheveled-looking, chubby, middle-aged guy. Roger was a member of MENSA, and always involved with these lonely hearts’ clubs, looking for an ideal mate with an IQ that corresponded to his. He would write to the women but never meet them. I shot a lot of footage of Roger’s attempts to find his high-IQ mate, but never made it into a film
And finally, there was Margie Strosser, a soul-searching, articulate, concerned, naggie, feminist, aggravated-in-the-world person. Spikey red hair and tons of energy. I spent a summer with these three, and we shot a lot of film together. Basically I made three portrait films.
MacDonald: You titled it, I assume, after the Brakhage Pittsburgh Trilogy [The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, Eyes, Deus Ex (all 1971)].
Ahwesh: No. [laughter] No! Are his Pittsburgh films actually called The Pittsburgh Trilogy?
MacDonald: They are.
Ahwesh: I’d forgotten that. Hmmm, I might have known that back then.
MacDonald: If you were rebelling against the Masters, it might be a logical choice. Your trilogy is about personal friends; the focus of Brakhage’s trilogy is social institutions.
Ahwesh: Yeah. Whatever. I might have known that and wanted my own Pittsburgh Trilogy. I had seen those films of course, so I probably did know that at the time.
I love those Brakhage films, but I think it was just that I had three films and they were about Pittsburgh.
That was a great summer for me. The films—what are they about? I don’t know—they’re not diary films, and they’re not documentaries, and they’re not narratives. "Portraits" seems inadequate, actually, though that’s the word I usually use.
It’s more like me doing conceptual exercises so that I can figure out what kind of relationship I have with the person, and what kind of relationship the camera has with the person, and how do you shoot positive and negative space and what is it about people that makes them interesting? To me these three people were amazing examples of humanity, and I really liked them all.
Maybe every maker has a film in which they’re trying to work out what they want to convey through filmmaking. In any case, the lessons I learned that summer shooting those films I’ve carried with me ever since.
When I shot The Deadman  in 16mm, people said, "Oh, she knows how to shoot! She knows how to use a camera!" But I felt that I was doing the same thing with The Deadman that I had done in all the Super-8 films, except that people just couldn’t recognize it as style in Super-8. In The Deadman I was just applying all the things I had learned in Super-8 to a different camera. To me, my emotional connection to the action and the sense of three-dimensional space were exactly the same.
MacDonald: Were you a movie-goer as a child or an adolescent?
Ahwesh: I was not a movie-goer. I was horrified by most movies. I thought they had bad gender politics, bad cultural politics, and were a waste of time. I was a hard-core idealist as a youth. My relationship to music was much more profound and organic, which is still the case. Basically, movies came second to music, but I did abhor popular films.
MacDonald: Even early in your life?
Ahwesh: Yes. I only started to be able to watch film in college and only unconventional films. I remember going into Kelly Hall at Antioch to see my first experimental film, Bruce Conner’s Cosmic Ray , and the week after that, Masculine Feminine [1966, Jean-Luc Godard], but these films I did not understand. I was tortured by them, and found them completely infuriating--but they stuck in my craw. I couldn’t figure them out, but couldn’t forget about them either.
Of course, allowing myself to be turned onto them was a large area of growth for me. I come from a working class background. My parents are small-town, fairly conservative, church-going people who never cared about art.
MacDonald: We’re very similar in this. I sat all sullen in a theater in Greencastle, Indiana, making loud comments about how the audience (for Fellini’s 8 1/2) was a bunch of phonies for pretending that this gibberish made sense. But that stuck too.
Ahwesh: [laughter] Yeah, you decide at some point that you just have to face it. I entered college as a pre-med student interested in genetics, but when I started seeing these films, everything just flipped over for me.
I remember so distinctly meeting William Wegman, and the first time I met Tony Conrad, the first time I heard a radio program by Jud Yalkut, the first time I heard Cecil Taylor play the piano live, the first time I heard Charles Ives music. These things, plus a few drug experiences, have really stayed with me as the peak moments of my teen years. I don’t know how it works for other people.
MacDonald: Did you have to struggle with all the art experiences?
Ahwesh: No. I had a particularly hard time with the movies. Hearing Ives was a totally familiar, joyful experience. I was seventeen and had never been exposed to anything experimental, but it was almost like I was waiting for this change. My last years in high school were miserable. I spent all my time by myself or with the other discontents, taking acid—we were all miserable people. We’d go to the football games to sit in the corner and yell at our classmates, "You’re a bunch of jerks!" We’d go because there was nothing else to do.
The summer I was seventeen, I was in the Antioch College library and I listened to Ives’ The Unanswered Question. It changed my life. I understood pastiche from Ives, homage and dissonance, three elements I value in my own work.
But my adjustment to the movies came later.
Those years, from sixteen to nineteen, having to figure out how language functions, symbolism, how to be a philosophical person, how to make meaning and communicate it—those things all came together for me with art-making.
MacDonald: When did you go to New York?
Ahwesh: I left Pittsburgh to go to New York in 1982. I had been there the year before, for a one-person show at the Collective for Living Cinema, and I remember thinking, "Oh, I should just move here!" So I went back to Pittsburgh, worked for Romero a little while, then just took off.
MacDonald: No matter how much film I see, every once in awhile, I run flat into a wall again. I think I’ve seen what there is to see, that I know what I like, that I understand what I need to understand; and all of a sudden, along comes stuff I just don’t get. It makes me furious, because all of a sudden I’m stupid again, and at least for awhile, don’t know what to do about it.
Martina’s Playhouse  and The Deadman  are the first two of your films I remember seeing; I saw both long after they came out. Martina made me feel I was on the other side of a generation gap. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be doing with this film, what sort of pleasure I was supposed to take from it.
Ahwesh: That’s sort of cool.
MacDonald: I also feel that my feelings aren’t all that unusual, that lots of people feel the same--even if there are also lots of people, including many I respect, who do get it. I’m still struggling with Martina’s Playhouse. Of course, sometimes things come along and there’s nothing there, so you wait for awhile until it goes away. But this isn’t going away, so I figure it isn’t going away for a reason.
So who should I be to get what you mean to give?
Ahwesh: That’s not a fair question to ask a maker. Most artists don’t make things for a particular audience of people who are going to be "getting it." The process is not that controlled.
But I can tell you what I did to make Martina’s Playhouse. I was working in complicity with the camera in a space somewhere between the stare of Warhol and the emotional intimacy of home-movies. It’s a terrain where most of my Super-8 movies are enacted. Formally, they’re very slippery movies.
MacDonald: Scary Movie—I think I do get. And if I get Scary Movie, I should get Martina’s Playhouse, right?
Ahwesh: Well, Martina’s Playhouse is much more complex. What you’re saying is that in Martina I’m not playing by the rules of experimental filmmaking you had come to expect. The work is not regulated by the formal devices of modernism--but what better way to address sexuality, girlhood, desire, and mothering than in a provocative home movie?
Formally my work is more like a younger generation’s work. Intellectually, I was formed by the Seventies. I come out of feminism and the anti-art sensibility of punk. I was in a Lacanian study group when I made Martina’s Playhouse. But formally, my structural models are more associative than those of other people who rely on structural modes.
MacDonald: When you told me you’re the same age as Su Friedrich, I was shocked—I think of you as a generation younger than Su.
Ahwesh: Actually, I’m a little older than Su. In Hide and Seek  Su puts young girls in a narrative film where they’re playing with records and reproducing a Sixties girl party. In my movie, the vision machine , I have adult women pretending to be girls, who smash the records and have a big fight and pour beer on the record player. It’s a very similar terrain, except that my imagistic and symbolic relation to experience is inverted. Su and I are friends and we think very similarly, except that my work shades one way and hers shades another.
MacDonald: Yours shades toward Jack Smith; hers, toward Frampton.
Ahwesh: Totally. I make a pastiche of many things. If I had to pick an experimental filmmaker whose philosophical method I borrow, it would be Jack Smith, although he’s one of the most irritating performers and filmmakers I’ve ever known. Just unbelievable. For years I did in Super-8 a lot of the things that he did. I would let people go on for hours and then turn the camera on, and they’d already be on the floor drunk and not able to function: "I thought we were gonna make a movie!" Or I would shoot all this stuff and just use the last roll. Or I’d rearrange the rolls in a way to make what I shot less coherent but more provocative.
Allowing something to erupt out of a nothingness--I love that. And that was already there in those first Pittsburgh films. Nothing was happening in Pittsburgh; we were just hanging around. "What can we do today?" "Let’s put on weird costumes and dance around. Let’s make a movie." And things would just erupt out of seeming chaos. And films would get shot. Of course, editing was an entirely different part of the brain. As an editor, I was always interested in the things that were happening right in front of me that I didn’t recognize, but that I was involved in on some level.
In my personal relationships; I like people in transition. I’m most comfortable, I think, with people who are going through something—they’re having an ecstatic time, or a bad time, or a lot of things are happening and they’re overflowing with changes. I’m attracted to that.
MacDonald: In the case of Martina’s Playhouse, the incident that most people talk about is Martina "nursing" her mother. Did that just occur as they were playing? How much do you instigate the "eruptions" in your films?
Ahwesh: This is a question I get a lot, because when you make something that seems sort of unauthorized, or is not authoritarian, it’s hard to figure out who’s responsible and how, as a viewer, you should take it. In most movies, the plan of the producers is there, the directorial position of the filmmaker is there. Whereas with experimental film that’s the thing people can’t figure out. But all the material I’ve shot with Martina, and most of what I’ve shot with kids over the years—I’ve never had children--I could never have suggested in a million years. I don’t know that much about the behavior of kids, and I only know about the mother-daughter relationship as the daughter. The things happening in front of the camera were unknown to me, and I filmed them not really knowing precisely what I was filming. And that "nursing" footage sat on my shelf for two years, because I had no idea what to make of it or how to incorporate it.
MacDonald: I expect it’s pretty bizarre even for someone who’s had daughters.
Ahwesh: I’ve gotten a range of responses from people who have children, from "That happens all the time" to "You have destroyed the sacred sanctity of mother-daughter relationships!"
In my Super-8 movies I don’t stage things. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I like not knowing.
MacDonald: How do you know you’re going to be shooting? Do you say you’re coming over to film?
Ahwesh: Yes, I say, "I’m coming over to film." And I usually do film, though sometimes it doesn’t come out. Also, I have relationships with certain people who turn on when I come over with the camera; or people who call me and say, "I have a story to tell, and I want you to come over with the camera." I say, "I’ll be over in twenty minutes." That used to happen a lot.
I guess those days are over for me, because I’m known as a filmmaker now; I’m not just Peggy-with-a-camera. And the people I hang out with are photo-aware. They know I’m going to make something and show it at some uptown museum and that’s a turn-off. It was different when I made a Super-8 film in Pittsburgh and showed the camera original at a party. The people who are attracted to me now are much more performative, and on the whole I’m much less interested.
MacDonald: In Martina’s Playhouse the parallel between Martina, who tries to get nude at every possible opportunity, and Jennifer Montgomery who keeps coming on to you and dropping her pants, brings back my children. The minute I would turn on my little Super-8 camera to make home movies, two of my boys would drop their pants. Did you get a lot of static about Martina’s nudity?
Ahwesh: Yeah. The film showed on television and the TV people wanted me to cut out the shot of the naked girl. It was a show that Steve Anker put together. There was an investigation by the DA after Martina’s Playhouse aired on public TV in San Francisco, but the case was dropped because there was nothing illegal in the film. I find the film explicit, but not pornographic.
MacDonald: Any parent sees that kind of nudity all the time.
Ahwesh: Since I don’t have children, I don’t have a deeply connected physical relationship with children’s bodies; and maybe I’ve seen so many movies that my world tends to be more about images than about the physical reality of people. I’d never bother to make a pornographic movie. I don’t even try to make movies that shock people. That might be Nick Zedd’s or John Waters’ goal—and a perfectly sensible goal for them. But I’m just into a deep analysis, a looking at things that are meaningful to me, areas that seem worth investigating. And the childhood sexuality of females is a huge unexplored territory.
Martina’s Playhouse is also me trying to figure out what my girlhood was about. In a way all my films are autobiographical. It’s still true that there aren’t all that many filmmakers who explore these areas.
When I came to make Martina’s Playhouse, I had all this anecdotal footage about the lives of these friends I’m very close to, and at the same time I was reading Camera Obscura—an issue about Pee Wee Herman. And there was an article about how the baby is portrayed in Three Men and a Baby  (which I’ve never seen), about what the baby symbolizes in that movie in the Freudian sense of baby/penis/feces. When I finally did take the Martina footage off the shelf, I knew exactly what to do with it. "Martina’s Playhouse" references both Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Three Men and a Baby.
MacDonald: So when you took it off the shelf, knowing what you were going to do with it, what exactly was it that you knew you were going to do?
Ahwesh: I knew I had this loaded imagery of Martina, who was my main character, and that I wanted her to recite this Lacan text about the coming-into-being of sexuality for young girls. I also had all this footage of Jennifer, the adult woman play-acting the young girl, that resonated in opposition to Martina.
Martina mis-reads the Lacan text in the movie, and her misreading is fantastic! The text is about the law of the father regarding sexuality, and Lacan is writing about a boy and his mother, not a girl. Martina changes the language in a way that’s so freeing and enabling; it has so much agency. She rewrites Lacan in her own image.
I arranged the footage thematically, around the Lacan text and Martina’s sexuality. The shape of the film?—in Pee Wee’s Playhouse Pee Wee goes into his house; he’s got all his "friends" around him—the chair is a person, there’s the genie in the little box; the mailman is a female, a femailman. Then all of a sudden a word drops from the ceiling. Formally I was thinking of that show with its surround-o-vision of symbolic elements and psychological tropes.
MacDonald: That talking flower is certainly reminiscent of Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
Ahwesh: The flower’s text is from Georges Bataille. There’s a particular way in which Bataille animates sexuality through the language of flowers.
I put more ingredients into a twenty-minute movie than a lot of people put in much longer works. I don’t know if that’s good; it might not be good. My work gets really dense with references to other movies, and to philosophical ideas; and there are certain things I won’t let go of, like how you give people some control when they’re on the screen. Viewers complain, "Your scenes go on too long!" but I want to let the characters finish their thoughts, and I don’t want to chop them up into little movie bits.
That makes sense, right? My Super-8 films are like little playgrounds.
MacDonald: When I talked to Ken Jacobs about the Nervous System pieces, I was saying that one of the difficulties with those pieces is that I can’t take notes: what’s happening is performative and so evanescent that you can’t really hold onto it. Now with your films I can take notes, but I stay mystified, partly because the films seem so open-- though when you talk about Martina’s Playhouse, it all seems very obvious.
Ahwesh: I think you have resistance to my work—perhaps you simply don’t like it. Is it possible that the problem is that it’s so much a female point of view--which includes that openness? There are people who don’t like the film because there’s no explicit authority telling them how to think about the images or structuring the material in a way that reduces it to formality. I refuse to do both those things. I just refuse.
I think it’s just that you don’t like my movies—not that you don’t get them.
MacDonald: Even when I don’t like your films, I still want to understand them.
Ahwesh: Also, my work has an under-achiever, self-deprecating quality and maybe that’s deceptive in some sense. You know, working in Super-8 is a devotion to the minor, to the low end of technology, to things that are more ephemeral and have less authority in the world. I am on the very edge—another Jack Smith tradition—of a whole enterprise that’s on the verge of collapsing.
MacDonald: But on some level you don’t really think it’s fragile and ephemeral, because you’re willing to devote yourself to it.
Ahwesh: It’s my own challenge to history. I remember thinking, early on, "Oh, women don’t write novels, they keep diaries." And they’re minor poets, like Isabelle Eberhart, who had a very fragile, scant production. There’s a romance about invisibility. I grew up hearing, "These are the important filmmakers and you’re not one of them." "Experimental filmmaking was really important until 1975—you came afterwards."
MacDonald: That was always a loony attitude.
Ahwesh: But that was what Fred Camper wrote in that famous Millennium piece and what J. Hoberman said in "Avant to Live" in The Voice; and that attitude held sway through the early eighties. But now with the internet "marginality" has taken on a new cache.
MacDonald: Last night I looked at Strange Weather, and I was struck by a connection with George Kuchar’s Weather Diaries. You’re inside this house with daily goings-on and outside there’s this major weather event that we hear about mostly through media. Thinking about Kuchar helped me make a distinction. In his melodramas—his fiction films, I mean, not the Weather Diaries--I get the sense that he’s trying to make "a real movie," but the gap between what he can do and what he wants to do is considerable—and where the energy is. He tries to make the best movie he can, given his limitations. His actors can’t really compete with "real" actors; but sometimes this gap makes for interesting un-Hollywood, or anti-Hollywood, work.
In your case—and this hit me with The Pittsburgh Trilogy--you’re not trying to make a melodrama that you’re failing to achieve; instead, everybody has decided to perform themselves and you’re recording these performances. In his melodramas, Kuchar is trying to do fiction, but the documentary reality that you see in that gap between what he wants to do and what he can do is the surprise, whereas you’re actually doing documentary with people who are trying to be melodramatic.
Ahwesh: They’re willing to fictionalize themselves, and I’m basically getting the documentary of that process. However, I think of it as a Warhol approach, more than anything else: that droll documentation of off-beat personalities. Steve Anker programmed Strange Weather with The Connection by Shirley Clarke, and I found that appropriate to open up the meaning of the piece as a fake documentary and/or fictionalized real life.
The other big reference for Strange Weather was reality TV and Cops episodes. Just because one makes experimental films, their sources of reference and inspiration aren’t necessarily from that world; they can be from anywhere.
I was friends with Roger Jacoby who did a lot of work with Ondine. I saw Roger’s films in San Francisco in the Seventies. When I moved back to Pittsburgh, we were buddies for a couple of years. I was really taken with his reason for making work: he was trying to unravel a set of social relations between himself and his partners or his family. He was trying to understand himself as a social being by making films with little clusters of people who comprised some kind of community. I read the Warhol films that way too: as a disfunctional, extended family, or some little utopian commune of people, who could only be this way because there was film running.
MacDonald: It was interesting for me to go from The Pittsburgh Trilogy to Strange Weather . In the Pittsburgh films your performers seem entirely conscious of you, though as filmmaker you’re a bit detached, whereas in Strange Weather, you’re doing this super-in-close camera work with your little Pixilvision camera, and yet these people seem oblivious to you.
Ahwesh:Strange Weather is an anomaly in my body of work, because three out of four of those people are actors. What was interesting about that film was that I came to it with this long history of making these "documentaries" with people acting, in some kind of complicitous relation with the camera—knowing the camera is on but agreeing to play themselves. In Strange Weather, Margie—who, of course, had been involved with those Pittsburgh films--actually met with the performers for rehearsals.
When we went to Florida to shoot, they ended up abandoning most of the things they had come up with during rehearsals. That often happens. But we came up with other scenes on set and rehearsed and shot them. Toward the end the blonde gives this really long speech about the first time she used crack, at this party—it’s an eight-minute scene, and a single take. She memorized the speech and we practiced the scene a lot, and then we shot it once. It’s a cliché from Cinema Verite that the longer a shot goes on without a cut, the more believable it is as reality.
It was great working with Pixil because, even though I’d imagined the scene many times, I had to reinvent it when I shot it--so that it looked like the first time I was seeing it, like in a documentary.
Initially we wanted the actors to actually smoke crack; we wanted the film to be really raw and revealing. We thought we’d shoot it all documentary style--like a journalistic investigative report on drugs. But as we worked on the piece, the conceit of the artificial became this great metaphor, for me, for the artificial paradise described in the film and it seemed best to have the piece be a fiction.
MacDonald: Who initiated this project? I assume it had to do with Margie’s sister’s stories.
Ahwesh: Margie’s sister was a crack addict, who lived in Florida and had incredible stories. I think what happened initially was that Terry had decided to get out of that life and had come back north, and she had written up the various episodes of her life, which included living in a house that was a central office for drug sales, and shopping at a drive-in drug window. Amazing stories. She got arrested a couple of times. We couldn’t use most of her stories because they were way too complicated dramatically. We ended up working with one extended moment when she was hanging out with this cluster of people.
MacDonald: Talk about the collaboration.
Ahwesh: Margie is very political and socially oriented, and she wanted to make more of an expose about drug use, something that might have fictional elements. For a long time we talked about a piece that would have dramatic elements and documentary elements, maybe interviews--more of an empowering thing for women who had drug problems.
I had all these amazing governmental reports about the drug economy, and I shot a lot of documentary and surveillance footage—including myself scoring drugs on St. Marks Place.
As the piece evolved, it became obvious to both of us that the fictional part was coming to the foreground. I read an interview with Derrida about addiction ["The Rhetoric of Drugs," from Differences (September, 1993)] that talks about the imagination on drugs as a fictional space, an alternate reality—writing and lying, fiction and drugs, become this activated nexus.
Anyway, we had all these stories—Margie’s a storyteller, first and foremost—and the hard journalism drifted away and we started working with these actors, shaping the piece around the musings of this one girl, as a fictional space. A lot of people see the tape and think it’s a documentary, and think that the young woman who’s telling the stories is lying to herself, because her life is actually much more miserable and screwed up, as we can see from our objective vantage point. I think, "This is fantastic!"
I like it when a work involves the viewer in some kind of dilemma about how to read its meaning. I don’t do it as a punishment, but it’s a very exciting, ethical, and philosophical place for me. My work is not supposed to be comfort food.
MacDonald: I admit I do spend a certain amount of time looking for comfort food . I love Teatro Amazonis (Sharon Lockhart’s film) and I know that part of it is that it feeds into everything I already like. It’s a new way of doing something (and it’s pretty amazing in any case), but it doesn’t cause me problems. I could explain it to anybody, and defend it. I’m drawn to being surprised, but there’s also kind of reassurance I like too.
Almost every time I deal with a piece of yours, I either don’t know what to do with it, or when I think I’ve got it, as in the case of Strange Weather, which I did assume was a documentary, I’ve got it backwards.
So when did the Pixilvision come into the Strange Weather project? It’s one of the most elaborate Pixil pieces I know of.
Ahwesh: I wasn’t sure how Strange Weather was going to work out, so I went to Florida with a surveillance camera, a Super-8 camera, and a Pixil camera. The decision to use Pixil had been made in New York before we went. We had a fantasy about making the Big Feature, and I was like, That’s not going to happen with this operation; but I knew that with the Pixil camera I would be able to make overly dramatic things look underdramatic, and things that were nothing to look at, spectacular and tactile--and the drug world look grim and raw.
I remember being out on this patio and knowing I was shooting the first shot in the video, the Pixil palm trees.
MacDonald: A beautiful shot, especially with the sound.
Ahwesh: I remember thinking to myself, this has got to be the first shot of the video, because you can’t tell what the fuck it is; you don’t know what the object is, what the scale is; it has odd, unnatural movement--and then you realize it’s a palm tree and you’re in Florida in grainy black and white. I shot that shot, and thought, "Oh, I know how to make this work!" There was something about the alienation of that shot, the black and white and the semi-abstraction, that I helped me figure out how the whole video would come together.
MacDonald: How was it working with the actors? The blonde is quite good.
Ahwesh: I think she’s really good. She’s a working class girl from Philadelphia. The first time we did auditions for the part, we asked her to do one, and she turned out to be the best. She was having a love affair with Cheryl so that was sticky. Cheryl was pretty much a bitch the whole time. She hated Margie. At one point the two of them took me aside and told me to take over the project and get rid of Margie. Margie can be sort of square about things. She might tell them, "You have to go to bed now, because we have to shoot tomorrow!"—that sort of thing. They didn’t respond well to that.
MacDonald: Would Margie agree with you on this?
Ahwesh: [laughter] Probably not. Anyway, it’s hard to work with other people, and we really had a tough time on this one.
MacDonald: How real is the drug use in the film?
Ahwesh: In the drug scenes, they’re not actually smoking; it’s soap in the pipes.
Audiences often ask, "Did you smoke crack?" I never answer directly. I say, "What’s interesting is that as a viewer you feel an ethical dilemma: either the director is a crackhead and that’s why she did this piece, or she’s making a documentary about these poor people that you’re supposed to feel sorry for." That is, only if it’s a piece of investigative journalism where you’re trying to root out evil and show these people for who they really are, is it justified; if it’s fiction, you don’t have to feel responsible and you don’t approve. So I never answer the question, because it’s not about me and my drug problem—I don’t have one—and it’s not about me and my "voyeuristic" relationship to drugs—I don’t really have one of those either. But I do like that the film sets up a really ambiguous ethical space.
In reality what happened is that in Florida I found out where to get crack, how they sell it, what it looks like, where to keep it--because you can’t have it on your person—and what it’s like to smoke it. I felt I needed to know that information for the tape. My two production assistants and a local friend helped find where people deal drugs in Miami.
MacDonald: So what was it like to smoke it?
Ahwesh: I have to admit I liked it. I’ve only done it a couple of times—because it’s incredibly addictive. It’s low grade, oily, very oily--like an industrial substance, like a toxic waste dump. If you’re at all feeling End of the Industrial Age despair, a despair that’s gritty and like the exhaust pipe on a car, you can easily lock into crack. It’s a greasy high, almost syrupy. After I did it the first time in New York, I craved it for a week! I thought, "I can see why people get addicted to this." It’s a short, fast, up high, really high, heart palpitations, and you just get completely clouded over. It’s not an elegant drug.
I don’t do a lot of drugs. I’m too busy. I’m just not the type. But I’ve tried everything once. The other people in the movie were not interested in taking the drug, because they were actors and they wanted to fake it. Someone had to figure out how to fake it correctly! And it ended up being me. I did think they were a bit diletantish about the subject. They weren’t actors who were going to gain thirty-five pounds so they could be Jake LaMotta. So I thought, "OK, I’ll shoot with Pixil. Degraded and grainy, Pixil will give me the right texture." So that’s what we decided to do.
MacDonald: When did the storm come into it? It’s the one thing that doesn’t quite work for me. On one level, it certainly makes sense, because these people are lost in a physical/mental space and don’t notice that there’s a hurricane coming. My problem is that I went through the eye of Hurricane Bob on Cape Hatteras, a year before Hurricane Andrew, which we hear them talking about in Strange Weather. Andrew was a serious hurricane—the most financially disastrous in American history. Nobody in Miami was ignoring Hurricane Andrew. For me, the weather only works as a metaphor.
Ahwesh: We went down there a little after the storm you’re talking about, and there were still branches all over the place and along curbs of the streets there were huge masses of garbage and branches and smashed stuff.
Either the hurricane was the reason why they couldn’t go outside, or they were ignoring it because that’s how dangerously far from reality they are. But you’re right, the storm as a metaphor came into it late. With Pixil it’s hard to get big things to be dramatic. It’s better with the close-ups, so I hoped the imagery on the TV would help keep it in their miniaturized world.
MacDonald: Had you seen any of the Kuchar Weather Diaries?
Ahwesh: I’d seen Wild Night in El Reno . I love Kuchar, but I wasn’t really thinking of him. I don’t know the video Weather Diaries. It’s more like Clash by Night meets The Connection.
I would say that with Strange Weather, like everything I’ve made, I get the footage and then the real work starts. The editing is like putting a puzzle together. I never get footage in the can that edits easily. I always have an ornate, complicated pastiche relationship to my editing. I’m always reinventing the work as the process goes along.
MacDonald: I hated The Deadman when I first saw it at Lincoln Center.
Ahwesh: I know, you keep telling me! Why are you interviewing me?
MacDonald: I have various reasons for doing interviews, one of which is to help me understand what I find opaque.
Anyway, The Deadman felt like a student film—suburban kids trying to be outrageous. Later I thought that there is a student film aspect to it. It’s somewhere in between porn, horror, and student film—if that’s a genre.
Ahwesh: I Was a Teenage Biker Deadman Vampire for the FBI?
MacDonald: But the personae in B films are these big adults, whereas in The Deadman, they’re young adults, almost kids.
Ahwesh: Originally I cast the film with completely different people, who were older and gnarlier, and much more difficult people. Kurt Kren was supposed to play the Count. The other people were San Francisco Art Institute grads and had been in Kuchar movies. You might recognize them.
The Deadman was the first film I shot in 16mm. We did have a script, which is unlike my early films, and everybody read the script once, then tossed it away, and we never referred to it again. The Deadman was a hybrid of my Super-8 movies, and this well-known literary source, which to me felt very foreign.
I don’t think anyone in Dead Man was trying to be outrageous. These are people who would have done anything for fun; they are transgressive people, but if it looks as if they’re trying to be outrageous, then the film is not working: it’s supposed to read as a-day-in-the-life in some ironic sense. I was trying to use the woman and sexuality and the body to make a philosophical point.
MacDonald: Talk about the point.
Ahwesh: Yvonne [Rainer] had made The Man Who Envied Women , where at the beginning of the film the woman packs up her bags and leaves the movie. I remember seeing that and thinking, "As a Lacanian response, that’s really smart." It’s a really knowledgeable, thought-through Lacanian position about women and sexuality in this culture—the woman can’t even be in the movie because she’s so misunderstood and misrepresented by language and imagery. I understood that gesture as an end point in a kind of logic about women and sexuality. First you make the woman into text and then you remove her from the movie.
Keith and I had many discussions about this, and we were interested in somehow re-inserting woman as a sexual agent into the movies. A sexed being, female, gendered, who was the agent of the film. In a nutshell, that’s what we tried to do; that was the game that we were playing. Could you have a woman be the main character and have movie sex, and confront the audience in a material way. The film was basically about that, and about what you can discover in relation to that. So in that way The Deadman was a response to The Man Who Envied Women.
And also we thought the original Bataille story was fantastic
MacDonald: When did you first come in contact with Bataille’s story?
Ahwesh: Keith read Bataille in the Seventies. The book we published is Keith’s translation of the story. We went and read it in French at the New York Public Library; they had an uncirculating copy. Bataille was part of the canon in France, but here he wasn’t known. Because of Keith I’d known about Bataille.
Bataille is a social critic and philosopher. What is considered important in an ethnographic framework—tribal culture, magic, fetish objects sharing things instead of having a money economy, "the gift"—interested Bataille, but in relationship to mass culture. His fiction is a working out of his philosophical ideas.
Bataille is hard to put your finger on, because he wrote anthropology texts, a book on the paintings of Lascaux, fiction, poetry, was into psychoanalysis; he wrote a couple of serious books on economic systems. He wrote on surrealism, on architecture, on eroticism and the history of painting; he was a Nietszche scholar. This is a complex thinker. He doesn’t form a cohesive philosophic system, like Lacan does. He’s heterogeneous. He’s not someone you can make consistent and whole, but the heterogeneity of his writings and his interests is fascinating and generative. You have this person who is in touch with all these different fields, has some philosophical relationship to many areas, who writes a fiction book that relates to his ideas about tribal culture. The Deadman relates to ritual in a tribal culture, to initiation, membership.
MacDonald: Did the original text of The Deadman have the summaries of the action at the bottom of the pages?
Ahwesh: Yes, the lay-out of our book mimics the original French and started us thinking about using intertitles in the film.
MacDonald: Was the original illustrated?
Ahwesh: I don’t think so.
I like how Bataille does not explain the emotions of the characters in Le Mort. You’re not given reasons why. You’re not told that this woman is insane, or has a memory problem, or whatever. Characters don’t feel in the book. It’s a set of actions, a weird outline for something that has to be a stand-in for something else--like how a woman goes through life. She wins and loses. How does a woman get agency in a male culture? In a way, the book is a blueprint for that.
MacDonald: I’ve heard you talk about The Deadman, The Color of Love, and Nocturne as a trilogy. Will there be a fourth part; will it be a quartet?
Ahwesh: No, I’m done with that. But it wasn’t even planned as a trilogy; it just happened that way, very slowly over a ten year period. I never thought of it as a trilogy until a programmer—Jonas Mekas, actually--wanted to show the three films together at Anthology and decided they were a trilogy. I thought, "OK, it is a trilogy."
I went out with Abby Child not too long ago, and she said, "All your work is about death, ew." And I thought, "I guess that’s true." The video piece I’m making now [She Puppet, 2001] has a lot of ecstatic death moments in it. But the protagonist always pops back alive. I think it’s not really about death; it’s not just the old punishment for sex. I like a horror movie where you go to have an experience of hyper-violence and uncanny death. It’s like an amusement park ride; you don’t really want to die; you want to feel some totally hyper-real, bizarre fantasy of near-death that allows you to live your normal life in a way that’s less stressful and less neurotic. I’m doing the experimental film version of that kind of death.
I love violent horror movies; I love the excessiveness of them. I don’t want to be violated literally--but I like excessiveness, completely-over-the-top-ness, of the game and all my deadman movies are horror movies. I like the Italian Seventies horror movies especially. In terms of my fantasy life, I find horror films very liberating. I’m into preserving the distance between my real life and the movies, both when I go to movies and when I make them. To me horror film is not about women having to die.
MacDonald: If you look at the history of the horror genre over the last fifty years, it’s about how women need to, and are, getting stronger.
Ahwesh: At the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the only person left is a woman. And the same is true in the Romero films and the deadman films.
MacDonald: By the time you get to the Nightmare on Elm Street films, you have the woman getting pissed off and wanting to go back in there and kick Freddy’s ass. The woman becomes a battler.
The real premonition of The Deadman is probably Un Chien Andalou [Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali,1929].
Ahwesh: You know, Un Chien Andalou is the only film that Bataille mentions in his writings. We pored over Bataille looking for references to the movies.
MacDonald: Thinking about Un Chien Andalou helps me with The Deadman. I have no problem seeing how funny the Bunuel/Dali film is. If I think about what the people in Un Chien Andalou must have looked like to people in their own moment, it was probably much the same film. Dali and Bunuel are now major figures and their film has become a classic, so the actors now look very distinguished and the film feels "important."
Ahwesh: Yes, their shabby clothes have become dignified.
MacDonald: It did do what a shocking film is supposed to do: it shocked me and pissed me off. I have to give it that.
Ahwesh: I never make movies to shock people. First of all, I don’t know how you can predict that that would happen. It seems pretentious.
MacDonald: I can see why you wouldn’t see that Martina’s Playhouse would be shocking, but The Deadman is one long transgressive moment. One of the first events is that Jennifer squatting down in the woods, in this silly raincoat, and taking a pee.
By the way, I know you’re working on a Caldwell project. Do you know that the play, Tobacco Road, the adaptation of Caldwell’s novel, opens with one of the characters walking out on stage and taking a pee?
Ahwesh: I didn’t know that, but I think of The Deadman as one long female juissance, not a transgression at all.
You also don’t see a woman spreading her legs and shoving her crotch in someone’s face in a way that’s provocative but not seductive, and saying, "Look how pretty I am!" The woman does incredibly provocative things in an aggressive way.
In most movies the women are sexualized in a way that allows them to be incorporated into male fantasy; in The Deadman I keep you outside of male fantasy. A woman taking a piss in the woods, or pissing on somebody in an unromantic, non-seductive way--there’s no category for that in the movies. For me these are feminist gestures.
MacDonald: I suppose the only time I’ve seen comparable activities is in the Muehl/Kren Materialaktionfilms.
Ahwesh: Yeah, outside of porn, Materialaktionfilm is the one place. In some ways that set of films, was an inspiration for ours. We were very involved with Kurt Kren at the time. He was a good friend, and we really wanted him in the movie. In the Certain Women project, I would say that the figure who hovers over us is Fassbinder. For The Deadman it was definitely Kurt Kren. He was our angel who gave his blessing to the project.
I was also thinking about Iggy Pop quite a bit, making The Deadman. Iggy Pop is an American original. You can’t really copy Iggy Pop; what he does is so crude and so ridiculously personal, and low end, and scatological, and anti-social—and yet, twenty years of rock music is largely based on him. I was doing Iggy Pop to Yvonne Rainer’s David Bowie.
MacDonald: Where did you find the material you use in The Color of Love?
Ahwesh: A friend of mine dropped off a so-called "donation" at Bard: six big boxes of cans and reels that had been left out in the rain. In all those boxes there was one reel of Super-8mm. I thought I might as well check it out. I looked at it on the Super-8 viewer, and realized it was pretty interesting.
MacDonald: Is the film a ready-made?
Ahwesh: Well, no. I did a lot of editing.
I’m not like Phil Solomon: I’m not an optical-printing whiz. And I’m not systematic. Basically, I did an improv on the optical printer with the footage. I treat my machines almost like dance partners. I did two sessions on the printer and messed around, eyeballing it, slowing some sections down and speeding others up a bit, repeating some things, and elongating the cunt shots. And then I re-cut that material on the flatbed.
MacDonald: And the color and texture?
Ahwesh: I filtered it a bit, made it a little more purple, but basically, the undulations, the emulsion decay and the color are what was there.
I showed The Color of Love footage a couple of times at parties, just the dailies off the printer, and I remember M. M. Serra wagging her finger at me and saying, "Don’t make it too long; you’ll ruin it!" It’s on the verge of being too long.
There are cuts in the music too. Keith helped me sync it up and be sure the sound was coming in on the right frames.
MacDonald: At Ithaca College, you talked about the assemblage process of doing Nocturne.
Ahwesh: Nocturne is a dream space, a return of the repressed in a dream-space, and about repetition compulsion. It’s not much of a story. The woman kills the guy and she drags him across the lawn, goes to sleep, and there he is, haunting her. She has restless sleep and senses something, some paranormal presence, and then she has to kill him again. That’s it. There’s a sensibility, a sense of space and time being collapsed or stopped, protracted, and a struggle between elemental male and female principles. That’s how I think of it. I finally did see the original feature film it was from.
MacDonald: What are you talking about? You mean the scientific footage?
Ahwesh: No, no. I made the movie, based on a review that someone on the internet had written about an Italian horror movie, a Mario Bava film originally called "The Whip and the Flesh" and released in the United States as What! Bava is one of my favorite Italian Seventies horror filmmakers: Dario Argento, Bava, Lucio Fulci. Do you know their work?
Ahwesh: Oh my god! Go see Suspiria ; it’s fantastic! Argento and Mario Bava are fantastic! Barbara Steele, who’s the star of a lot of those films is amazing.
So Steven Shavivo wrote a review of The Whip and the Flesh on the net—eight hundred words—and I never could find the film, so I based Nocturne on the review. He had already reduced the film down to the relationship between these two people, and I reduced it further.
I finally did see the original: Kathy Geritz showed Nocturne at Pacific Film Archive along with a 35mm print of The Whip and the Flesh, which she borrowed from somebody’s archive in LA. My film is black and white; Bava’s is in color. His is a whole elaborate Victorian period piece; mine is no-period, basically. His is a drama about a dysfunctional family that lives in a castle by the water, with trick fireplaces—a haunted castle movie with all kinds of gothic cult elements. Mine is a minimal piece, with a little touch of gothic austerity. I like Bava’s film, but I don’t think he’d be interested in mine.
MacDonald: Did you do any storyboarding. What kind of planning was involved in Nocturne?
Ahwesh: I had twenty-five note cards with different scene ideas written on them. We shot all twenty-five in two or three days; and then over the period of a year, I cut it and added cutaways and other kinds of associative material--doing an assemblage, not only from the visual material, but also from different literary resources that I read after the shooting was done. It’s totally an assemblage method—like an essay, with narrative elements.
MacDonald: It reminds me a bit of Damned If You Don’t [1983, Su Friedrich] in its combination of materials.
Ahwesh: Oh, that’s interesting. They are similar in that way.
You know, we mostly don’t know the meaning of what we’re doing, at any given moment, but after twenty years, you begin to figure your own gestures out.
Some people read She Puppet  as a conceptual work, as an alteration of a cultural product—it’s often treated differently from most of my video or film. It’s seen as an idea movie. It’s entered the art world in a way that my work hasn’t before. Dan Graham has a kiosk on the roof of DIA where they show media; it’ll be in a program there. I think of She Puppet as another found-footage piece. I collected the material and then reworked it. It’s about this female entity, and is a riff off one videogame with this virtual superstar from the popular imagination (Lara Croft).
Over the years, I’ve usually worked with ordinary people, family members, neighbors, "nobodies." But She Puppet is a whole different thing: I worked with a superstar!
MacDonald: It’s different in that you collected the material on the basis of your having actually played the videogame—that’s a different kind of collecting.
Ahwesh: Right. It’s more interactive and it relates to my interest in improvisation.
MacDonald: Is working with Lara Croft a premonition of your working with well-known actors?
MacDonald: I remember talking with you about Willem Dafoe, who I’d love to see in a Peggy Ahwesh film.
Ahwesh: In some ways I would like to be able to do that, and this Certain Women project has made me think that it might be possible. Willem Dafoe burns a hole in the screen, but if you can work with somebody like that so that they actually fit within the fabric of the piece--that would be fantastic.
MacDonald: Why did you choose Certain Women as the basis for your new film; it’s certainly not one of Caldwell’s more memorable novels.
Ahwesh: That’s true, but it’s easier to make a good movie from something that’s not a great work of literature. The further you get away from great literature, the less demanding the world is on your interpretation, which is liberating.
The earlier Caldwell work, which is definitely better literature, is from the 1930s; for us to work with something written in the late 1950s seemed more do-able. We did up-date several of the stories. In a way the Fifties is the original retro period (it got re-drawn in the Seventies, and then re-drawn again in the Nineties) but to go back to Caldwell before that becomes so regional, and so American populist Thirties—it’s too far back for me.
Also, the omnibus idea of having various stories that take place in the same town, but are presented in these smaller units--a sort of panoply of the ladies, various shaded aspects of femininity--was very appealing and something we felt we could work with.
MacDonald: How far have you gotten in the film?
Ahwesh: Right now, we’re shooting the fifth episode, of five, called "Nannette." It’s the saddest and most dour of all the stories; it’s so pathetic [laughter]. There’s this little mountain girl who loses her parents early on and gets a job at a truck stop and the night manager tries to seduce her, and their sex act gets interrupted by the bitchy wife of the manager, who cuts her face, and she spends the last third of the story, scarred, unable to get a job, rejected by society. A benevolent older lady introduces her to a blind man who hires her.
That’s actually the story!
MacDonald: It’s good you can blame Caldwell for this plot!
Ahwesh: [laughter] Another episode stars Martina, who’s in high school now. She plays Louellen, a busty high school senior who can’t get a boyfriend, and ends up having an affair with an out-of-towner, who dumps her, and all the boys start fighting over her. Martina wore her own clothes. Very contemporary hip-hugger jeans, sneakers, and pink tank-tops.
Each episode has been different. Basically we try to get the right person for the part, someone who looks right; everyone is a character actor. There are a couple of weak actors, but generally we got the right people.
MacDonald: This sounds like straight melodrama.
Ahwesh: It’s closer.
MacDonald: The love/sex trilogy—Dead Man, The Color of Love, Nocturne—includes narrative, but ultimately it’s like dream narrative. The viewer gives up on figuring out the story. This sounds pretty straightforward.
Ahwesh: The reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution. By the end, you’re supposed to be able to figure out why things happened the way they did. And I’ve always been more into presenting a problem and getting you into an emotional place where you understand the calamity or joy or desire within a person’s life. It’s like a texture, or a mood, a moment—not this is the story and this is how it turns out. Actually, we are doing my usual thing again, because none of the stories resolves and there is no redemption to the women’s misery. Our favorite shots are these loving close-ups of faces: the film becomes something like a landscape film of human emotions. So I’m off the hook again.
MacDonald: Color, or black and white?
Ahwesh: Lurid color.
My sex movies were all in black and white because peoples’ bodies look better, and it’s also much easier to make things blend—if you’re using a friend’s living room for your set, you have to take it as-is. Black and white allows you more leeway.
We used real locations on the whole. We had to get real places that looked right already, because we have limited resources and an absurd number of locations to shoot in.