This is a short, 9-minute microdocumentary that I made last spring. The basic thesis is that cinema – underground films from the 60’s and 70’s, as well as mainstream cinema – has had an effect on the kinds of work contemporary performance artists in NYC today are producing. It consists of interviews with 3 artists: Reverend Jen Miller, Robert Prichard, and Velocity Chyalld.
There is also an accompanying short paper, which you can read below if you wish.
Art Stars: The Children of Jack Smith
The 9-minute micro-documentary, Art Stars: The Children of Jack Smith is, broadly speaking, an investigation into the influence of cinema on New York City performance art and artists. Jack Smith, a performance artist and filmmaker living and working in New York in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, is best known for the controversial underground film, Flaming Creatures, which was central to the battle against censorship in NYC in the 1960’s. Smith was profoundly influenced by cinema in both his films and live performances – especially by the 1940’s actress, Maria Montez. My subtitle, The Children of Jack Smith, can be understood as referring to two modes of influence on today’s performers. The first is simply the way in which today’s artists’ work are influenced by cinema in general – contemporary, period, underground, or mainstream – in the same way that Jack Smith’s work was influenced by a particular style of film. The second interpretation is the way in which today’s artists are specifically influenced by the Jack Smith’s work itself – his movies, performances, writing and philosophy. As evidenced by the documentary on the artist, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Smith had a profound influence on the performance artists of his time, and it was they that laid the foundation on which today’s performers build.
I interviewed three artists for the film: writer, performer, filmmaker and sex columnist Reverend Jen Miller; filmmaker, former b-movie actor, and proprietor of the underground performance venue Surf Reality, Robert Prichard; and Velocity Chyalld, extreme burlesque performer/producer, and front woman for the band Vulgaras. All 3 have very different relationships to cinema. Reverend Jen has written and directed films, several in collaboration with filmmaker Nick Zedd. She produces a superhero TV show on cable access called Electra Elf and Fluffer – featuring her 7-year old Chihuahua, Reverend Jen Junior, as her trusty skateboarding sidekick. Robert Prichard began as an actor in B-movie cinema, starring in the Troma films The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. He subsequently made underground films in NYC in the early 90’s with filmmaker Matt Mitler, in what they called the “Movie of the Month Club.” In 1993, he opened the underground performance venue, Surf Reality, where he produced, directed, and performed in hundreds of productions. Velocity Chyalld is not a filmmaker, but a performance artist who takes the art of burlesque as a starting point, from which she leaps to, and dances on, the edges of acceptability. An aficionado of a diverse array of genres from David Lynch to Jean Harlow – Velocity appropriates cinematic imagery for her performances – whether borrowing the image of Harry Dean Stanton singing into a construction lamp in Blue Velvet for a live performance, or evoking the image of the 1940’s Femme Fatale into her music videos.
Here I will attempt shed some light on both cinema’s influence on these artists, and the ways in which we can see Jack Smith’s influence on their work. In most cases, Smith’s influence will be more broad and cultural rather than direct. Some of these artists have never heard of Smith, and one in particular found his work “boring.” Nonetheless, he helped define a culture of underground art in New York City in which each of these artists participates and although the influence may be subtle, it is doubtless present. To me, each of these artists demonstrates a different way in which both cinema and Smith’s influence are manifest: Sex (Reverend Jen), B-movies (Prichard), and the iconic allure of the Femme Fatale (Chyalld).
Reverend Jen: Sex
A long-time sex columnist for Nerve.com, Reverend Jen has a history of incorporating the sexual into both her life and her work. In the early 1990’s, Jen met filmmaker Maria Beatty at Pandora’s Box, a dungeon at which they both worked as professional submissives. Beatty was in the process of making a series of fetish films at the time, and asked Reverend Jen to perform in one. Jen agreed, doing it “just for the money,” yet aspects of fetishism manifested themselves in several of her later film projects particularly Elf Panties: The Movie, and her superhero TV show, Electra Elf and Fluffer – both collaborations with underground filmmaker Nick Zedd.
When speaking in our interview of the latter, Reverend Jen specifically mentions fetishistic elements of superhero TV shows of the 60’s and 70’s, and their underlying fetishistic (and feminist) elements.
“I don’t think there’s a woman alive who was a girl in the 70’s who didn’t worship Wonder Woman. She was, to me, the ultimate feminist role model when I was five years old. It was only later that I went like, ‘oh, they have her running around in panties!’ From a fetish aspect, Nick [Zedd] thought it would be really sexy to have me in a leotard in all these compromising positions and that’s like… when you watch Batman and Batgirl is tied up, you know people are jacking to that.”
Instead of superimposing a social or political layer of serious meaning onto this use of sex in her film and performance, Reverend Jen instead sees it as just funny, mixing sex and humor in a way that democratizes sex and makes it fun, which may ultimately be more political than using sex intentionally as a political statement or feminist polemic. When speaking of her motivations for Electra Elf, she says:
“We thought it’d be hilarious to make it over-the-top… if you watch Electra Elf there’s like ridiculous close ups on my ass, and we did that just to make a joke of the whole thing… Electra Elf is driven by my sense of humor, which basically is on par with a 12-year-old boy.”
When Jack Smith’s film, Flaming Creatures, was under attack by the U.S. government for obscenity, Jonas Mekas and Susan Sontag attempted to defend the film by reframing it as “high art” (Suarez 186). Smith, on the other hand, stated explicitly that he never meant the film as high art. Like Reverend Jen’s Electra Elf he just thought Flaming Creatures was “funny.”
“I started making a comedy about everything that I thought was funny. And it was funny. The first audiences were laughing from the beginning all the way through. But then that writing started – and it became a sex thing… When they got through licking their chops over the movie there was no more laughter. There was a dead silence at the auditorium” (Smith 107).
Another aesthetic that Reverend Jen shares with Smith is that of imperfection. In his live performances, Smith used junk and debris as his sets and décor, a style he referred to as the “moldy aesthetic.” This was likely a reaction to the gentrification that Smith saw taking place in Soho, a phenomenon that forced many of the artists there to retreat to the less-expensive Lower East Side. Smith referred to this gentrification – and the general clean up of NYC that was taking place in preparation for the 1964 World’s Fair – as “landlordism,” and dedicated several of his performances to this theme (Suarez 200-204).
Similarly, Reverend Jen’s style could be called an aesthetic of imperfection. Many of her props and sets are made out of cardboard, and make no attempt at realism. “There’s nothing you can’t do with cardboard, fabric, tape and a hot-glue gun. You can accomplish anything,” she says in an outtake of our interview. As for “landlordism,” a segment of Jen’s 2003 book, Reverend Jen’s Really Cool Neighborhood, is a short musical puppet-play called Les Misrahi, the story of a young girl imprisoned for stealing a glue-stick from Kinko’s. The play is an overt satirical attack on the landlord of Jen’s Lower East Side tenement. In the play’s introduction, she writes:
“I wrote Les Misrahi with the intention of satirizing my landlord, who is notorious…It is important that if one is to properly perform Les Misrahi one must perform it directly in front of one’s landlord’s office, thus Les Misrahi could become an effective weapon against gentrification” (Miller 6).
Although their work is decades apart, clearly the works of Reverend Jen and Jack Smith intersect at points both political and aesthetic.
Robert Prichard: From Movie Camp to Surfing Reality
Robert Prichard appeared in Troma Pictures’ b-movie classic, The Toxic Avenger, in 1984 at age 26, as well as in the sequel, Class of Nuke ‘Em High. These were seminal experiences for him, and he later went on to apply the b-movie aesthetic to several of his own underground films, including Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die, and Thrill Kill Video Club. In 1993, Robert and his wife Jennifer opened a performance space on Allen Street on the Lower East Side called “Surf Reality”, named for a phrase he had used to describe the experience of making underground films. “My wife asked me, ‘what’s that like, shooting improvising actors all day long?’ And I said, ‘It’s like…. surfing reality.’” Surf became an epicenter of the Lower East Side performance scene until closing its doors in 2003. The space is now a Bikram Yoga Studio.
In our interview Prichard described the experience in acting in Troma films as “movie camp. It was very little pay, extremely long hours, and kind of outline of a script, or a story…horrible food, little sleep, not too much money. Like downtown theater!” Remarkably, Lloyd Kaufman –Troma Pictures co-founder and director of The Toxic Avenger – employs the same metaphor when speaking about the experience of working on a Troma set:
“The experience of making a Troma movie is something that everybody lives with forever. It’s sort of like going to camp, or some kind of incredible bonding experience. It’s very hard to describe but it’s a great ‘life-experience.’ And since all of our movies are comedic there’s a great deal of improvisation. Talented young actors love working on Troma movies.”
This improvisational and do-it-yourself aesthetic stayed with Prichard when he began working on his own films in New York City. Surf Reality actually began as a video production company that Prichard started with his friend Matt Mitler in 1991. Early in their partnership, they realized that they had access to everything they needed to make films – talent, equipment, and time – so they decided to do just that, and started the “Movie of the Month Club.” As Prichard tells it,
“There were story lines that were just an outline, and the actors would improvise on them, and I would shoot it. We were spoofing genres. We did a French existentialist one [Les Enfants Miserables], we did the cautionary drug movie [Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die], we did a horror with Thrill Kill Video Club…we actually sold a few, got reviewed in Playboy magazine and it was a hell of a lot of fun.”
Mitler also recalls the fun of this period of on-the-fly guerilla filmmaking:
“We appropriated a style of long takes (one master if possible), and shot for the cut with absolutely no coverage. My wife made the food. We edited…at a production house where we knew an editor…We used the facilities after hours, for free. For the soundtrack, Robert pulled copyright infringement French R&B music from the 60’s. The final product was about an hour long, and cost $300” (Mitler 491).
In 1993, Surf Reality became a theater for live performance art, and maintained the aesthetic of rough, do-it-yourself creation, along with the attitude that art doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Over a decade, the theater hosted thousands of low-budget performances and was considered home to hundreds of performers.
Prichard sees a stark contrast between the New York City he moved to as a young man and the cleaned up version of it we see today. “New York in the 70’s and 80’s was a dangerous place,” he remembers, “and the culture that came out of New York in the 70’s and 80’s had an edge to it…today, it’s Disney, and ESPN Zone, and it’s very G.P.” Jack Smith saw a similar change occurring in New York in 1964. In preparation for the World’s Fair and a visit from the Pope, “New York authorities undertook a ‘clean up’ of the city whose affect on avant-garde milieus was the seizure of independent films, the interruption of shows and screening deemed immoral, the arrests of artists, and temporary closedown of alternative artistic and cultural spaces” (Suarez 204). The current “cleanup” that began under Mayor Giuliani may not use “morality” as the battle cry as they did in the 60’s – today the impetus for censorship is economic, but the result is the same: small venues like Surf Reality are disappearing from the Manhattan cultural landscape, leaving us with a wasteland of Starbucks, K-Mart and high-rises as the artists are, as they have always been, pushed to the edges – into the junk and debris from which they, like Jack Smith and Reverend Jen, will build their sets.
Velocity Chyalld and the Classic Femme Fatale
Halfway through Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, a pale blonde figure emerges from a white coffin after an earthquake. According to Juan Suarez, she “has often been referred to as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, yet since she engages in several acts of vampirism, she also connotes a whole lineage of voracious Hollywood femmes fatales” (Suarez 192). This scene, sans the coffin, could describe a performance by Velocity Chyalld. A NYC performance artist who employs the imagery of “the dark side of femininity”, Velocity is also the founder of BadAss Burlesque, a darker-than-your-average-fan-dance burlesque show, and front woman for the rock band Vulgaras.
Like Reverend Jen, Velocity also performed in one of Maria Beatty’s fetish films in the early 90’s. She also did it strictly for the financial reward, but is a bit less willing to talk about it today, dismissing it as “not my shtick.” However, Chyalld’s performances include darkly sexual, if not overtly fetishistic, images. She is known for masturbating on stage with a butcher knife, her performance ending with stage blood running down her legs, or smeared across her mouth where she has licked the knife clean. Many of these motifs are more reminiscent of horror movies than fetish or porn, but in fact she stitches together tableaux from all of these genres to create a visual performances that have clear cinematic influence.
One of the iconic cinematic symbols used most frequently by Velocity Chyalld is that of the 1940’s femme fatale. In fact, Chyalld cites this influence not just in her burlesque and performance art, but acknowledges its strong presence in the music videos of her band, Vulgaras. Speaking about the video for Heavy Handed Heart, the title track of the latest Vulgaras record, Velocity tells us it “celebrates the film noir genre. I play death, following a young woman who is feeling quite suicidal, and in the end, I take her.” Velocity’s portrayal of death in the video is shot in black and white with Chyalld dressed as a film noir femme fatale. She also admits being fascinated by certain film starlets of the era; particularly those she sees have having a “dark side.” One of her favorites is Marilyn Monroe, whom she sees as having
“a certain power that your average socially acceptable girl would be afraid to wield – the power of the forbidden. She offers that forbidden sexuality that was underneath what was acceptable at the time. It’s as if she sort of slipped through the cracks.”
Velocity has also seen the influence of cinema in the performances as other artists as well. “I’ve seen a variety of pieces from Mommy Dearest to Psycho… the extremes, you know,” she says, describing the types of cinematic imagery adopted by her contemporaries.
Through looking at the work of Reverend Jen, Robert Prichard, and Velocity Chyalld, we can see that cinema, as well as a multitude of other forms of media, continue to influence live performance today – it has become one of our common languages. Jack Smith, considered by some to be the father of underground cinema and NYC performance art, has clearly left a mark on the cultural landscape, even as artists continue to be pushed to the outer boroughs. But they will keep making art, and keep recycling the images they find in cinema because, as Jack Smith reminded us, “Everyone is filled with Hollywood” (Smith 112).
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