The Pioneer bills “Flesh and Bones” as a “provocative series exploring women and the body”—code words, as any liberal-arts grad knows, for a little bit of feminist-sanctioned t&a. Though not limited to such, the lineup does include some spicy experimental classics. In Yoko Ono’s infamous Fly (1970), extreme close-ups of a bug buzzing around a nude female body’s various hot spots are set to Ono’s Fluxoid kookaburra warblings. An abject counterpoint to Fly‘s soothing hippie contemplation, Jennifer Reeves and M.M. Serra’s lusciously grainy girl-girl-girl-girl s&m flog-fest, Darling International (1999), connects the dots between Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video. Both flesh and spirit are explored in Lynne Sachs’s Biography of Lilith (1997), which melds cabalistic mysticism with fictional vignettes from a contemporary everywoman’s daily grind.
Even the most inspired avant-gardists pale next to the imaginative eccentricities of skin-flick legend and reluctant feminist icon Doris Wishman, represented with Let Me Die a Woman (1978), her rarely screened exposé of the secret lives of New York City transsexuals. Wishman, who passed away last August at eightysomething years old, was the only woman to direct sexploitation films in their heyday of the ’60s and ’70s; she continued making work up to this year. By some accounts, her 30-odd titles make her history’s most prolific woman feature-filmmaker. (In terms of sheer footage, she’s bested by Alice Guy-Blaché’s 200-plus silent-era shorts.) Wishman’s only documentary, Let Me Die is a chimerical genre hodgepodge: butcher-block sex-change surgical footage, monocular educational-film interviews, women’s-picture melodrama, and softcore re-enactments of pre- and post-op sexual encounters. Though Let Me Die doesn’t shy from lurid shots of refashioned genitalia, its sideshow appeal is balanced by a melancholy compassion. The picture’s intended raincoat crowd must have been surprised by this Times Square sleazie that both turns stomachs and yanks heartstrings.
Another bittersweet medical tale unfolds in indie trailblazer Su Friedrich’s The Odds of Recovery. A subtly lensed first-person account of Friedrich’s own history of mysterious ailments and perennial surgeries, Odds includes sneaky DV footage of doctor’s appointments that coyly illustrate universal discomforts. (“What the fuck is this?” mutters Friedrich, an increasingly impatient patient, struggling with yet another confusingly designed paper gown.) What could have been a health-care screed becomes a middle-age meditation on mortality. “You frighten yourself with that fear of not being totally in control,” says her longtime companion. “What would happen to you if you gave that up?” One answer is Odds itself, which settles down into its own engagingly crafted, smoothly mellow rhythm.
While the Pioneer grooves on women and the body, MOMA’s survey of Finnish video art-star Eija-Liisa Ahtila takes on women and the mind. Frequently cited as a highlight of this year’s Documenta XI, Ahtila’s slick narratives prove deceptively consumable. Shot with the golden-hued production values of pay-cable drama, cut to TV-commercial clarity on rapid-patter dialogue, and peppered with big-beat traveling music, her Euro-suburban tales veer into pop surrealism. The stories are based on interviews with actual people; like episodes of Buffy directed by Magritte, they explode into enigmatic moments of hocus-pocus, blurring interior and exterior reality. In Consolation Service (1999), a woman watches her husband break into thousands of whirring particles as their marriage dissolves into divorce. Another woman reports hearing ghostly paddleboats in Love Is a Treasure (2002); moments later, she flies, Crouching Tiger style, through a grove of trees. Like Wishman’s third-sexers, Ahtila, too, spins curious dreams of another world.