“My own interest is in the outer edge of narrative, where we are at the beginning of something else,” the filmmaker and artist Leslie Thornton said in an interview published in 1992, roughly two decades into a career that continues today to defy borders and boundaries. “Experimental” is often the modifier affixed to “filmmaker” when discussing Thornton’s work — an adjective that seems too puny and generic for a practice that has incorporated, deconstructed, and refashioned cinema verité, ethnography, science fiction, and Hollywood exotica, to name just a few of the moving-image genera she interrogates. Thornton has long been a mainstay of the New York Film Festival satellite program once called “Views from the Avant-Garde” (renamed “Projections” in 2014) and a Whitney Biennial regular (she’s one of the featured filmmakers in this year’s edition). BAMcinématek’s wide-ranging Thornton retrospective, which began on Monday, offers the rare opportunity of tracing her astounding oeuvre over the course of several weeks.
Mesmerizingly estranging, Thornton’s work, like most that falls under the rubric of experimental or non-narrative, both invites interpretation and withstands it; furiously scribbling notes while previewing her films, videos, and installation pieces, I often ran up against the limits of my own ability to describe, to make meaning of what I was seeing. Although rigorous and dense with signifiers, Thornton’s films aren’t cold, closed systems; they’re often ludic and open-ended. In a 1999 interview, she offered a loose recommendation to her viewers: “There’s nothing there not-to-get…. Take what you can and never feel it’s fixed or you’re outside of it or don’t know enough or that there’s a secret.” Her generous guidelines recall what Gertrude Stein said to an obtuse interlocutor as he grilled the writer on the assumed impenetrability of her 1934 opera, Four Saints in Three Acts: “If you enjoy it, you understand it.”
There’s much in BAM’s Thornton tribute to delight in. Sometimes the thrill emerges from witnessing the radical upending of conventions. While in graduate school in the mid-Seventies at MIT, where she studied with direct-cinema godheads Ed Pincus and Richard Leacock, Thornton made All Right You Guys (1976), an oblique 16-minute portrait of two women: her sister Eleanor and a close friend, Liz. As reconceptualized cinema verité, All Right You Guys — the title a repurposing of something Eleanor says after she’s performed a tap routine — forgoes the usual conceits of that documentary tradition. There’s no pretense that the director or her camera are invisible; Thornton also heavily foregrounds the editing, inserting black leader between several segments and cutting to pleasingly disjunctive extreme close-ups, often of mouths. For this apostasy, Pincus reportedly referred to his former pupil as “a primitive.”
Later portraits, like two requiems made about her friend Ron Vawter, the actor best known for his long involvement with the Wooster Group, as his body was being ravaged by AIDS, combine the corporeal and the transcendent. The first offscreen voice we hear in Strange Space (1993) is that of an Eastern European–accented medical professional, reading aloud the findings yielded by a sonogram and issuing gentle commands: “OK, push your stomach out, Mr. Vawter, and release.” During this clinical recitation, a grid appears over a lunar landscape; within the frame a smaller box, showing Vawter in profile, appears. He reads a few stanzas from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, delivering the line “True, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer” with the melancholy fortitude of a man already in mourning for himself. The actor affixes a handlebar mustache and appears in nineteenth-century attire — costuming that reappears in The Last Time I Saw Ron (1994, the year Vawter died). In this work, it is Thornton’s voice we hear, recalling a visit to her treasured pal in Brussels, where he was performing the title role in Philoktetes-Variations, his final performance — what the filmmaker calls, bluntly but not unkindly, “the rehearsal of his death.” Interspersed throughout Thornton’s stoic grieving are spellbinding sequences of Vawter, naked and spindly-limbed, floating through space, adrift in the bardo.
The pint-size “stars” of Peggy and Fred in Hell: Beginning Middle End (2004) are also unmoored, more sinisterly so, seemingly the only survivors of an apocalypse that has left little else but the detritus of technology in its wake. The work is just one incarnation of Thornton’s ongoing Peggy and Fred in Hell cycle, begun in the early Eighties and continuously updated and reedited (though BAMcinématek’s description of 2016’s Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding, which screened at the rep theater last week as part of the recently concluded “Migrating Forms” festival, lists it as “final iteration of the series”). The project’s protagonists, real-life siblings Janis and Donald Reading, who lived above Thornton in an apartment building in San Francisco, transfix with their unselfconsciousness in front of the camera, their words and actions completely unpredictable. They are, after all, children, who, in Thornton’s imagining of her central characters, were “raised by television.” Peggy sings half-remembered lyrics to “Billie Jean”; Fred, crunching on dry cereal, seems to be making up his own folk ballads. At one point in this dense collage of sight (ghastly footage of vocal cords opening and closing; an archival interview with Amelia Earhart) and sound (the military phonetic alphabet is enunciated), the kids are seen tidying up and organizing a cable-cluttered space that could be a wrecked family den or a bomb shelter — a macabre room that is the makeshift recording studio of these ingeniously prolix kids. In a 1989 essay about Peggy and Fred in Hell, Thornton writes, “Children are not quite us and not quite other. They are our others. They are becoming us. Or they are becoming other.” Or, to return to Thornton’s words from 1992: They are at the beginning of something else.
Through May 8
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