Life in Film: Jennifer West

The artist discusses the movies that have influenced her and her memories of where she saw them

I saw Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire (1973) – a weird and deep film with a dark view of artificial intelligence – at the New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles, a few weeks back. We didn’t eat dinner before the screening and were surprised when we discovered that we were about to see a four-hour film with only a single intermission. The cinema’s seats are wooden and uncomfortable and the place was filled with film nerds. I ate popcorn for dinner, trying not to fall asleep and, at one point, contemp­lated leaving and watching the rest later online, but somehow I made it through. The cinematography is stunning, using mirrors and framing devices. The editing is strange, stilted, self-aware. I kept thinking about it for days afterwards, streaming it, making gifs and sharing scenes, connecting it to everything.

In my early 20s, I owned a bootlegged VHS copy of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983), which I watched and rewatched obsessively. Recalling this experience prompted me to think about the ‘remembered movie’, and I decided to re-remember other films that were just as powerful to me as Marker’s, trying to recall what I saw back then compared to how I see them now. I began compiling a list of significant movie memories – from the very earliest to the most recent. From some, I recalled only a single image or the title; of others, I remembered the plot – sometimes incorrectly. Others still provoked specific memories of where I saw the film and with whom.

This list grew to 300 or so movies. I began rewatching them, making screengrabs with captions – sometimes up to 500 stills per film. As I watched them, I posted stills and clips on Instagram, waxing philosophical about scenes, characters, cinematography, editing or the director – as a cultural reflection on everything from sexuality to politics – and how and where I first saw the films, whether it was renting a VHS tape, at a midnight movie screening as a teenager, on a laptop or at the local art-house theatre. People followed along, rewatching the movies or getting turned onto them for the first time. I thought about these shared memories: how they get pared down to clips, torrents, stills, then shared again and recontextualized into something else.

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Poster for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975. Courtesy: Heritage Auctions, Dallas

Poster for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975. Courtesy: Heritage Auctions, Dallas

I saw the movie Village of the Giants (1965) on television as a child. Over the years, I often thought about this film, but I couldn’t remember the title. I recalled something of the plot: some teenagers ingest a ‘green goo’, grow into giants and rule over a small Californian town. A particular scene stuck out: the giant teenagers forcing the townspeople to bring them bucket after bucket of fried chicken.

Now a cult B-movie, I watched it for the first time since childhood via a file-sharing download, projec­ted onto the wall at a friend’s apartment in Troy, New York. It was profoundly enjoyable: half of the movie features the teens dancing and gyrating to mid-tempo 1960s pop; it even starts out with playful wrestling  in the mud and rain – pure sexploitation. The camera focuses on breasts, bellies and hips in lingering dance scenes straight out of the titillating beach party film genre. In one scene, the giants visit the town square and begin dancing. A woman bends over the audience of tiny townspeople and a young man grabs her top, hanging on while she continues to swing him around: sexual desire, scale and cinema in perfect alignment. 

What struck me the most was how this film carries the perfect metaphor for relating to the ‘giant’, larger-than-life projected movie image. In the film, the giant teens live on a theatre stage in a town near where their car breaks down. The movie is optically printed, superimposing the giants inside the stage at screen-projection size. This doubles as a metaphor for the transition from live theatre and vaudeville (which was originally performed at many of the old movie theatres) to projected images.

The same theme is played out in early films such as the silent Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) by Edwin S. Porter, in which the main character screams and rips down the movie screen. Later, in the home video era, the screen is shattered during the opening credits of Friday the 13th (1980). The experience of watching movies is broken down philosophically in the films themselves. Village of the Giants director, Bert I. Gordon, made a number of other size-themed movies, including The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and War of the Colossal Beast (1958). This obsession with scale during the 1950s could perhaps be seen as a way of relating to the movie projection image. It reminds me of something that Gilles Deleuze wrote about how we relate differently to seeing actors on television at home, which we think of as a more intimate experience, than we do to the giant scale of the movie screen, where an actor’s face can be six metres tall.

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The Harder They Come, 1972. Courtesy: Alamy

The Harder They Come, 1972. Courtesy: Alamy

I started going to midnight movie showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) when I was about 13 or 14. My friends and I would go to screenings at the Ogden Theatre in Denver, Colorado. This was an event, like going to a music show. Dressing up and waiting in line was part of it – glam and gender bending, ripped fishnet stockings and make-up. People were partying, getting in the mood to sing-along, to perform to the images and songs. The ‘shadow cast’ wore full costume, like the characters in the movie, and ruled the scene. They were older and intimidating. We sat far enough away from the live performers to not get noticed singing along in our seats to the ‘Time Warp’. I had no idea at the time that I was watching a self-aware satire of sci-fi and B-movie history – I was just in it for the event, the subculture. What started as a theatrical musical production became a movie, and then a template for the ultimate DIY interactive cinema experience. Often shown in old historical theatres (the Ogden, where I went, was built in 1919 and hosted vaudeville acts including Harry Houdini), The Rocky Horror Picture Show spread across the country, each city producing its own ‘live’ performance.

The midnight movie was a way to collectively make cinema an event: loose and raucous, appropriated and redefined by each generation. These films form a rich history of camp, horror, experimental, music and B-movies – from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) through Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (The Mole, 1970) to Kenneth Anger’s films. I continued to go to midnight screenings when I moved to Seattle in my teens. There, I saw Harold and Maude (1971) countless times, as well as The Harder They Come (1972), my introduction to images of Jamaica and reggae music, the haunting coming-of-age horror masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which I must have seen 20 times in the cinema, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Later, I saw Café Flesh (1982) – an X-rated movie referred to as a ‘post-apocalyptic cult pornographic science fiction film’ – and, of course, the classic Liquid Sky (1982), set in the New York punk subculture, which features aliens in search of the opiate released during orgasm. It has the best synth soundtrack.

It is not so much that films have been direct influences on my practice, but rather that my experiences of seeing them have developed me as an artist. While there is so much more I could say, this text is a homage not only to these films but to the spaces and places of my movie memories.

Main image: Poster for Village of the Giants, 1965. Courtesy: Embassy Pictures

 

 

Jennifer West is an artist based in Los Angeles, USA. In 2017, she has had solo shows at Yuz Museum, Shanghai, China; Seattle Art Museum, USA; and MAN Museum, Nouro, Italy. Her work was recently included in the exhibition ‘Dreamlands’ (2016–17) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA.

Issue 188

First published in Issue 188

June – August 2017

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