“Mondo Cinema 2011: Performance, Ritual, Transformation.” 7 p.m. Sunday, May 29. My Sister’s Room, 1271 Glenwood Avenue, 678-705-4585. $7, or included with a five-day Mondo Homo pass.
In his fourth year of programming the film component of Atlanta’s Mondo Homo festival (May 26-30), Andy Ditzler is really looking forward to Sunday’s screening.
“These have been some of the most highly attended things I’ve ever done,” he says. “You end up with pretty interesting reactions. It’s a really receptive audience — and not an uncritical audience, either. I treasure it.”
Now in its fifth year in Atlanta, the five-day festival, at various locations citywide, celebrates a cutting-edge idea of “queer” culture that goes beyond mainstream-Midtown notions of gay identity, embracing a very wide agenda of “otherness,” both sexual and political.
Sunday’s “Mondo Cinema 2011: Performance, Ritual, Transformation” is part of curator Ditzler’s ongoing series of “Film Love” events, which mine a wealth of underseen underground and experimental films from across the decades. In past years, his Mondo Homo screenings have focused on subjects including the 1970s San Francisco queer film scene, sexuality in the ’70s (also in the Bay Area) and transgender filmmaking. This year’s works are linked by — well, see what it says in the title.
“The general theme is on filmmaking and ritual and transforming the body in various ways, using film,” Ditzler explains. “Each of the works, in its own way, has a subtext of filmmaking or videomaking.”
So let’s take a rundown of the six works on the bill.
“Les Maîtres Fous/The Mad Masters” (directed by Jean Rouch, 1954, 30 minutes) — After documentary filmmaker Rouch screened his film about spiritual possession rituals in Ghana, then the British colony Gold Coast, members of Hauku, a religious and resistance movement, approached him about filming their own rituals of being possessed. In their case, the “spirits” entering them weren’t gods or demons, but archetypes of the British hierarchy: bureaucrats, soldiers, military wives.
In the film — which features the subjects withstanding extreme tests like pressing torches to their skin and dunking their hands into scalding pots of soup — the Hauku members sought to show that they were much stronger than their British overlords, whom they depict as clowns.
“They’re enacting a complete mockery of the British rituals, with their bureaucratic squabbles,” Ditzler says. “It’s not explicitly queer in terms of sexuality, but it fits with some of the radical ideas and politics you find around Mondo Homo.”
The film, which influenced stage director Peter Brook and playwright Jean Genet, is also notable for its kinetics. Instead of shooting from a fixed point, Rouch plunged into the action with his camera, turning it into a character in its own right. (Or should that be “rite”?)
“Chumlum” (Ron Rice, 1964, 23 minutes) — After days spent filming avant-garde director Jack Smith’s (“Flaming Creatures”) movie “Normal Love,” the cast would reconvene in full costume at director Rice’s loft for a mix of party and performance art, captured here on luminous color film stock, with memorable superimposed imagery (still above).
“It has this really psychedelicized aesthetic on top of this communal, theatrical ritual of bohemianism,” Ditzler observes. “It’s completely masterful.”
“I, An Actress” (George Kuchar, 1977, 8 minutes) — The prolific short-filmmaker Kuchar turns his camera on a female student from one of his classes, who wants to perform a monologue to use as an audition reel. Kuchar basically takes over, giving her line readings and showing her ways to act the piece.
“It’s completely over the top — campy, theatrical, sexualized,” Ditzler says. “It becomes all about him. It’s a great film about filmmaking, and how you can transform yourself into anything if you think of it as performance.”
“Jollies” (Sadie Benning, 1990, 11 minutes) — In the 1990s, still a teenager herself, Benning made a mark shooting confessional shorts about her life and the lives of other teen girls, using her Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera. “Jollies” touches on the emerging lesbian’s first sexual experiences, with both sexes.
“Has there ever been a more underrepresented group of people, in terms of making their own imagery or of being taken seriously onscreen?,” asks Ditzler. “I consider her a real pioneer in making portrayals of teenage life and coming into adult being.”
“The Inability to Be Looked At and the Horror of Nothing to See” (Zackary Drucker, 2009, 17 minutes) — A record of transgender performance artist Drucker’s interaction with a live audience, whom he asks to tweeze hair from his body as he lies on a table (top image). Partly a parody of New Age “guided visualizations,” the piece also touches on the doubts, insecurities and anxieties that can accompany transgender life.
“I can’t speak for transgender people, but it got across to me that this is more than just a physiological journey,” Ditzler says. “It’s much more than what you go through in your body. It’s very courageous work.”
“The Liberace Show: Tribute to Mothers” (Duke Goldstone, 30 minutes) — The evening ends with this mind-bending slice of 1955 dessert. The pinkest prince of all, pianist Liberace holds a very special place in the history of gay representation in the American mainstream.
Says Ditzler: “Liberace was one of the highest-paid entertainers in the country, and his television shows were near the top of the ratings. He never came out of the closet, and yet he was the queerest, gayest thing anybody had ever seen. How do both those things work together? It seems that as long as he didn’t say those words, he could do anything he wanted. Anything!
“So for him, the closet became not this oppressive place, but at this time a place of performance. As critic Dave Hickey said, he took the closet, made the walls transparent, made it American, democratized it and said, ‘This is an open secret.’ It doesn’t mean he wasn’t hypocritical about it, but he changed the world, I’m convinced — him and Allen Ginsberg in the 1950s.”