Friday, August 19, 2016

Curt McDowell at Anthology

In Confessions (1971), Curt McDowell asks a friend what's wrong and what's right about him. What's wrong about him, the friend confesses, is whether or not he's aware of other people's rhythms. I had this assessment knocking about my head while watching some of McDowell's films, preserved by Academy Film Archive, at Anthology this week, particularly longer ones like Taboo (The Single and The LP) (1981, 53 min.) and Peed into the Wind (1972, 54 min.). They're taxing, difficult films. McDowell's sister Melinda, on hand for the screenings, even thanked us for sitting through Taboo. I find McDowell much more effective (or do I mean "palatable"?) in the 15-25 minute range and I confess that the obscure Peed into the Wind has already faded from memory (apart from McDowell as possibly latent heterosexual rock star Mick Terrific singing to us from some sort of soft-focus TV screen within the frame and George Kuchar making faces to mirror?).

But much of the avant-garde cinema experience is a question of orienting oneself to different rhythms. And after all, the friend in Confessions says what's right about McDowell is just about everything else. So once I reoriented myself to his intensity, just about everything else in the program was oh so right including Taboo, a film which deserves that hoary old avant-garde descriptor "surreal" (I heard it applied recently to The Hart of London...nope!).

In several public bathrooms, McDowell had come across some odd graffiti which pointed to a family melodrama ripe for McDowellfication, hence Taboo. The graffiti ("Abner slapped hard like blue magic") repeats like an idée fixe throughout the film, especially recited by a beautiful trick named Fahed Martin. So do shots of the trick, sitting shirtless or, most disturbingly, tied up in a shower. Interspersed between all of this are what one can assume are attempts to dramatize the Abner family conflict and it all unfolds if not like a dream than an itchy self-examination.

Still, best in show was Boggy Depot (1973, 17 min.), easily the best American musical of the 1970s. Seriously. I'm not sure how a set of songs about hypnotizing George Kuchar could be anything less than scintillating. There's even an incredible cross-cut ensemble number that beats West Side Story's "Tonight." I adored every nanosecond.

For more, check out Whit Strub here and Michael Guillen here

Here's Melinda McDowell introducing the screenings.

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