Mystery, Tragedy, and Comedy: Three Takes On Celebrity

Celebrity has a strange position in contemporary culture. The cliche is that celebrities are our versions of the gods, complete with their own mythologies. But that’s superficial. We look down upon the stars as much as we look up at them. Their stories are as much about loneliness and fear as they are power and grace. For every Tiger Beat, there’s a Sunset Blvd. If the stories of immortal beings in mythology reflect our mortal existence, celebrity is the point where immortality and mortality meet.

Non-narrative filmmakers are often as fascinated by movie stars as the autograph collectors waiting outside Jerry Lewis’s studio in The King of Comedy. But instead of waiting for hours for a scribble on a piece of paper, they honor (or degrade) their idols in more creative ways. For the second entry in my introduction to non-narrative film, I’ll be looking at three films by three filmmakers who turned a fascination in celebrity into great works of art in three entirely different ways.

The first is Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, which is the classic example of the relationship between non-narrative and narrative film. Cornell worked in collage film, and his career is one of the hidden gems of non-narrative cinema. Cornell may be one of the most influential filmmakers ever, but his name and work are obscure even in comparison with those of underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Ken Jacobs (who would later work for Cornell and on whom his influence can most clearly be seen). Rose Hobart is his masterpiece. Reportedly, during its 1936 premiere, Salvador Dali was so jealous of the genius of the film that he kicked over the projector, which should give you some idea just how ahead of its time it was.

Rose Hobart is edited from a mostly forgotten 1931 talkie called East of Borneo, and takes its title from the lead actress in the film. Cornell pared down the original film from 70 minutes to 20 by removing all the action scenes and any footage that didn’t revolve around Hobart. He projected this chopped and shortened film through blue glass at silent speed, removed all the dialogue and replaced it with repeating samba recordings.

The result is jarring. Cornell turns a run-of-the-mill adventure melodrama into something mysterious and dangerous. The technique may be apparent right away, but the effect it has on Hobart takes a while to make itself clear. Through the churning rhythm of the film, we see Hobart encased in blue amber. Her body is rarely shown completing a movement and her mouth seems to move wordlessly, and the effect is that of some strange suspended animation. She is preserved in time.

Cornell would later make similar films focused on other actresses, including Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall, but what makes Rose Hobart so singular is that it’s about Rose Hobart. Hobart made 48 appearances on film and TV between 1930 and 1968, perhaps most famously as Muriel Carew in 1931’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. She survived being blacklisted for standing up for other actors. She’s not a well-known actress. She’s not what you’d call a celebrity. But by making this movie, creating a mysterious, beautiful film just from 20 minutes of footage of her, Cornell turned her into a celebrity. Her name survives as the title as one of the most important non-narrative films of the 20th century.

Cornell’s editing is a form of characterization. Approximately 7 minutes into Rose Hobart, there’s footage from a scene in which Hobart’s character talks with the villain of East of Borneo. Each time the camera cuts to the villain, Cornell cuts back to Hobart after less than a second. He shows the audience to  that there is someone in the room with her, but reminds us that Hobart is the interest here. She’s the subject. The only things that are allowed screen time without Hobart are natural: an erupting volcano, the moon, a tiger stalking through the jungle, alligators being forced by natives back into a river, and an eclipse. Hobart joins them, in Cornell’s mind, as a force of nature.

13 years after Dali interrupted the premiere of Rose Hobart, a 22-year-old filmmaker who claimed to be a former child actor would attempt a different kind of hagiography. Originally planned as a film about silent movie actresses called Puce Women, Puce Moment is 6 minutes of technicolor kitsch introduced as “A Film By Anger.” Anger, of course, is Kenneth Anger, perhaps the most famous and controversial character of non-narrative film, who would go on to be the infamous author of Hollywood Babylon, a masterpiece of filth that presents the tabloid as the truth. Only two years after making his debut with Fireworks, which I’m sure I’ll discuss at some point, Anger turned his lens away from the black-and-white homosexual sailors and onto Yvonne Marquis, who would later become the mistress of the former president of Mexico, as a silent film starlet.

The film opens with opulent gowns shaking in front of the camera. Each one is presented to the audience, and then tossed to the side in a dance of the seven veils, until the final veil is held to the camera, a black lace dress, through which we can see hints of a face. For the first shot of the film, the focus is on the external, superficial details. The human behind these dresses doesn’t matter in these opening moments; what matters is the dresses, and as each one is thrown away, it is forgotten entirely. They only exist for the brief moments they are in front of the camera.

Puce Moment

Behind the last veil we finally see the starlet who owns all these dresses. She rubs the last dress over her naked body, but the look on her face isn’t sexual: it’s overjoyed. She’s simply happy in that moment, surrounded by perfume bottles and jewelry. The setting evokes the silent era, and her acting matches. Her bosom heaves, her eyes roll and flutter, and she expresses herself purely physically. The film is silent except for two folk songs with which Anger replaced an opera by Verdi in the 60s. After she is dressed, the starlet is shown standing outside her mansion in the Hollywood hills, holding three greyhounds on a leash. Gone is the ecstasy we saw in her dressing room, replaced with a vampy coldness that would fit Irma Vep more than Lillian Gish.

Puce Moment is a relatively obscure Anger film, and one that doesn’t fit comfortably alongside the rest of his filmography. If it has an analog in his work, it’s the aforementioned Hollywood Babylon. Puce Moment could be cut from Hollywood Babylon: the silent-era star, forgotten too soon, locked in her Hollywood house, trying on her gowns only to take her dogs for a walk on the grounds. The songs picked for the soundtrack are by Jonathan Halper. The first, “Leaving My Life Behind,” is played over the dressing room scene and has an Eastern, transcendental feel to it. The second, “I’m a Hermit,” is played over the footage of Marquis and her dogs and features a refrain of “I’m the hermit, my mind is not the same.” Rose Hobart preserves celebrity; Puce Moment presents it as something fleeting, something that is easily thrown away.

If Rose Hobart shows the ecstasy of celebrity and Puce Moment presents the sadness of its decline, George Kuchar’s I, An Actress explores the strange, interstitial identity of an actor striving for celebrity. George and his brother Mike worked for decades in their own strange, campy corner of the cinematic world. Starting before they even entered their teens, the Kuchar brothers presented campy little masterpiece after campy little masterpiece, complete with titles like Hold Me While I’m Naked and The Sins of the Fleshapoids, right up until George’s death in 2011. The IMDb director filmography for George lists 217 titles, but that’s probably just a fraction of the actual works he made on film and video between the early 50s and his death.

In addition to being prolific filmmaker, George Kuchar was a legendary teacher. His classes had a reputation for being as chaotic as the films that made it to the screen. When I had the pleasure of seeing a selection of his video works in February, Abina Manning of the Video Data Bank recounted the last time she visited him in the hospital only to be greeted by an ailing Kuchar directing a movie with his students from his bed. He insisted that his classes collaborate on creating a film. With 10 minutes left in a class one day in 1977, Kuchar had his class help one of his students, Barbara Lapsley, to create a screen test. The result is I, An Actress, one of the funniest and most inventive movies of the 70s and one of the least effective screen tests of all time (and Lapsley’s only onscreen credit).

Lapsley begins the film alone on camera, lit from the front against a wall with the words “Keep It Fonky” scribbled to her left. She delivers the first lines of a melodramatic monologue to a dummy wearing a cheap wig. We hear Kuchar yelling direction to her. As her monologue continues, Kuchar becomes more involved. He jumps into the scene and directs her, performing the monologue himself. He runs his hands over his chest as if he were fondling his own breasts. He presses his body against the wall and performs with all the intensity and drama of Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind. Lapsley can’t help but laugh at him. Lapsley and Kuchar’s gigantic shadows on the wall match their outsized emotions.

Lines are repeated over and over, by both Lapsley and Kuchar. To give you an idea of the tone of this monologue, the two lines repeated most are “When I cheat, it’s not for sex,” and “I’m on my knees, Harold. Do you like see a woman on her knees, or is it only on their backs?” An odd phenomenon occurs as the movie goes on: Kuchar becomes both director and actress. The “I” of the title isn’t Lapsley; it’s Kuchar. While I, An Actress may be a tossed off afterthought of a film that took 10 minutes to make, it shows how natural the genius of George Kuchar was. In those 10 minutes, Kuchar blurs not only the line between the actor in front of the camera and the director behind it, but the line between male and female. In 1977, performing this way was a major statement.

I, An Actress also presents us with its own take celebrity. To Lapsley, celebrity is something she’s working for. She wants to be an actress; she wants to be a star. To Kuchar, though, celebrity is something playful. He spent most of his career making tributes to the cheap and tawdry side of Hollywood idolatry, and I, An Actress fits into his career just as well as Hold Me While I’m Naked. Kuchar is comfortable in his relative obscurity. As long as he can play Douglas Sirk and Lana Turner at once, he’s content. Celebrity was never a dream for Kuchar, but a reality that he made for himself.

It’s interesting that the three movies I chose to look at for a post about celebrity only contain one actress that could really be considered a celebrity at any point, Rose Hobart, and even she is obscure today. Yvonne Marquis and Barbara Lapsley never appeared in another movie after their respective starring roles, and Kuchar is hardly well-known outside critics and cinephiles. It’s just the result of a three films I happened to pick this week, of course, but it also says something about the way non-narrative filmmakers analyze the idea of fame. From their vantage point, they have a different view. Cornell may never have had to interact with a star personally in his entire career, and from obscurity, he can see the glamor and mystery of fame in a way his narrative counterparts never could.