“Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema” is a column published on Thursdays covering truly independent cinema: the stuff that’s so far under the public radar it may as well be underground. The folks making these films may be starving artists today, but they may be recognized as geniuses tomorrow. We hope to look like geniuses ourselves by being the first to cover them.
During the 2007 San Francisco Frameline Film Festival, filmmaker Catherine Crouch’s short The Gendercator was accepted, then removed from the festival due to a protest, consisting of 130 signatures which claimed that the film was transphobic. 6 of the 130 protesters had actually seen the film. This was the first time in the festival’s history that a film had been accepted and then withdrawn.
Judgment is best reserved until after seeing the film,and after doing so, it is blatantly apparent that this was a case of paranoid and shamefully militant censorship, no different than McCarthy era blackballing. The liberal arts community rightfully protested (albeit meekly) when the Bush administration had the replica of “Guernica” covered at the U.N., yet the San Francisco Frameline Film Festival has shown it is fully capable of resorting to the same level of despicable tactics. Worse, it’s claims to do so, in light of “sensitivity”, is made even more ironic since an overwhelming and elegiac “sensitivity” flows through every single one of Crouch’s films, Gendercator included.
The Gendercator is a charming Rip Van Winkle inspired fantasy short about a lesbian who falls asleep under a tree in the 1970’s’, only to re-awake in the year 2048. In this future, stern binary laws are militantly enforced and the heroine is scheduled for a date with the Gendercator, which will transform her into fully fledged Ken type male or Barbie female. The heroine likes just who she is and attempts to flee the reassignment process. As in all of Crouch’s film’s, there is a natural acceptance of who these characters are and the choices they make.
Crouch works mostly in 8 mm or 16 mm film. In the beautifully titled Vanilla Lament, she plays with the medium by physically scratching into the film emulsion to visually convey the character’s feelings, thoughts, and desires. There is a whimsical simplicity in the film, almost Chaplinesque. Indeed, it recalls Chaplin’s statement that all he needed to make a film was “A park, a policeman and pretty girl”. Crouch replaces Chaplin’s policeman with two Barbie dolls, keeps the park, and gives us three pretty girls (herself included).
If 1997’s Vanilla Lament was a post modern throwback to the simplicity of silent film shorts and the 70’s, then 2009’s Buttery Top, co-directed by Kelly Hayes, strips it down a further layer. Buttery Top is almost hyper brief, but fills the viewer in a way that the best morsels should. It is Crouch and Hayes’ first dinner date and Crouch brings a loaf of bread, but is it the “correct” bread? Most of the film’s 4 minute running time takes place at Hayes’ front door step, but the viewer is treated to that symbolic park again at the conclusion. Buttery Top, like Vanilla Lament, has a hopelessly infectious charm.
Approaching One Small Step after the previous two is something akin to experiencing the emotional complexities of Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small hours of the Morning” after having a romping good time with “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers.” It’s not that Morning or One Small Step do not contain moments of simplistic beauty; quite the contrary. However, both are examples of works in which simplicity goes hand in hand with richer, more probing psychological questions/truths.
Most people, if honest with themselves, have known a child who has shown a same sex preference at quite an early age. This does indeed require a degree of dispensing of pre-conceived notions since it gives lie to the fundamental theory that homosexuality is a choice and only a choice.
One Small Step wisely does not engage in provocative polemics over theories, but instead explores the emotional journey of a young girl who questions why her feelings for another girl are considered “wrong.” Crouch utilizes the occasion of Neal Armstrong’s famous walk on the moon and his pronouncement of “One small step for mankind” as a symbolic destination point for the young girl’s all too honest hopes and dreams.
Pretty Ladies is Crouch at her most experimental and buoyantly surreal. Four women looking for love are guided by a Kenneth Anger type priestess (Crouch). Pretty Ladies, filmed in dream-like 8 mm black and white, calls to mind eclectic elements from sources as diverse as Bunuel, Lang’s Metropolis, Chaplin’s Modern Times, “Pilgrim’s Progress” and the previously mentioned Kenneth Anger, yet all this is filtered through Crouch’s uniquely crafted fable.
It’s easy to compare Crouch’s small, but uniquely personal body of work over the last 12 years to artistically satisfying golden periods such as Chaplin’s Mutual shorts or Sinatra’s Capitol years because the more one becomes accustomed to this artist’s work, the more it becomes both equally satisfying and a precious personality to get to know better.
More can be learned about the artist at catherinecrouch.com.