PRINT February 1982

Vulgar Modernism

IN ITS TIRELESS ATTEMPT to mean everything to everyone and empirical willingness to try anything once, the American culture industry intermittently generates its own precursors, parallels, and analogues to local or European avant-gardism. I am not thinking so much of Pablo Picasso’s interest in The Katzenjammer Kids, Francis Picabia’s affinity with Rube Goldberg, Antonin Artaud’s praise of the Marx Brothers, Samuel Beckett’s fondness for Laurel and Hardy, André Breton’s championing of Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (Paramount, 1935) as a Surrealist work on a par with Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or, the inexhaustible treasure trove of jazz, or the Learning from Las Vegas school of architecture, so much as of Spike Jones’ primitive brand of musique concret and disco’s version of drone-seriality, the Channel 11 Yule Log’s anticipation of Jan Dibbets’ TV as Fireplace, 1969, and the way that media coverage of the Kennedy assassination—from its historic instant replay of Lee Harvey Oswald’s death to its later, microscopic analysis of the Zapruder footage—inexorably points toward Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son and the films of Ernie Gehr.

Cinema is rife with examples of such para-art. Recent scholarship has linked the pre-Griffith film language of 1905 to the “structural films” of the 1970s, while any historian knows that the montage jokes in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior (Metro, 1924) predate those in Sergei Eisenstein’s October (Sovkino, 1928). Still, analogies have yet to be produced for the abstract dance numbers of Busby Berkeley, the wipe transitions of Lynn Dunn, or even the Olson and Johnson comedy, Hellzapoppin’ (Universal, 1940).

The latter, which in an alternate universe might have been scripted by Victor Shklovsky under the influence of mescaline, anticipates something of the world view (if not the actual films) of George Landow and Morgan Fisher, two structuralists who have a sense of humor. The movie opens in a projection booth out of which beams a film set in Hell—subsequently revealed as a studio back lot when the principals quit the production to stage their own “live” show. This piece of theater (within-the-film-within-the-film-within-the-film, all named Hellzapoppin’) is continually disrupted by antics that intersect all five layers of the reality sandwich: characters manage to throw the film in reverse, enter stills from later sequences, rescue each other when the frame goes out of alignment; there is confusion in the projection booth and simulated agitation in the actual auditorium (mock shadows thrown on the screen, etc.).1

But besides these random examples there is a particular sensibility that is the vulgar equivalent of modernism itself.2 By this I mean a popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making. Conscious of its position in the history of (mass) culture, the sensibility to which I refer developed between 1940 and 1960 in such peripheral corners of the “culture industry” as animated cartoons, comic books, early morning TV, and certain Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedies.

The Manet of vulgar modernism is the animation director Tex Avery (1908-80), who was instrumental in creating the distinctive Warner Brothers cartoon style of the 1940s. Avery invented Daffy Duck, perfected the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd symbiosis, heightened the tempo of the Warners product, boosted its sex-violence-noise quotient, and generally spearheaded the studio’s wise-guy subversion of the sentimental naturalism that then passed for the state of the art. Opposing Disney-style character-identification, Avery anticipated the distancing formalism of Hellzapoppin’, as well as some of its gags. A year after he joined Warners in 1936, he supervised Daffy Duck and Egghead, in which Egghead “shoots” a member of the audience whose shadow promptly keels over across the screen. Thugs with Dirty Mugs (Warner Bros., 1939) elaborates the motif. At the cartoon’s climax, a silhouetted theater patron rises from his seat to finger the villain: “I know he did it—I sat through this picture twice!”

Deploying direct address and the Brechtian device of interpolated placards, Avery’s cartoons were designed to comment on the screen action as it unfolds; Who Killed Who (MGM, 1943) blatantly announces its “victim” well before his demise by affixing a label (reading “victim”) to the back of his chair. Avery’s characters were as prone to violate the conventions of the iris-out or split screen as to intervene in the film credits or shoot holes through the “painted sets” behind them. In calling attention to his films as artifice, Avery used a strategy of exaggerated cartoon-ness. The Heckling Hare (Warner Bros., 1941) hyperbolizes the medium’s relative freedom from physical constraint by extending a cliché free-fall into a minute-long descent that ends with his characters braking to a halt. The same year’s Porky’s Preview (Warner Bros.) features an audaciously primitive (if not totally infantile) cartoon-within-the-cartoon: crudely drawn or crossed-out stick figures parade against a blank background while being rained on by scribble-scrabble clouds. The Magical Maestro (MGM, 1952) foregrounds the filmic apparatus in an even more literal sense: a hair appears to flutter in the projector gate for several minutes and is ultimately removed by one of the cartoon’s characters.

Avery’s work demands to be seen in opposition to that of Disney. The Peachy Cobbler (MGM, 1950) parodies the latter’s cozy fairytale cottages and cutely bathetic wildlife, while the eponymous antihero of his Screwball Squirrel (MGM, 1944) begins his career by mugging the cartoon’s erstwhile narrator—an eye-batting Bambi-oid who coyly announces that “this cartoon is about me and all my friends in the forest: Charlie Chipmunk, Wallace Woodchuck, Barney Bear. . . . ” In due course, the squirrel’s irrepressible will-to-power leads him to wrest control of the cartoon’s time-space continuum. Establishing himself as the film’s prime mover, he manufactures a double, reads the future by lifting the corner of the screen to peek ahead, and—when an opponent is trapped in a barrel and sent rolling down a hill—is shown, through a tracking shot to a wider angle, to be scoring the raucous sound effects accompanying the action on a variety of whistles, cymbals, and drums. Although clearly Avery’s supreme creation, this shrill, megalomaniacal rodent would obviously never emblazon a child’s cocoa-mug, and, after five appearances, Avery had him killed off—affectionately crushed to death by the big dumb bear who gives his name to Lonesome Lenny (MGM, 1946), a take-off on Of Mice and Men. Typically, Screwy’s last, indeed posthumous, act is to brandish pathetically a sign reading “Sad ending, isn’t it?”

While Avery’s formalism influenced the whole Warner Brothers unit—the most celebrated example being Chuck Jones’ 1953 encyclopedia of distanciation jokes, Duck Amok—his most important disciple was Frank Tashlin (1913–72), an animator whose apprenticeship in 20th-century sight gags was as full and varied as Kasimir Malevich’s course in Post-Impressionism. Breaking into show business as Max Fleischer’s office boy, Tashlin worked for several other New York animation studios before migrating west to Warners in 1933. For the next dozen years, he bounced back and forth among Warners, Disney, and Columbia Screen Gems, as an animator, script writer, director, and producer. In between and on the side, he drew a syndicated comic strip, concocted bits of business for Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedies, wrote and illustrated several children’s books, and provided material for Harpo Marx. Given this background, it’s not surprising that the Tashlin oeuvre should be an elaborately cross-referenced Bartlett’s of mass-culture quotations. However, this systemic approach was his from the onset. Tashlin’s earliest animations included parodies of well-known films by John Ford and Lewis Milestone, as well as a newsstand extravaganza which anthropomorphized various popular magazines.

By the late 1940s, Tashlin was bored with cartoons and was concentrating mainly on radio and movie scripts. In 1950, he directed the first of his 23 features. (Surprisingly, only one other American animator ever made the leap to live direction: Gregory LaCava, best known for his screwball comedies of the 1930s, began his career as an editorial cartoonist and later headed up William Randolph Hearst’s short-lived animation studio.) While Tashlin’s cartoons had experimented with movie techniques, his features were steeped in Looneytunes hyperbole and packaged with bizarre framing devices: The First Time (Columbia, 1951) is narrated by a year-old baby, Susan Slept Here (RKO, 1954) by an Oscar statuette. Implacably antinatural, Tashlin’s films are filled with visual distortions and iconic characters playing themselves. An actual and metaphorical flatness heightens the sense of artifice. The protagonist of The Girl Can’t Help It (20th Century-Fox, 1956) is made to hallucinate singer Julie London in triplicate every time he hears one of her records on a jukebox; he and the film’s heroine are named Tom and Jerri, after the famous cartoon cat-and-mouse combo of the 1940s. With his “advertising slogans in the form of lettrist poems,”3 Tashlin is the original pop pop artist. His is a landscape of raucous chrome jukeboxes, vast supermarkets, newfangled credit cards, and hot pink Cadillacs, all depicted with the fetishized surface sheen—at once seductive and repellent—of a Tom Wesselmann still life. This cool visual stridence is more than matched by the elaborate, often cruel, mechanisms of his gags and the grotesque two-dimensionality of his protagonists.

Son of Paleface (Paramount, 1952) isn’t one of Tashlin’s masterpieces—he needed flesh and blood caricatures like Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield and the supreme garishness of mid-’50s consumer culture for those—but it has a Warners cartoon’s gaudy primary colors, stylized costumes, and breakneck callousness. The laws of physics are flouted with impunity; at one point, Bob Hope drives a car across an abyss. In general, Hope absorbs a tremendous amount of pain-free physical punishment, while costar Roy Rogers is hilariously played for a stiff, mainly because he is “Roy Rogers.” If humans are locked into their trademarks, animals are blatantly anthropomorphic. Trigger appears as a full-fledged reasoning character. While crossing the desert, Hope is bedeviled by a pair of phony-looking buzzards. “Beat it,” he says, “or you’re going to make the whole thing seem ridiculous.” Hope’s delayed response to Jane Russell’s charms is typical of Tashlin’s modus operandi: Ski-nose nonchalantly lights his pipe, it unfurls like a paper party whistle, smoke pours out of his ears, his body spins like a top but his face remains fixed front, drooling over Russell’s bodice. There is a sense in which Tashlin’s best gags aren’t really funny. But neither is a pas de deux.

Whereas Avery’s modernism focuses on the specifics of his medium, Tashlin’s opens onto the larger media system (an interest paralleled by that of such artists as Hans Haacke and Les Levine, whose subjects are often the art context itself). No Hollywood director has ever been so obsessed with the ramifications of movies, TV, and advertising. Virtually all of Tashlin’s key films revolve around some aspect of the culture industry. Artists and Models (Paramount, 1955) concerns horror comics; Hollywood or Bust (Paramount, 1956), the movies; The Girl Can’t Help It (20th Century-Fox, 1956), rock’n’roll; Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (20th Century-Fox, 1957), advertising. Dick Powell plays a screen writer in Susan Slept Here, and Tom Ewell a TV writer in The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (20th Century-Fox, 1956). The films, however, have less to do with the production of cultural forms than with their packaging and consumption. Tashlin’s America is a nation of robotic image junkies whose minds have been colonized by the media. Jerry Lewis’ landlady in Rock-a-Bye Your Baby (Paramount, 1958) does exactly what TV commercials tell her to do, even to the point of dying her hair vermilion; the movie fans in Hollywood or Bust and Rock Hunter are little more than popcorn and fan-mag consuming zombies. After Jerry Lewis, Jean-Luc Godard was Tashlin’s aptest pupil. Made in U.S.A. is Godard’s hymn to vulgar modernism, but Alphaville is his most Tashlinesque film—not only for its comic strip characters and bits like the slot machine whose only payoff is a card reading “thanks,” but because, more than those of any other director, Tashlin’s films seem ready-made for the somnambulistic, media-blitzed Alphaville citizenry.

A project similar to Tashlin’s, albeit located on an even less reputable cultural plane, was carried out by Mad magazine during the first few years of its existence. Edited by Harvey Kurtzman and published by E.C.—the same firm whose grisly horror comics (The Vault of Horror, The Crypt of Terror, etc.) became the target of a national crusade complete with congressional investigation—the original Mad was a comic book that parodied other comic books. (With the demise of E.C.’s horror line in 1954, Mad became a magazine and its comic strip parodies were superceded by meticulous burlesques of current advertisements.) Mad drew on the same talent pool as did the horror comics, but its humorous pretext allowed greater freedom. Violence reached ludicrous levels in the service of formal playfulness. Mad pushed certain aspects of the medium to their limits: Wallace Wood’s (1927–1981) “Sound Effects” (Mad #20), for example, is a hard-boiled detective story told, without dialogue, over a succession of ear-splitting graphics. The Avery techniques of direct address and interpolated messages were totally integrated into the Mad house-style, which was itself deconstructed in Wood’s “Julius Caesar” (Mad #17).

What distinguished Mad’s parodies from those of various college humor magazines, or of the pornographic “eight-pagers” which first appeared during the 1930s, was the highly developed self-consciousness of their characters. The Mad versions of Mickey Mouse, Superman, Dick Tracy, et al., were acutely aware of the conventions of the comics in which they appeared, as well as the language of comics in general, and the struggle against these limitations as, by and large, the subject of Mad’s parodies. Bill Elder’s “Mickey Rodent” (Mad #19) devotes itself to ridiculing the irrational fetishes of the Disney cosmos—that all characters wear three-fingered white gloves, that only Donald Duck and family go without pants, that Pluto is the sole animal deprived of speech. A measure of realism enters this hermetic world in the form of “Mickey Rodent” ’s jealousy over “Darnold Duck” ’s popularity, while much is made of “Walt Dizzy” ’s personal control, and his trademark signature is even treated as a natural aspect of the comic’s landscape. Elder’s “Starchie” (Mad #12) is a merciless send-up of the teen-oriented Archie comics that not only focuses on the physical peculiarities of the characters but undermines Archie’s innocence by introducing a variety of unpleasant, adolescent realities ranging from acne to juvenile delinquency. John Goldwater, the creator of Archie, was instrumental in developing the Comics Code Authority which eventually drove the E.C. horror comics out of business, and so it is with a certain grim purposefulness that “Starchie” ’s splash panel flaunts a grimacing, encephalitic head as the seal of “Disapproved Reading.”

For early Mad, even more than for Tashlin, the media constituted a single system: Little Orphan Annie and Edward G. Robinson make cameo appearances in “Starchie”; Blondie’s husband is cured of a nervous breakdown by a transfer from the confines of his domestic strip to a panel from the exotic Terry and the Pirates; and Dick Tracy is revealed to moonlight as his parody, Fearless Fosdick. Wallace Wood, who specialized in pygmy cretins, overstacked dolls, and frames with the visual consistency of an exploding spittoon, represented Mad at its most aggressively tasteless, but Elder’s neutral detachment and uncanny capacity for mimicking other drawing styles made him the comic book’s quintessential artist. His best pieces are collagelike arrangements of advertising trademarks, media icons, banal slogans, visual puns, and assorted non-sequiturs. The splash panel for “Shermlock Shomes” (Mad #7), for example, has a deep-sea diver, a man wearing a refrigerator, the Mobil Flying Horse, a puzzled Saint Bernard dog, the Statue of Liberty, and the seven dwarves from Disney’s Snow White (among other creatures) wandering through the London fog.

Elder’s cartoons embalm hysteria: the opening image of “Ping Pong” (Mad #6) shows a giant slobbering ape towering above the mass of screaming humanity that flees before it on vehicles ranging from flying carpets to pogo sticks. Although the overall effect is monumentally static, the image yields a dozen miniature emblems of exaggerated panic: one man is running with a bathtub clutched around his middle, another’s eyes have just popped from his sockets, someone else appears to have plunged his hand through the back of the head in front of him so that it emerges, flailing, through its mouth. Meanwhile, Ping—brushing off the scaffolding that has suspended itself from his underarm in an attempt to plaster a “Post No Bills” sign across his torso—is being attacked by a cannon firing puffed rice, a parachutist with a peashooter, a machine-gunner suspended in a diaper that is carried by a stork, and an army helicopter whose rear propeller has unobtrusively pulverized a portion of the frame line. (As Mad’s leading formalist, Elder allows internal objects to tamper with the boundaries of a panel, breaks continuous vistas into consecutive frames, offers virtually identical panels with wildly fluctuating details, and otherwise emphasizes the essential serial nature of his medium.)

The premise of Elder’s “Outer Sanctum” (Mad #5), ostensibly a burlesque of a once-popular radio show but equally a parody of Mad’s sister publications, is that a mass of fetid garbage is given life by a mad scientist. This “heap” is virtually a metaphor for Mad’s sense of Western civilization as a clutter of cultural detritus (a commonplace shared by such disparate modernists as T.S. Eliot and Kurt Schwitters). The Mad esthetic was the subject of a 1959 essay by critic Donald Phelps who, under the rubric “The Muck School,” identified a “strain of gritty, unhousebroken, garbage-happy burlesque [which] probably owes its existence to the inert layer of disgust or passive resentment which lies like a pool of candle-wax in nearly every city dweller’s soul.”4 For Phelps, Mad’s originality stems from its acceptance of “the awfulness of modern life as something that isn’t worth attempting to control, or submit to reason, but can only be wallowed in, for whatever laughs can be scavenged from the garbage heap.” Although this characterization strikes me as accurate, it should be noted that Phelps’ analysis is based on a later incarnation of Mad, when the edge of the publication’s dadalike travesty and devaluation of American secular mythology had been somewhat blunted.

Mad aside, the other key members of Phelps’ Muck School are Lenny Bruce (whose self-consciousness as a stand-up comic and subversive use of pop cultural shticks bring him close to vulgar modernism) and the TV comedian and one-time Mad contributor Ernie Kovacs (1919–62). Kovacs began his TV career in 1950; his forte, as Phelps puts it, “was demonstrating to his public the immeasurable crumbiness of so-called professional television.” (The same could be said for You Bet Your Life, the TV quiz show hosted by veteran vulgar surrealist Groucho Marx.) Given Kovacs’ fondness for tacky special effects—snow represented by falling mattress innards, dime-store gorilla masks, catastrophes staged with toys, dolls, or imbecilic hand puppets—and his enthusiastic shilling for products like chocolate-covered spinach, Phelps suggests that early Kovacs shows were so aggressively squalid that they could have been stocked from the Broadway novelty shops that sell plastic vomit and toilet-bowl shaped pipes. The sets for Three to Get Ready (WPTZ, 1950–52), a wake-up show on an independent Philadelphia station, or Ernie in Kovacs-land (NBC, 1951), a summer replacement for the popular puppet show Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, were literally ankle-deep with cruddy props and cheap stuffed animals, which Kovacs would deploy in an almost free-associational manner.

Some of Kovacs’ gags—misprompting or inflicting off-screen pranks upon the snow’s news-reader, yanking the cameraman in front of the lens, taking an ax and destroying the set of a cancelled program—were founded on the improvisational quality of live television. (Hence the double joke of his blandly delivered sign-off, “It’s been real.”) A typical edition of Three to Get Ready begins with several false starts and is punctuated throughout by apparently genuine, slyly overamplified off-screen directions: the cameraman or producer is heard to complain, “Ernie, you’re off the set!” or “This isn’t the way we rehearsed it!” As late as 1961, Kovacs was capable of starting one of his ABC specials with several pre-credit minutes of tele-chaos—ghosts, bar-rolls, static—before cutting away to himself in the studio control room.

This accentuation of his medium’s essential tawdriness, a strategy Kovacs shares with Avery, Tashlin, Wood, and Elder, is only one aspect of his modernity. Like Tashlin and Avery, Kovacs was a formalist; in fact, Tashlin and Kovacs seem to me the two most inventively filmic comics on the American scene since Keaton. Many Kovacs gags play upon the (a)synchronization of sound and image. In Kovacs on Music (NBC, 1959), he staged a scene from Swan Lake without any travesty save for the remarkable alienation effect of dressing the “swans” as gorillas. One of his last programs, The Ernie Kovacs Special (ABC, 1961), featured a performance of the song “Jealousy” played on synchronized, autonomously moving office furniture (file cabinets, water coolers, typewriters, switchboards), each piece of which functioned as a separate instrument. Kovacs’ “mickey-mousing” could be astonishingly crude—a matter of blatantly tilting or jerking the camera in response to the music. Another Ernie Kovacs Special (ABC, 1961) includes a five-minute sequence of percussive kaleidoscopic images (mainly close-ups of fluttering fingers) scored to a bombastic piece of symphonic music. The effect is funny not because it satirizes nonobjective art (if, indeed, it does, being so visually potent itself) but because Kovacs’ brand of formalism is totally blunt. Test patterns aside, it would be difficult to imagine a more abstract use of network TV.

As early as Three to Get Ready, Kovacs was regularly tinkering with the mechanics and perception of the televised image, using distorting lenses and disjunctive sound. Some quasi-ontological routines were more elaborate. In one Kovacs interpolated a pane of glass between himself and the camera so that he could splatter the screen with eggs; in another he used a tilted set whose angle was matched, and thus concealed, by that of the camera. (Kovacs’ definitive use of the latter trope was on NBC’s Saturday Color Carnival [1957], where oranges appeared to spontaneously roll along a lunch table and Kovacs’ attempt to pour himself a drink from his thermos sent a liquid jet of coffee half a foot away from the cup directly beneath it on the table.) From his Philadelphia period on, Kovacs experimented with a host of what can be seen in hindsight as pure video techniques. A dozen years before Nam June Paik invented his video synthesizer, Kovacs was keying, matting, and miniaturizing (the better to trap himself inside a milk bottle or an old horror film), as well as using split screens, double exposures, and negative images; hence his posthumous reputation as the precursor of video art.5 Kovacs’ accomplishment is all the more impressive for its being done (initially, at least) on live—rather than taped—television, for an audience of millions.

Inevitably, what was once oppositional in vulgar modernism has largely been coopted by the culture industry. Virtually all current television satire (to take only the paradigmatic example) depends on the viewer’s familiarity with the full range of broadcast fare. But the hidden agenda here is less the conscious devaluation practiced by Tashlin, Kovacs, or early Mad than a flattering of the TV community into smug pseudo-dissociation from the banalities it otherwise accepts.

However, subversive phenomena like Norman Lear’s Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976–77) or his Fernwood 2-Night (1978), the recent films of Brian De Palma, and—in their pristine state—bands like the Ramones or the B-52s have calculated their cold-eyed enthusiasm to a degree that it renders such Saturday Night Live dissociation problematic. These popular artists have learned from previous example that it is possible to eat one’s cake and have it, too, to please the public while addressing the intelligentsia, revel in formula to the degree that formula is intermittently radicalized. The Ramones’ Rocket to Russia is “classic” rock’n’roll that redeems rock’s mindless energy; De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (Filmways, 1980) is a “classic” thriller that deliberately flaunts its own manipulations; Mary Hartman is a “classic” soap opera that simultaneously uses and deconstructs soap opera appeal. Having grasped that nothing is beyond cooption, these artists proclaim their own usable past. After all, Alfred Hitchcock and the Beach Boys have long since been critically canonized. With no ambivalence concerning success, punks like De Palma and the Ramones recycle their models as brashly as Roy Lichtenstein re-presents Franz Kline’s gestural brushstroke. If current developments in art stem from the recognition of modernism as a series of period styles resulting in reified closure, the attitude of such artists points toward the creation of an authentic vulgar post-modernism.

J. Hoberman writes film criticism for the Village Voice.



1. According to its director H. C. Potter, Hellzapoppin’ was scripted to include scenes in which screen characters would address the film’s actual projectionist. This was perceived as being too radical by the studio, hence the substitution of the projection booth scenes.

2. This is not to be confused with the unintentional modernism of filmmakers like Edward D. Wood. Jr., or Oscar Micheaux, discussed in my essay “Bad Movies,” Film Comment, July–August 1980.

3. Roger Tailleur, “Anything Goes.” Positif #29, 1958. A French film journal with a strong surrealist orientation, Positif championed Avery as well as Tashlin. Tashlin was also a favorite of the Cahiers du Cinema group. The cocktail party sequence in the first reel of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, in which characters speak to each other in commercial catch phrases, is only one of Godard’s many Tashlinisms.

4. Covering Ground: Essays for Now (Croton Press, New York 1969)

5. Kovacs was included, along with an international selection of 82 contemporary video artists, in an influential 1975 exhibition organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia). Since then, his work has been exhibited at The Kitchen (New York), and in other video art contexts. Recently, the second sequence of Michael Snow’s Presents (1981), dramatized the perceptual disruption of a moving camera in a way that is far closer to the vulgar modernism of Tashlin or Kovacs than to the formalism of Kasimir Malevich or Alain Robbe-Grillet (to name two artist-analogues cited in Regina Cornwall’s 1980 monograph, Snow Seen). The sequence opens "with a lush nude lolling provocatively on the bed of an obvious movie set There’s an abrupt knock, the nude flings on a kimono, and the set rotates so that the camera can follow her progress as she walks to the door. We’re so used to reading this kind of lateral motion as a panning shot that even though the relation between set and camera is reversed, the latter is what seems to be mobile. But it’s as if Snow’s camera is radiating a force-field—for once, there is nothing seamless about its movement. The statuesque actress totters on her high-heels, lamps swing precipitously, the furniture lurches, the walls shudder, and a potted plant topples. Absurdly a small phonograph is playing a composition by Bach and as the action demands more rapid ‘panning,’ the needle lumps all over the record. Suddenly the floor pitches upwards in simulation of a camera tilt—objects go sliding off a table which soon goes careening after them. When Snow’s camera finally does decide to make a move, it’s to complete the demolition of the set. Dollying in behind some sort of outsized, transparent Plexiglas shield, the camera resolutely explores the Irving room, casually plowing the remaining furniture through the flats. (J.H., Village Voice, April 22, 1981)