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PRINT Summer 2011

film

Wynn Chamberlain’s Brand X

Wynn Chamberlain, Brand X, 1969, still from a color film in 16 mm, 86 minutes. Tally Brown.

ONE WEEKEND IN FEBRUARY 1969, the painter Wynn Chamberlain and his wife, Sally, were snowbound in their upstate New York cottage. There was nothing to do but watch television. As they switched from channel to channel, they were overwhelmed by the banality of the programs, which were incessantly interrupted by cheesy commercials, and they weren’t sure which were the more puerile. It was at that moment that Chamberlain decided to use a TV show mash-up as a frame for ridiculing the politics and commercialism of the late ’60s, while celebrating the era’s embrace of sex, drugs, and long hair.

Chamberlain had recently produced Charles Ludlam’s Conquest of the Universe, one of the high points of the Theater of the Ridiculous. Its cast included many Warhol superstars, including Taylor Mead, Candy Darling, and Ultra Violet, and Chamberlain decided to do another ensemble piece in the same vein, using those very performers. Shot in bits and pieces for about $30,000 not long after it was conceived, Brand X emulated the films of Andy Warhol, Ron Rice, Jack Smith, and others promoted by Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque and boasted a cast of underground New York luminaries (beyond the superstars mentioned above) such as Tally Brown, Sam Shepard, and Sally Kirkland—with a cameo appearance by Jimi Hendrix thrown in for good measure.

“We thought we were making an art film,” said Chamberlain, “with references in the production style to Burroughs’s cut-up methods and jazz riffing.” A conglomeration of sketches of what the viewer might find on television on any given day, Brand X doesn’t progress in a narrative sense; watching it is more like flipping through the channels. Although it parodies television, the movie is no more difficult to watch and absorb than TV. It subverts television culture by appealing to the same populist level as mass media, liberating through laughter.

Taylor Mead plays Wally Right, proprietor of a network affiliate, and pops up in such varied roles as a Jack LaLanne exercise coach, the president of the United States, a talk show host, a returning Civil War soldier, and a preacher calling God on a white Princess phone. The station’s lineup includes “What’s My Sex?” featuring Candy Darling as Marlene D-Train; Tally Brown hosting “Boys’ Talk,” her guests a quartet of bodybuilders who shed their clothes; soap operas titled “My Doctor” and “Everyone’s Nurse”; and “The Money Report,” in which a nude Abbie Hoffman “bathes” in a tub of dollar bills (which he sets on fire). These various vignettes are stitched together with parody advertisements for Stimulator, the Old Colonial Dope Company, and a deodorant called Sweat. The movie appeals directly to your inner stoned adolescent, and its original poster, naturally, features a bug-eyed hippie brandishing a huge joint. In his column in the Village Voice, Mekas called the film “propaganda for the politics of joy and disorder.”

Brand X opened on May 18, 1970, at theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. At that moment, underground films were beginning to reach a broader audience—Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, also a satire on advertising, had recently became a popular hit—and Brand X was greeted with surprising mainstream attention. The New York Times called it “a tacky, vulgar, dirty, sometimes dull, often hilarious movie”; Newsweek observed, approvingly, that it “transgresses the last taboo—the sanctity of the television tube.”

Just as Brand X was poised to open more broadly, MGM persuaded Chamberlain to pull the film from distribution until it could be given a proper release. He canceled the Boston premiere, effectively killing the picture’s momentum. For no apparent reason, MGM stopped returning calls. Months later, New Line Cinema, a fledgling company aimed at the college campus market, picked up Chamberlain’s anarchic lampoon, and it played off and on until 1973.

Then Brand X disappeared completely. For years, Chamberlain tried to get New Line, which had gone on to bigger fare (including, eventually, the Lord of the Rings trilogy), to return the only extant print, to no avail. He has long believed there was a conspiracy (instigated by the Nixon administration) to bury his subversive film. Finally, several years ago, the print turned up in New Line’s vaults and was returned to its rightful owner.

On April 9, thirty-eight years after the movie had last been seen, the New Museum in New York screened Brand X to an overflow audience. (The museum is across the street from the storied 222 Bowery, home or studio of William S. Burroughs, Fernand Léger, Mark Rothko, Lynda Benglis, and John Giorno, among others; Chamberlain was the former YMCA’s first resident, and parts of Brand X were shot in the building.) The mood at the screening was celebratory, capped by an appearance by the ubiquitous Taylor Mead, whom a person seated near me described as “a wondrous imp right out of Hieronymous Bosch.” At eighty-six, Mead leans heavily on his cane, but his mind is every bit as fertile, lascivious, and childlike as it was forty-two years ago, when he delivered one of his most inventive performances, now miraculously brought back to view.

Chamberlain hopes that Brand X will have further screenings at museums throughout the country and—who knows?—maybe a proper theatrical release.

Steven Watson is the author of Factory Made: Warhol and The Sixties (2003), among other titles.