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CLOSE-UP: HELL IS FOR CHILDREN

Still from Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue, 1984, 16 mm, black-and-white, 21 minutes.

TWO AMERICAN CHILDREN, a girl and a boy, play inside a house crammed with the technological clutter of the twentieth century. Tangles of electric cable form a synthetic underbrush, while cathode-ray monitors perch here and there, transmitting nature programs amid a jumble of cardboard boxes, incandescent lightbulbs, and tabletops loaded with piles of tools, food, and junk. The girl wears the flowered dress of a Dust-Bowl waif; the boy appears in a smart white suit jacket, worn New Wave style over a T-shirt emblazoned with an ironed-on Superman logo. Set loose in this anarchic environment, the kids improvise scenarios of their own invention, entertaining for the camera, as if on TV. The boy belts out misremembered folk songs like some variety-show bit player while he munches on dry breakfast cereal, and then the girl sings an a cappella rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,”

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