New York

John Waters, Mark #12, 1998, color photograph, 14 x 19 3/4".

John Waters, Mark #12, 1998, color photograph, 14 x 19 3/4".

John Waters

In 1964, John Waters shot his first short film, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, using shoplifted film stock and a Brownie 8 mm movie camera given to him by his grandmother for his seventeenth birthday. Thirty-three years later, while directing Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci in Pecker, he noticed that the tape marks his crew was using to position the actors on set looked a lot like abstract drawings, and decided to photograph and present them as art (Mark #1–Mark #15, 1998). Both Hag and the “Mark” series were included in “Change of Life,” Waters’s exhibition of photographic and sculptural work, curated by New Museum director Lisa Phillips and independent curator and critic Marvin Heiferman for the New Museum of Contemporary Art. But the most remarkable discovery here was what Waters calls his “little movies”—sequences of up to twenty-four still images, framed and legible from left to right like storyboards or image-sentences. First exhibited at Colin de Land’s American Fine Arts gallery in the mid-’90s and steadily evolving ever since, this body of work could be said to constitute a new, static, and silent kind of moviemaking, one based on captured and edited fragments. More than debating how this activity relates to a recent history of art photography, we should ask instead what kind of cinema is being made here.

At the New Museum, after passing a framed grid of the scribbled-out, Twombly-esque index cards that Waters uses to organize his daily life (308 Days, 2003) as well as a photograph of the returned mail he’d addressed to various deceased, jailed, or relocated celebrities (Return to Sender, 2003)—this kind of anecdotal, autobiographical riff on the readymade also played a large part in the exhibition—the viewer suddenly collided with razor-sharp little blockbusters Grace Kelly’s Elbows, 1998, and Lana Backwards, 1994. These borderline photo-films are the results of his obsessive practice of snapping still frames off the screen while watching and rewatching his own and other directors’ movies on video. If such low-tech images seem to nod to the art of “antiphotographers” Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, Waters’s spin on rephotography eschews these artists’ coolly critical flirtations with the “death of the author” to announce something even more exciting: the death of the audience. Each sequence of stills is a subtly terroristic act of cinema and a joyful subversion of spectatorship, perpetrated with the simplest and most available means: a videotape, a TV, and an ordinary still camera. As Waters subjects well-known and obscure Hollywood films and their stars to the adoring violence of his decontextualizations and juxtapositions—freezing, cropping, speeding up, recasting, and reorganizing cinema in the ultimate director’s cut—he rediscovers authorship in the lowly depths of fandom and consumption, unleashing a relentless, libidinized spectator-director.

Puke in the Cinema, 1998; Retard, 2000; and Movie Star Junkie, 1997, match-cut frames from a variety of films according to abject subject matter, generating crude and plotless star-studded epics. In fetish objects like Sophia Loren Decapitated, 1998, and Farrah, 2000—two sequences of X-Acto-knifed close-ups—Waters stalks and slashes movie stars known for their impeccably controlled self-images. Manson Copies Richard Gere, 2000, is a concisely told two-frame makeover saga, while Wicked Glinda, 2003—a single still snapped at the precise moment The Wizard of Oz dissolves from the Good Witch to the Wicked Witch of the West—is the psychedelic debut of a dreamy new screen heroine.

Waters wields his VCR and his camera like a demented studio boss, reclaiming productions from their directors long after they’ve already been released, if not abandoned to history’s dustbins. The most provocative of his little movies are those that gravitate toward the glitches, grain, and body of the degraded, reformatted film-to-tape image, excavating minor, even subliminal events like hairs in the gate, video lines, academy leader, etc. These material moments become the new stars of his drastic reedits, as do actresses’ elbows, insignificant details of costume, and credit sequences. Ten Change-Over Marks, 2003, isolates and enlarges the scratchy little circles that flash in the corner of film frames to cue the projectionist for reel changes. Echoing Twelve Assholes and a Dirty Foot, 1996—a sequence of raunchy porn stills displayed behind a drawn velvet curtain—these signals suddenly resemble celluloid anuses (there are plenty of other cases where Waters eroticizes the very material and mechanisms of cinematic production and distribution). Despair, 1995, groups melancholy instances of the film credit “Directed by Alan Smithee,” which ends up on botched Hollywood films whose real directors prefer to remain anonymous. In the same way that he’s fascinated by faded stars and glamorous losers, Waters is drawn to the little deaths and breakdowns that happen in cinema; he pulls films from the grave and makes us notice their decomposed beauty.

Waters’s little movies are subversive rewritings of cinematic material liberated from its mise-en-scène so that it can tell its own story in its own time. By tearing cinema from the constraint of filmic time in this way, Waters causes the “veritable mutation of reading and its object, text or film” that Roland Barthes proposed in his essay on Eisenstein’s film stills, “The Third Meaning.” In his photographic work, Waters activates movie desires that can’t be directly satisfied by making films in the normal, professional sense. It is filmmaking that luxuriates in a freedom from budgets, producers, and crew. Alone with only images, directing without company, conversation, or compromise, Waters comes closer to the perfect movie, the potential one he vaguely remembers or hallucinates in its fragments.

John Kelsey is a New York–based writer and a member of the artists’ collective Bernadette Corporation.