Mark Allen's Top Nine
Things for December 15th, 2003:
Copyright 2003 Mark Allen
For the first several items in this week's Top Ten - Mark Allen presents his "Non-Christmas Non-catalogue" These are all things you cannot buy anywhere and you will never find!!! EVER!!! SAVE YOUR GODDAMN MONEY FOR YOURSELF AND DON'T BUY A THING FOR ANYBODY!!! Just calmly peruse my list of wonderful holiday gift items that are totally un-findable and you will still feel like you're shopping for people.
1. "Let's Build a Pussy" - Harry Pussy (double 12" vinyl album, Black Bean & Placenta label, 1998)
Adris Hoyos: mouth
Bill Orcutt: mouse
Harry Pussy's "Let's Build a Pussy" LP was their last release (conceived and recorded even after they broke up). As mentioned above, it's a recording of a one second-long yelp, stretched out to over an hour in length (using computer sound software), pressed on double vinyl and released in a limited pressing on the Blackbean & Placenta label in 1998. How does it sound? Like that piercing alarm that goes off if you open the roof door on the top of a stairwell in an apartment building, you know the door that says "Do Not Open - Alarm Will Sound!" ...you know that alarm... the one they have to call the super who lives all the way in Queens to come drive into Manhattan during rush hour to finally shut off with his key ...hours after everyone in the neighborhood's ears (and nerves) have permanently stopped working.
On this recording, Adris and Bill don't dress up the concept at all. It literally sounds like a s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d o-u-t digital recording of a human yell... in all it's binary glory. If you actually choose to listen to a whole side (or flip the vinyl over after each side and endure the ...*gasp!* entire thing) you will hear slow changes as the original second-long sound is now stretched over such a long period. But don't expect any "glistening overtones" or anything like that. Do you have friends who hate "pretentious" art and usually react with knee-jerk anger in it's presence? If you do... you should never play this record for them. They might kill you.
Back up six years or so before this release: In case you weren't hanging around some dark, dank indie art rock club in the mid-90's, or listening to college radio, or hanging out in a snotty indie record store... you probably missed the tiny pimple that the short-lived Harry Pussy popped onto the world-wide cultural arena. Harry Pussy actually kind of effortlessly obliterated the pretense of the aforementioned locations and "scenes" during their half a decade-long existence. Born out of the Miami, Florida noise "scene" in the early 90's... the band consisted of three members; Bill Orcutt and Dan Hosker on un-treated but atonal and ear-splitting dual guitars, which in turn framed the "star" of the band - Adris Hoyos, "...that screaming siren of the skins" on vocals and drums. Adris pounded and screamed like no one you have ever seen, resembling Valerie Bertinelli by way of Animal (the drummer from The Muppets). The end result was one of the more honest melds of hardcore and free jazz... and with Adris' eyelid-inflating and ear-bursting vocalizations, the whole thing sounded perhaps like an imagined Sonny Sharrock scoring of "The Exorcist." At first listen, it sounded like their "music" couldn't possibly have a structure... then the second time you experienced them, you were amazed to hear familiar compositions.
Despite Adris' strong presence, their blunt use of unapologetic, p.c.-less, dumb humor ...song titles like "Nazi U.S.A.," "Please Don't Come Back From the Moon" and "In An Emergency You Can Shit On a Puerto Rican Whore" ...their sometimes violent interaction with audience members ...and their goal of plugging into the raw primal nerve of the moment at all costs ...well let's just say it didn't exactly win them any friends amongst the stiffer units of the "Riot Grrl" movement.
Harry Pussy were megawattage scorchingly, nose-bleed obliteratingly, bullshitlessly room-silenting and totally, totally, totally amazing live. Their shows could actually light a fire under a crowd of porridge-faced art rock fans and cause them to crack a smile and laugh and have a good time (or run screaming). No one had a conversation in the back of the venue at one of Harry Pussy's shows. Trust me. Like a lot of great art though... if you missed one of their live shows you pretty much missed the real deal (I must shamefully admit that I own almost all the recordings on the above linked discography... and in my opinion, the 'Harry Pussy LIVE' 10" on Cherry Smash/CS039 is their best document - and is incidentally a recording of their last stage show).
The "Let's Build a Pussy" LP was an appropriate way to bow out of Harry Pussy's much-talked-about career as cultural kamikaze artists - and it's a prized addition to my completely childish and ridiculous record collection. In the Boston Phoenix review of the album, the reviewer summed it up best by describing it's length and concept as "...going on for exactly an hour, a kiss goodbye turned into a very gradually uncurled middle finger."
You cannot buy this anywhere and you will never find one!!!
3. "Hot Cars" - Diadal (double 12" vinyl album, Warp label, 1998)
I bought this very limited edition, homemade cover-ed LP pressing on a whim after seeing Diadal perform at The Cooler in 1998. It's a "double" album in that the first disc contains music on both sides, and the second disc (unplayable) contains etchings by both Rita Ackerman and Jutta Koether (on the respective sides). Each cover is hand painted (silkscreened?) and then individually stickered and decal-ed, and the whole thing is flippantly titled "Hot Cars" (I think).
Diadal is a loose configuration of a band that includes visual artists Rita Ackerman and Jutta Koether as core members. Other downtown avant improv luminaries float in and out of the group... mainly No Neck Blues Band members and satellites like David Nuss, Matt Heyner, Jason Meager and many others from time to time.
The actual music on this disc? Totally sublime. A lot of these kinds of discs that I pick up get played once and then stored for their collectability (my justification)... but this recording has been on my turntable so many times I'm starting to get worried. It's beautiful! Moments sound like Nico at her most haunting, lost demos from the "Marble Index" sessions - alternated with hippie sunrise improv insanity. The first few cuts on each side are weird, skeletal, lo-fi ballads alternately sung by Rita and Jutta, sometimes in German. Then each side rounds off with a few live recorded improv jams with additional members. Everything about the work as a whole sounds recorded in one take, so as not to loose the spontaneity (and it remarkably all falls into place). Plus the recordings have that open room airy feeling that I love... like they were recorded performed live with microphones placed around the room... creating lots of psychic space between the speakers. This is one of those perfect recordings that is so rare, and my enjoyment of it is so private... that me just sharing it with you here (and knowing you will never hear it) makes it even better. Moooohahahahaha! I wish I had a CD burner so I could burn it onto CD... it's getting scratchy.
I remember I went once to see No Neck Blues Band perform at their huge Harlem space... sometime around 1998 I think. Other acts were on the bill... it was about five bucks to get in. I had never been to their space before... and as soon as I entered you could tell that they all lived there as well as used it as an artist's venue. Rita Ackerman was there (forget if Diadal performed that night or not) in the kitchen preparing a huge spaghetti dinner with salad and garlic bread for anyone who had arrived early and wanted some. No charge. What band gives you a free home cooked spaghetti dinner at their show? A member of Diadal does. This record somehow reflects that.
You cannot buy this anywhere and you will never find one!!!
this is not a picture of Kathy McGinty4. Kathy McGinty
Remember when "phone sex" was fun? Neither do I.
On a recent listen to Brian Turner's blistering and eye-opening show on WFMU(how can I do a Top Ten entry without a mention of 'FMU? I can't! I'm an addict! *SOB!*) ...where was I? Oh yea. While listening to Brian's show... he played something mind-blowing. It was a recording by someone calling themselves "Kathy McGinty."
Who is Kathy McGinty you ask? "Kathy" is a concept, an artist... a prank. "She" is kind of like the retarded, A.D.D.'ed younger sister of HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
At some point (probably in the 1990's), "Kathy McGinty" attacked phone sex chat lines with a Yamaha SU10, a keyboard and about 40 pre-recorded samples of a sexy/wacky woman's voice that said appropriate things... that sometimes turned into really inappropriate things. As guys tried to chat "Kathy" up... the mystery artist on the other line triggered sample after sample. The quality of the samples instantly gives the whole thing away. I'd better not describe it, and how brilliantly insane it is, as there's too much to go into... it's best if you just listen.
Go take a gander at some prime Kathy McGinty tracks that aren't available anywhere on the web on Brian Turner's show from 12/9/03 (click on the 1:25:19 time mark on the right, midway down [note: it appears to actually start at the 1:24:09 time mark]) or... you can go hear mp3s of Kathy McGinty at Derek Erdman's website. You can even buy a CD there (it's also available in other places around the web). I think that the Derek Erdman guy is behind Kathy McGinty... but I can't get a straight answer out of anyone.
Kathy McGinty is the best kind of phone prank documentation because what you hear isn't necessarily what you get. Listening to guys' reactions as they either A) immediately figure out what's going on and slowly try to figure out how top deal with it but also still hold on to that glimmer of hope that a pretty girl is talking to them on a phone sex line, or B) very slowly figure out what's going on and try to deal with it but also still hold on to that glimmer of hope that a pretty girl is talking to them on a phone sex line even though they know it's a guy triggering weird sound samples is half the fun. This is of course all communicated with awkward silences and slight changes in vocal tone. You also can hear the fake Kathy (Derek?) hesitantly decide which sample to play and when... when to blow it and when to tweak and play with the caller's confidence. This is also communicated with awkward silences and overlapping samples and descents into total gonzo surreality. Where would life be without awkward silences and gonzo surreality? I know my life would be Hell.
5. This guy
I found this picture on my hard drive (thanks Gregory!) from a long time ago. This guy is a Hiroshima victim supposedly. He's totally alive and in relatively good health I suppose. I mean... wow. Could you imagine the stories this guy could tell? Can you imagine the wisdom this guy could have accumulated because of his day to day experience? I've never understood why physically "deformed" or "disabled" people are not huge fucking superstars. Why does Paris Hilton get a reality show and this guy's all obscure and unknown? What a missed opportunity ...a billion missed opportunities.
I would love to interview someone like this for my disability interviews. So far I've talked to a guy who is missing one leg, a deaf guy, a blind guy, and a guy with cerebral palsy who's famous. If anyone knows anyone like this guy that would like to share his story and let me ask him a lot of questions... please get in touch.
6. This building & James Kunstler's "Eyesore of the Month" site
The new Ontario College of Art and Design classroom and studio building by British architect Will Alsop. No this is not a joke... this is a real building. I really don't know what to say about it. It totally reminds me of that whole Memphis design thing that swept through the 80's. It's sheer gargantuan-ness makes me re-think my categorization of it. Kind of like what Jeff Koons seemed to be trying to do with those giant flower sculptures of cute doggies (but failed in my opinion). This building looks like what would happen if Rip Taylor and JM J. Bullock got tipsy one Sunday afternoon and decided to re-decorate an Imperial AT-AT land walker. Sparing no expense...
By the way: I discovered this building via James Howard Kunstler's extremely entertaining "Eyesore of the Month Club" website... which literally had me laughing so hard I was crying.
7. "Heil Honey! I'm Home!"
Did you know there was actually a short-lived BBC(-ish) comedy sitcom in 1990 about Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun living somewhere in a 1930s American suburb next door to a Jewish family? And all the wacky foibles and hilarious misunderstandings that all resulted in non-stop hilarity? This is not a joke... read on for the full story.
Jim in his Catskill Mountain cabin... during the ax murderer attack and before the fire8. The Latest on Jim and I
I've received a lot of emails from people asking me about Jim and whether we're still together and what about his new cabin and why am I being so quiet about him, etc. The reason I don't write about him much is because I'm learning to be quiet about a lot of stuff in my life. I used to just let everything hang out on this website... which was good... but could also be really bad. There's lots of stuff in my life right now that I'm keeping to myself, for (very important) reasons known only to me. Am I finally starting to grow up? Am I boring now? Was I ever not?
In the Jim and I department: For now let's just say that we are doing really great... we have been going out this whole time, we are very much in love... and lots of stuff has, and will, happen(ed).
8. This guy's guesses as to what this week's "Top Ten" was about
Once again, I submitted a shrunken-down version of an unfinished "Top Ten" and allowed people to get out their peri/tele/microscopes and nitter through the pixilated complexity until it went up in it's proper super sized form. This guy (Michael) emailed some pretty good guesses. I think he has nailed my personality exactly:1. "Animated Fag Art" by the Rolling Stones. I found this cool record under a bridge where I was shooting up and talking incessantly about alternative universe theories with my other schizo friends.
2. "Breast Cancer is REAL!" by the Flagrant Dummies. This is the best album ever! Here are some lyrics.
Can in the sidewalk. Burrowed in.
Makes me wonder if the living will win
La, la la the war.
3. "Indy Trash" by the the Blue Faces
I heard this on Anal Magic on WFMU.org. Wow. They are super geniuses. It makes no fucking sense. The window on the CD is a brilliant reference to digging through the trash for furniture.
4. Retards shootin' hoops!
You go, Rachel!
5. Paris Hilton*
Speaking of retards, this one got a little too close to the fire.
6. Gas Station Dioramas
Only 5 bucks. Made totally of cigarette butts!
7. Jim; Being hit in the side of the head with my tampon.
More pics of him and the new house next week, I SWEAR!
(sidenote: I will have forgotten anything and everything I have sworn to immediately following this post)
* Don't forget to watch FOX's HIL-AAAARious new reality series, "The Simple Life" TONIGHT!
Mark Allen's Top Three
Things for December 8th, 2003:
1. The Killing of Sister George (1968, dir: Robert Aldrich)
While I'm sometimes lazy about finally seeing films that everyone tells me I "...have to see" often, when I finally do see them, I wish I had much earlier. This is one of those films. Have you been looking for a lesbian version of "The Boys In the Band"? I hadn't... but I think I found it (kind-of).
"The Killing of Sister George" is a story about dealing with one's own demise, and the portrayal of one particular person's defense mechanisms in such an abysmal transformation. June Duckridge, aka: "Georgie" (Beryl Reid) is the stalwart, bumbling protagonist. She's an aging, beloved actress on a BBC soap opera in her public life... but in her private life she's a malcontent with a knock-out girlfriend, a wicked alcohol dependency, and lots of issues. Reid's character alternates between warpedly wise and dumbly viscous... all the while drinking, cursing and goosing the ladies. On the inside she's like the bastard child of the Marquis de Sade, Oscar Madison and Benny Hill... on the outside, she's constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure the hastily fastened seems on her Margaret Thatcher drag haven't come undone, as she crashes around the china shop.
Her lovable, good-time character on the TV series; Sister George (hence her nickname 'Georgie') is a motor scooter-riding, ex-nun nurse (who's always running across the village to save the day, and offer a story-closing side of wisdom) and is sharply contrasted with her real self (who's often falling across the room to give someone a mouthful of bile, and offer a side of friendship-closing face-punching).
This growingly troublesome persona doesn't fit well into the proper BBC society circles she's traveled amongst for so long... and, after one too many public relations problems, the network is thinking of letting her go. One such scandal finds a love-lorn Georgie walking down the high street, inebriated-ly talking to herself about what a fine actress she is (much to the stares of passersby, who recognize her from TV). Oblivious, she boards a taxi containing two nuns and proceeds to sexually assault them in broad daylight in the middle of a traffic jam... causing a three car pile-up. Our heroine then drunkenly walks away from the chaos, as the authorities arrive in the background... laughing deliriously (a stunt which mirrors her character's carefully choreographed death scene in the TV series later in the film). Georgie doesn't see her aged wisdom as an asset as much as she sees it as a signifier that she has no more excuses. And in turn she's constantly lashing out in claustrophobic frustration at every turn of the screws that life keeps tightening. Her gentile, wise, proper manner (which she can slip in and out of at will thanks to her outward appearance) slips further and further into oblivion with each dark turn of reality.
"Appearing to be drunk happens to be one of the easier ways of getting through some of life's most embarrassing situations" she confidently tells her girlfriend after causing a scene at her formal going away party.
Georgie isn't exactly "in the closet", or out of it... she's just uncompromising in her lifestyle, probably for no other reason than necessity. Not everyone at the TV studio turns a blind eye towards Georgie's private life, though. The gentry, all-business show producer Mercy Croft (Coral Browne), has secretly had an eye for Alice "Childie" McNaught (Susannah York), Georgie's willowy, baby woman, stay-at-home-and-write-poetry, punching-bag of a girlfriend for some time, and has eyed her mark - as soon as she can "rescue" her from the abusive Georgie. This ends in an inevitable predator/prey lesbian love scene, creepily proceeded by the two characters lovingly talking to dolls in separate rooms of a flat ...whom then meet and silently finger each other to hushed orgasm in a darkened bedroom (only to be discovered mid-rub by a rampaging Georgie).
From there it's onto garishly comic forced cigar butt-eating, bad 60's lesbian pompadours, "flawed, credible cows", Laurel and Hardy costumes that look suspiciously Hitler-esque, funeral flower arrangements with nasty condolence cards, dropped jaws, mussed hair, Chanel(esque) suits, white gloves and cut-throat love triangles.
And the main three aren't the only dykes in the sack of cats. The film is littered with lesbian characters near and far (particularly, a fascinating lesbian bar scene... with some of the most genius extras casting since the gay rights protesters in 'A Dog Day Afternoon'). The film's alternately gritty and comic take on pathos is an old school gay film buff's wet dream. It's common to see these types of characters in films like "Boys In the Band" and "Fortune and Men's Eyes" ...as gay men. It's just so amazing and unusual (for me) to see this kind of story line portrayed through women characters.
The film itself is all brightly muted, late-60's color... and at times I almost felt like I was watching "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". It's severe meanness is also contrasted by am odd kind of 60's, American TV sitcom-style punchiness in dialogue and editing (the script was adapted from a play). And at times, Georgie herself even resembles Samantha Stevens' clutzy Aunt Clara from "Bewitched".
Beryl Reid's multi-layered performance as Georgie obviously steals the show, and is endlessly fascinating to watch. Her verbal delivery alone should be studied in acting classes. Not since Liz Taylor's bombastic vocal calisthenics in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" has an actress been able to mock, strain and spontaneously monosyllable-ize words with so much poisonous baggage. In the mouth of Reid's character, the simple one-word name "Childie" turns into a drunk, rage-filled, four-second-long excruciating death march, dragged across heavy gravel and squeaked through clenched teeth; "Isn't that right... C-h-h-h-h-i-i-l-l-l-d-d-d-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e!?!?!?" And that's nothing compared to her last three shouted lines in the film, which quite literally had me laughing uncontrollably through wet eyes (I don't want to ruin the end for you - which is amazing).
Georgie is an inept sadist, trapped in a melancholic lock-loop... an endearingly pathetic hero torn between running from the dramatics of sadness and clinging to them for dear life, as it seems to be the only emotional process she can rely on... even in the face of "death." Charlie is a reflection of a certain type of Frankenstein's Monster born only of the gay and lesbian population (worldwide), one which has existed for trillions and billions of years. And one that will continue to, thank God, be a human spectacle forever and ever and ever.
So if you like films of the "Boys In the Band" and "Fortune and Men's Eyes"-type... and haven't seen "The Killing of Sister George" ...by all means DO (it's recently been re-released on fantastic, restored, windscreen format by Anchor Bay). You will in no way be disappointed.
2. Ed Shepp... genius
Remember when you were young and each new form of art or music was a new surprise? Remember when everything was wonderful? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ed Shepp.
While recently gritting my teeth through another installment of one of my favorite radio shows in the world, Kenny G's baffling "Anal Magic" (on one of my favorite things in the world... the free-form radio station WFMU.org) my ears choked on a series of spoken word pieces that Kenny was (once again) slapping at the external auditory meatus' of listeners world-wide. They were done by a man who seemed to have no interest whatsoever in controlling or censoring how he expressed himself, or how that lack of restraint might affect his image in the eyes of others (a characteristic shared by many artists showcased by Kenny). One was called "I Secretly Don't Iron My Clothes" and another was called "Thanksgiving Thoughts". But it was the apocalypticaly creepy and subconsciously discombobulating "Orphanage" that made me really spit out my tube.
I have never heard such a true and righteously accurate channeling of the sweet, southern, schoolmarm voices that haunted and steamrolled my mind in Vacation Bible School during the summers of my early youth. Yow. I immediately emailed Kenny to tell him that it was one of the most disturbing things I had ever heard him play (no small feat - if you're a regular listener of Kenny's show), and he kindly pointed me in the direction of the work of one Ed Shepp, and Ed's blog, and Ed's sound files on the web.
I don't know who or what Ed Shepp is exactly, but his spoken word pieces and songs and short films are like uh... they don't really have a category. They're just genius. And they kept me entertained for hours. Go to one of the places he keeps his mp3-ed work on the web and listen to "GIRL OF CONVEXITUDE" then listen to the amazing "ORPHANAGE" and then "I SECRETLY DON'T IRON MY CLOTHES " and then you'll be hooked. Artists who seem to have no interest whatsoever in controlling or censoring how he they express themselves, or seem to care how that lack of restraint might affect their image in the eyes of others are a dime a fucking dozen (take a trip to Williamsburg) ...but artists who accomplish that AND make fascinating work... now THAT'S something.
3. Graffiti Archeology
Fascinating flash-based web site that shows the progression of graffiti on city walls over the years. The navigation is a little confusing but worth it.
Mark Allen's Top Three
Things for December 1st, 2003:
1. Mr. Picassohead
Mr. Picassohead is one of those interactive art sites that allow you to click and drag pieces of scribbles and lines that represent a certain artist's "style" and create your own forgery. A scroll through the gallery shows that anyone can use this electronic tool to create a Picasso that is not only sometimes quite good, but is easily passable as a real deal to the tourist's eye... and would look gorgeous and highly appropriate sitting on a postcard stand in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's gift shop ...next to Vermeer canvas tote bags, Rembrandt umbrellas, Sue Coe coffee mugs, Mondrian shoe horns and Kiki Smith birth control pill carrying cases.
My creation using Mr. Picassohead; "Gay Bar", is seen above.
2. Hell House (documentary film by George Ratliff, 2002)
Here is a link to the film's official web site.
I finally saw George Ratliff's superb documentary "Hell House"... which is now out on DVD. I highly recommend this subtly hard-hitting documentary about the Trinity Assembly of God Church (near Dallas, Texas) and their controversial Christian-themed Halloween "haunted houses." Dubbed "Hell Houses", these carnival-esque attractions lure people in by the droves ('Step right in folks! Only seven dollars! Are the rumors true!? You won't believe what you'll see!') and use walk-through mise-en-scènes graphically portraying scenarios that not-so-subtly communicate the Trinity Church's views of the consequences of pre-marital sex, homosexuality, drug use, abortion, internet dating, techno music, occultism, classroom violence and teen suicide, with the obvious goal to "scare" people into giving their lives over to Jesus (in which the last room of the exhibit pressures... er, offers... with ministers and prayer leaders on hand). The Hell House phenomenon has caught on in the last six years or so, and has drawn controversy via sensationalistic media reports on the admittedly sensational subject. There are even companies that sell "Hell House" kits to churches. The actual "mini-plays" are, quite literally, Jack Chick tracts come to life... and somehow bridge the gap between early John Waters and late Hieronymus Bosch (via a really, really bad high school play).
Brief side note: there's a great episode of the FOX TV show "King of the Hill" that captures the strange phenomenon with appropriately dark and both-sides-of-the-story satire (season 1, episode #0626, 'Hilloween' - look for the voice of Sally Fields, who is hilarious as the overzealous Christian organizer).
Ratliff's documentary does the hard-to-do by stepping out of each scene and simply recording these people's everyday lives as they plan for their Hell House, try to get their kids to school in the morning, excitedly audition for parts in the Hell House, go on their first dates, build their Hell House, talk about how they met their significant other, mix vats of blood for the Hell House, go to cheerleading practice, organize the security logistics for the opening night of their Hell House, talk about going to a Christian high school and church, record reverb-ed demon voice-overs for their Hell House, go to revivals... and on and on and on into their daily lives as the cliché of the easy-to-laugh-at Christian melts away and you see that these are just normal people with everyday lives who have a particular belief system and a rather clever and sneaky way of getting their ideas expressed. Ratliff's numerous views of the paying audience as they traipse through the exhibition show that few are "falling" for it (including the end).
It's fascinating to watch the Trinity Church community as they show their many strengths (real guns are used for the classroom violence exhibit, knowledge of the occult makes the Satanism exhibit spookily accurate) and weaknesses (a hilariously tepid 'rave' scenario, the inability by anyone in the town to locate the actual medical name of the 'date rape drug') and sense of excitement and working-togetherness as they organize what is revealed, through Ratliff's film, a huge undertaking. The Hell House seems to be the most exciting thing to happen to the community in a while... akin to making a movie or elaborate play. School boys and girls audition for roles like "School Shooter" and "Rape Victim" and "AIDS Victim" and "Suicide Girl" and "Demon - Family Violence Scene" and "Demon - AIDS Scene" ...then excitedly run out of class when the final casting choices are posted in the school's hallway a week later, crying and hugging each other in congratulatory embraces.
"My daughter is playing Suicide Girl this year, probably the hardest role in Hell House... it's really a challenge, and I think she is gonna do a great job..." one father intones as he proudly watches her from the stands, cheerleading her Christian high school football team.
"OK, actually reach up and touch the plexiglass! No... reach all the way up... sit up! Like you're doing crunches!" Now writhe like you're in excruciating pain! Don't breath too much because of the smoke! No, writhe more!" says the organizer of the second-to-the-last room in the house (Hell) as he watches three girls in sneakers, acid-wash jeans and Target tops giggle and titter as they undulate beneath a plexiglass floor filled with disco smoke in a rehearsal... eventually murmuring to his partner; "We'd better not have freshmen girls in there, their parents will totally freak out if they see them down there breathing all that smoke."
"This was my first year as Rape Victim... and it was so, so fun!" says a soon-embarrassed girl at the Hell House Awards Ceremony the church holds every year for all participants (complete with round tables, podiums, presenters, sequin gowns, award statuettes and everything mock-Academy Awards) as she accepts the award for "Best Rape Victim"... giggling along with the audience and then accidentally adding "I'd like to thank all my rapers... John, Kerry, Franklin... oops! Hahaha! I mean... I'd better sit down before this gets any worse! Thanks for a wonderful experience!" (This is a deleted scene included in the DVD's extra's section - and is a sequence that I think would have only strengthened an already strong film)
"Can all you guys go outside!? I need to concentrate... okay... lemme do it again... shut up yall!" a boy laughs embarrassingly as he shouts into a microphone the phrase "MY UNCLE DID HORRIBLE THINGS TO ME AS A BOY, AND MADE ME BELIEVE THINGS ABOUT MYSELF THAT WEREN'T TRUE! HE TOLD ME IT WAS NATURAL!" over and over in a mock-faggy voice in front of his laughing friends at the church's recording studio... to which the engineer eventually tells him "You don't need to do it like that... I'll add the effects later." His response; "Oh... oh, okay."
Ratliff's film saves the actual walk through Hell House for the end of the film. Near end of the exhibit, the makers of Hell House portray the people who accepted Jesus as being herded into Heaven. Heaven is a mylar and tin foil gateway that opens on an angelic sound cue... and the lucky decision makers are herded into a wall of bright light by angels with cardboard wings... who all then disappear from the exhibit. Then those who didn't make the right choice, left at the closed-shut tin foil gate, are attacked by demons, screaming with regret, and dragged to the next room... Hell. The viewers are then allowed in to see the damned writhing in an elaborate fogged, strobe light-ed, black plastic bag walled, rubber snaked-ed, fake fire, plexiglass-ed, scotch taped and stapled vision of the ultimate misery of Hell... complete with wailing soundtrack and a Marilyn Manson-esque master of ceremonies. Why not show Heaven is such detail? Is ultimate, unending bliss too much to think about? Or conceive of? Maybe it was just budgetary constraints...
Ratliff's un-obtrusive eye in a subject where most could not resist the urge to interject (even through editing) results in an amazing documentation. The members of Trinity Church come off as very normal people who hold no airs about their lifestyle and seem well aware about how they are perceived by the rest of the world. Save for a few filmed interviews, nary a trace of pretension comes off in their intentions. They see what they are doing as no different than other big companies who lure people in with portrayals of sex and violence and then try and sell a product (a stance that's hard to argue with - and one that may have backfired, as the Hell House phenomenon has reportedly sent the I.R.S. sniffing around Trinity and other tax-exempt churches who hold similar events).
Ratliff's "Hell House" is a brilliantly up-close, honest, truly thought-provoking portrayal of a huge and un-ignorable section of the American population... an elephant in the living room that is usual viewed from afar from East and West coast binoculars and telescopes. Why "Hell House" received such thin distribution in it's theatrical release last year (it played at only one, small art house, even here in NYC) and Michael Moore's crappy, infinitely shallow, low-balled, over-blown, ego-bloated, wasted opportunity "Bowling For Columbine" (save for the Columbine shooting security cam footage) received such wide global saturation and media drum-beating a year earlier is... well it's not beyond me, but it's a true shame. Michael Moore could learn a lot from George Ratliff.
So if you see George Ratliff's video or DVD of "Hell House" at your local video store... check it out! At the very least, you will in no way be bored. And be sure to check out the deleted scenes in the DVD's extra features section... which includes some great scenes that were probably axed due to time restraints.
Someone named George (thanks George!) sent me this link to artist Scott Kim's "inversions" - which take the palindrome concept further, kind of, by exhibiting words in a script that allows them to be read the same right side up as upside down. Apparently, "ambigram" is the correct term for such word groupings (palindromed ambigrams anyone?) I found the work on the site to be fascinating in an M. C. Escher-like way.
Copyright 2003 Mark Allen
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