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Within the Range of Normal

Julie Murray. Notes on “Speechless”, a short film by Scott Stark

Recently in his column Savage Love, Dan Savage described the vagina as: "canned ham dropped from a great height" and set off a minor shit storm in response. While I found the mental image of what occurs in Savage’s brain by such an event irresistibly funny, I couldn’t help dwelling on the politic of the choice of material involved.  Everyone knows a vagina is much closer in appearance and texture to the flesh of a mussel, say, or an oyster. These are gastronomical delicacies and therefore prized, whereas canned meat is a substance already so degraded as to be as readily and perhaps more suitably put to use as a general-purpose projectile than eaten as food. One can’t help feeling that tossing it off a roof is as much bother as one should put into its evaluation; simultaneously effective as appraisal and dismissal and requiring no more than a good shove.

It’s difficult for me to find the fun in equating this part of the female anatomy with such a scorned thing. All the inequity, glaring and subtle, pandemic and chronic, draws over the comedy, seeming to reestablish unbridgeable distance and highlight differences all at once and all over again.

It is personal, after all, and immutably so for one entire half of the world’s population. It is impossible for the issue of gender not to be both that big and that close.  This difference, the result of the random outcome of who is biologically bequeathed what, stands as the defining and fateful reason for many women’s circumstance in the world. While it undoubtedly works both ways it seems to me to lean a little more to one side than the other.

It is through this inevitably subjective and mediating veil that I view Speechless, the most recent short film by the artist and filmmaker, Scott Stark (a Milwaukee native) that recently screened at the Milwaukee Underground Film Festival. It is an 13 minute work of considerable presence and intensity, its predominant imagery a series of extreme close-up photographs of female genitalia which are taken from an angle more typically associated with a pornographic point of view. 
Scott Stark, 2009

If these images, so stark and confrontational, were to be erroneously confused with generic porn, they might be of the homemade variety, competently framed, adequately lit and shy of expensive trimmings and cosmetic pink powders.

But something here does not add up, for the framing is rather harshly set in so close as to almost abstract the image, and in so doing stimulates our curiosity in an unexpected direction, such as: how strange the order and pattern of convoluted flesh in these moist and dark areas of the human body, and, how is it that hyperbolic geometry is so difficult to map with mathematical equation yet happens so effortlessly in nature, from the coral reef to the crenellated lettuce leaf to the puffy convolved arrangement of the labia minora.

Within such a formal approach a particular sensuality expresses itself, one that comprises a broader existential physical pleasure, simultaneously shared and observed by all persons, and so drifts from the strict politic of gender and propriety, though never completely detaches from it.

The closest antecedent to Stark’s direct manner of using such content is perhaps Ann Severson’s 1971 film, Near the Big Chakra, in which 38 females ranging in age from 3 months to 63 years and including a variety of race and economic class, posed for the camera so that their exposed genitals filled the whole frame. Each shot lasts about 20 seconds or so and there is no movement within the frame as such. The film begins without explanation or apology and ends as it began, with a closely framed shot of a vagina, which by then seemed to have distinct personalities, so different was one from the next.

By some paradoxical turn the highly formal structure of the film, both in its framing and stillness, expresses a palpable liveliness of the participating women and stands as an unequivocal document of their self-determination. In a most forthright catalog of the female form, this work confronts directly the industrial pornographic image it most immediately resembles and replaces it with an unexpected warmth and intimacy. Severson manages to present a wholly dimensional portrait of the participants in spite of the fact only a fraction of their person is shown.  In her account of the making of the film she said: “I didn’t particularly want Chakra to turn men on, but it would seem too bad if an unhurried, non-sexual view of the human vagina turned them off.”

Stark shares a similar desire, asking himself whether or not it is possible as a man to gaze without pre-judgment or self-indictment, at the extraordinary intimate form of the female human body.

The pictures of vaginas used in Speechless, for the record, are ‘found’, that is, pre-existing documents originally published in The Clitoris 1976 by Thomas Lowry, MD and Thea Snyder Lowry, MA, as part of the Marital Therapists Training Project for the California Dept of Health. In this publication 28 stereoscopic photographs of female genitalia are reproduced and are described by the authors as, “within the range of normal.”

Presumably a matter of great relief to any number of husbands who found themselves without any idea of what to expect or reference with which to compare said unexpected. (The line drawings in Our Bodies Ourselves, published some three years earlier, being perhaps not entirely up to the task of quelling anxiety or simply satisfying one’s curiosity, though I remember they went a long way).  Here was state-sanctioned proof that this dark, mysterious, unfathomable gorgeous thing was grand, right and natural and actually common, as it was variegated, as the nose on a plain, ordinary persons face.

Stark begins his film with the shimmering, wobbling image of the rusted surface of an unidentified object, impenetrable and arid, it’s mottled form rotating slowly and hypnotically on an angular plane. This image along with others throughout the piece, are less defined and oddly enigmatic. Photographed by Stark himself using a 35mm stereo camera they are exchanged in frame-by-frame animation with the trembling clitorides, in such a way as to present a continuous oscillation between highly contrasted colors, textures and shapes that seem to cause the image to hover as it conveys and hypnotizes at the same time. The effect at base is not unlike viewing an op art painting.

This simple yet powerful combination immediately liberates the mind to roam in wide and uninhibited paths so that many angles of perception and contemplation may be engaged in at once, of content and form, transforming the viewing of the work into something one wholly experiences as opposed to something one reads at a distance.  Interpretation of time in this work and ideas of its “passage”, usually central to the documentary and standard narrative form, is here suggested through ideas of simultaneity, so that while the piece is of a fixed 13 minutes in “length”, it seems to be revealed more in the manner of a painting, both still and moving at once.

The visual effect of the film is compellingly enhanced by the powerful accompanying score, entitled, “Pulse”, by sound artist and musician Greg Headley, wherein there plays a kind of breathing motif expressed among the drones and changes which act on one’s very person and seems to level all the emotions allowing one to fully absorb all the aspects and implications of the imagery together.

Scott Stark, 2009

Through the hypnotic effects of the animation, in which the picture plane pans, tilts, rotates or oscillates with variously, a mirror image of itself, another picture entirely, or its stereoscopic partner, the viewer is lulled into effortless acceptance of this eccentric ordering of things, and from that place begins to explore the legend the film might hold. In this illuminating form of things convolved, the pattern shared by vertically oriented prepuce and labia majora on the one hand, and a cluster of small rocks nestled between two larger rocks on the other, with playful self-consciousness seem to inject the very pulse of life into inanimate things: to put blood into a stone.  [excerpt from Speechless here: http://icn09.p-silo.org/video/09105.mov - Ed.]

In a written statement accompanying the film in which Stark describes his approach to the images and the problems that invariably presented themselves, he suggests that, through this form of animation, that of oscillating between the two slightly differentiated images of the stereoscopic view, (such as he employed in his earlier film Angel Beach (2001), the vagina might appear to be speaking. Not just a syllable here and there, or even whole words, but in sentences with a vocabulary.

Angel Beach
Scott Stark (2001)

In the evident personal challenge he has set himself and his realistic anxieties about perceived rights, freedoms or entitlements in choosing this kind of material as an art form (“Should I be even looking at these images with ‘artistic’ eyes?”), this speculation seems surprisingly predictable and somewhat clichéd. The pretension of a talking vagina suggests all the attributes of Pygmalion, and a few more besides, without the burden of all those limbs, a head, or a need for social education. 

Stark’s speculation in this instance highlights some queries I have on one or two of the arrangements and combinations of images in the work itself. It is as though occasionally in it’s dizzying perceptual whirl, the work momentarily knocks against a hard wall of critical and indisputable reality.  I am awakened from not merely a pleasant, but an intensely transportive soporific state and suddenly compelled to read the images in the film for the politic of their content. In so doing I am reminded again of my place among the ordinary cruelties of gender inequity, itself a cliché, true, I admit.

If there is any parsing to be done it is not so much through lip-reading the vaginas themselves as it is in the meta-words formed from the “syllables” of the individual images which have in their interleaved animated pattern, the arresting power and mystery of bird song. These images, of anonymous surfaces and natural textures, including sections of concrete wall stained with paint or rust, out of which the odd nail protrudes and muddy, grassy, leafy grounds, at times bifurcated and dissected by planks, twigs or stone verges, or delineated by some haphazard vegetal drift, pose an intriguing counterpoint and are immensely rich in combination with the livid crenellations of the vaginas they interact with.

Sometimes the images, flickering one against the other, are overlaid so particularly as to highlight an aspect of one or both, which when viewed on its own, shows no particular distinction at all.  In this way, a new, enlivened anima emerges that exists only in the instance of energy between the two frames.

These pairings are not without their genuine strangeness and sense of alarm, as in the animation near the beginning of the film that slowly aligns the image of a rusty iron handle, curling from a concrete surface like a long turd, with that of the opening of a vagina, where it appears to either embed itself, or is being ejected from, the tender recess of the flesh. It is a disturbing combination, a direct intervention in violation of the body, transgressive in its implications, but so situated in the general melancholic tone of the work as to create consternation in such a reading of this pair, as though the image-syllables have inadvertently combined to form some coherent and devastating decree, like messages heard in portentous dreams that one finds impossible to reconstruct upon waking.

However, these small sharp spikes of anxiety invoked by the pairings are primal and so critically engaging to the work. Perhaps it is this very tension, that of the hypnosis and the day-lit discomfort suggested by these pairings, the lure and the repulsion, the sugar and the whip, which most artfully and accurately describe the soul of seduction.

Speechless will be screened at the UWM Union Theatre on Sept 22, 7 pm in a program of recent artists films and videos. www.uniontheatre.uwm.edu

Julie Murray was born in Dublin, Ireland and is currently residing here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has completed more than 20 short experimental films and has collaborated on numerous film installation/performance events with artists, musicians and other filmmakers. Along with numerous screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The San Francisco Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive in California, her work has been included in the New York Film Festival, Images Film Festival in Toronto, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival, USA.  Moma and The Whitney Museum of American Art's Film Archives have acquired prints of Murray's films.

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