All serious art presents a challenge to its interlocutors, resists paraphrase and frustrates interpretation. The strange richness of Peggy Ahwesh’s filmmaking throws us up against the paucity of our own language. “Do I have words for what I am seeing?”: watching and re-watching her films provoke this question – the spectre of ineffability. This experience seems ever more curious when we consider the place granted to language in the films themselves. The films often cite (or even recite) any number of literary, theoretical and philosophical texts. Yet this practice of citation, appropriation and allusion, of folding language into, or asking it to hover above, the image is predicated on an understanding of the shortcomings of language itself. For Ahwesh’s work proceeds first from the act of seeing, or more accurately, looking – at the world and the bodies that inhabit it.
Ahwesh was reared in Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania, in her own words, “one of those sad industrial towns” (1) near Pittsburgh. She went to school at Antioch College in the 1970s where she studied with Tony Conrad (“a father figure”) (2) and was introduced to radical artists and filmmakers like Paul Sharits, Carolee Schneeman and Joyce Wieland. She returned to Pittsburgh after school, threw herself into its burgeoning punk scene and started shooting Super-8 films that documented, quite idiosyncratically, the things, people and places around her. In organising a film series at an art space called The Mattress Factory, Ahwesh decided to invite as her first guest George Romero, a Pittsburgh filmmaker himself, whose native city had paid him little notice before Ahwesh’s invitation. Their meeting led to Ahwesh’s working as a production assistant on Romero’s Creepshow (1982) (3). The immersion in Romero’s phantasmagoria seems so uncannily fitting, given the trajectory of Ahwesh’s career, as to be nearly over-determined, yet, as anecdote (Ahwesh recalls that she was “assigned to entertain Stephen King’s son and played ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ with him”) (4) it manifests the unstudied and nerdy cool of Ahwesh’s films themselves.
After the Romero stint Ahwesh moved to New York and continued making films and doing tech work at The Kitchen, one of the nerve centres of New York’s experimental performance scene. As her notoriety has increased over the past two decades she has been the subject of major museum retrospectives and the recipient of some of the most prestigious awards given to practising creative artists. At present she teaches at Bard College and continues to live in New York City.
Despite the Romero episode, biography does not go far in illuminating Ahwesh’s films, despite how much we actually sense her physical presence in many of the films themselves – behind the camera, on the soundtrack, etc. In fact, it is this palpable present-ness in her work that almost obviates the biographical crutch. For in looking at her work we feel summoned to participate in an epistemological experiment that is the very substance of the films themselves.
This is heady language – we might even think inappropriate – for discussing a body of artistic work in which memorable moments include a fake plastic hand playing a harp, a grown woman threatening to use a microphone as a dildo or Ahwesh herself playing the computer game Tomb Raider. Ahwesh’s is messy work – gloriously messy – and is deeply invested in the luxurious plenitude of the visual field. The films look great and yet are never merely pretty; they frustrate aestheticising, formalist tastes. Likewise, although the films often cite theoretical texts, they are never merely theoretical. They inhabit a strange stretch of territory in the world of experimental film and video, never exhibiting the formal shape of, say, a Hollis Frampton or the precise political clarity of a Su Friedrich. Ahwesh’s practice is a porous one, grounded on a radical technique of pastiche and aimed at unsettling categories and hierarchies.
As is always the case, it is better to attend to the films themselves than to belabour the qualities they share generally. I will start with The Deadman, a film Ahwesh made with her collaborator Keith Sanborn in 1990. It is one of her best-known films and one that immerses us straightaway into many of her preoccupations and methods.
The film grew out of Ahwesh and Sanborn’s interest in the work of Georges Bataille and in particular Bataille’s text Le Mort which Sanborn translated and on which the film is loosely based. Bataille’s investigations of the morbid and the transgressive found sympathy with Ahwesh’s Romero-inflected interest in the horror film. Shot in black and white 16 mm, The Deadman actually begins as a sort of horror film: its opening images are of a white frame house, shot from below, the time either dusk or dawn. On the soundtrack someone gasps in (what sounds like) agony. Next we hear the sound of breaking glass and the beating of bird wings, as the image cuts, first to a close up of chandelier, creaking as it sways from the ceiling, next to a shot of a man lying naked on rumpled bed sheets, his penis flaccid in the cradle of his thighs. Scoring the last image is the sound of a buzzing fly – a metonymic soundtrack of death and decay. The next shot is from the outside of the house again, as a woman, naked but for a thin plastic raincoat, leaves the house running. The naked man is the film’s ”Dead Man”, the woman, Marie. Ahwesh’s camera then follows her as she fucks, pisses, shits and vomits her way through the rest of the film.
The film’s events more or less follow those of the story. Ahwesh has said that she was drawn to adapt the text because she liked “how Bataille does not explain the emotions of the characters” (5). The camera actually seems to savour its exteriority to the events of the profilmic. The use of silent film intertitles, all actual lines culled from the original Bataille story, reinforces the exteriority of the film’s narration. For instance, as Marie flees the house of the Dead Man (who is named Edward, we learn) and runs into the woods, an intertitle in inserted which reads “When Edward fell back Marie felt a void open.” Then, just after this, a flat female voiceover intones “The time had come to deny the laws to which fear subjects us.” When Marie arrives, some seconds later, (having stopped to piss along the way) in darkness at the doorway of a bar, rain falling and the sound of rain falling, she waits more than two minutes to enter. The camera records this waiting in its entirety in one very long take. The image is poorly lit – so dark we can barely make Marie out only when she moves falteringly into a small sash of light on screen right. In the middle of this long take an intertitle appears which reads “Marie despaired but played with her despair.”
All of these pronouncements gesture towards human, psychological interiority, and yet the film gives us no entry whatsoever into the mental life of this character. The intertitles, in their archly archaic obsolescence, suggest the insuperable gap between word and image, between the signifying system of language and the phenomenological process of looking at something (a dead man, a woman, a film). In fact, the snippets of Bataille’s actual (though translated) language that the voiceover and intertitles give us clearly declare the film’s independence from its source.
The film might be misunderstood to have undertaken the uncomfortable burden of translating the “transgressive” acts described in Bataille’s text to the screen, as if to do so would itself constitute an act of transgression. Such a project would have been silly; Ahwesh and Sanborn’s concerns are elsewhere. Ahwesh has said herself, “I think of The Deadman as one long female jouissance, not a transgression at all” (6). Marie, the main character (played with fantastic abandon by the filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery) derives her jouissance from letting the patrons of the seedy bar pleasure and penetrate her body. The film itself, though, is grooving on its own jouissance – playfully pitting intertitle against image, the documentation of what looks to be very real sex among very drunk people with the make-believe phoniness of the set. (The actors are dressed like kids who have raided a thrift store, and empty beer cans posing as full give themselves away with the hollow sound they make when placed on the table.) As Marie rolls around the floor of the bar with Pierrot, one of the bar’s patrons, the camera records the whole of the sloppy encounter, again in what might be called an uncomfortably long long take. We think of Pasolini here, of Jack Smith, of Warhol.
While the rough, embodied (because hand-held), often over- or under-lit cinematography creates a squalid visual glamour and thus claims our attention, part of our interest is nonetheless in the mere – or very – fact of watching this amorphous “scene” unfold. When will it end? How much more will we see? What allows me to see this? Scott MacDonald, in his interview with Ahwesh, confessed to her his failure to appreciate The Deadman, saying “it felt like a student film” (7). But it is exactly the film’s deceptive slackness that constitutes its philosophical and even political rigour: only through its superficially amateurish (often hilarious) elisions and dilations, its mordant tautologies (8) and wilful omissions, its hokey dialogue and its raw display of female sexuality can the film succeed in forcing the kinds of questions it does from its viewers.
The mise-en-scène is less overtly dark in Martina’s Playhouse (1989), but the film has as unsettling an effect on its audience as The Deadman. The film switches back and forth between two Super 8 sound home movies: one of the young Martina (Martina Torr) and her mother (the performance artist Diane Torr) in their cramped New York apartment; the other of Jennifer Montgomery (Marie from The Deadman) clowning around in Ahwesh’s own apartment. In both cases Ahwesh is behind the camera. These two home movies are punctuated by beautifully fragile, seemingly decayed and scratched close-up footage of flowers and flashes of leader. Over this footage we hear recited texts from Bataille on the sexual meaning of flowers and Lacan on the constitution of desire in the field of the Other.
The editing back and forth between the child Martina and the adult Jennifer is fascinating. Both are incredible performers, fully aware of the way that Ahwesh’s camera interpellates them as such. Martina, preparing to go “on” whilst putting a dress on her plush toy frog, screams over and over, “I’m not ready!” as Ahwesh continues to film. Jennifer, on the other hand, reminds Ahwesh that she wouldn’t be there were it not for the camera. These slight gestures of resistance from her subjects (9), however, are displaced by the pleasure they obviously take in exhibiting themselves for the camera.
The scenes with Martina are the centre of the film. In them Martina narrates her interpretations of images torn from magazines and interacts with her mother and Ahwesh, who stays behind the camera but whom we occasionally hear. The scenes of playacting between mother and child are the most challenging. At one point Martina’s mother pretends to be a baby and nurse from Martina’s breast. The scene is a powerful document of the creativity and freedom that can be explored in the context of parent-child relationships. At the same time, because of the repressive nature of our own culture in regards to the subject of childhood sexuality, the footage makes its viewers somewhat nervous. Although it is not even remotely pornographic, the intimacy of the footage and its long, unstructured nature provoke us into thought. Why, when there is nothing perverse about the footage, does it make us uncomfortable? As well, there is a strangeness that results from the implicit acknowledgement that, although this is incredibly privileged footage in terms of its immediacy, the footage is also highly mediated – as much a performance as Martina’s narrating the meanings of the magazine pictures or as, at another point in the film, Jennifer’s threatening to use Ahwesh’s microphone as a dildo.
The flower footage is the neat, nearly formalist, counterpart to these scenes. Early on we hear a voice reading Bataille’s theory of the sexuality of flowers over the image. This text explains that the giving of flowers as a sign of love enacts the displacement at the very heart of sexual desire. Later we hear, again over similar flower footage, Ahwesh coaching Martina through reading aloud Lacan’s “The Subject and the Other: Aphanisis.” Martina reads hesitantly but with a persistent cadence. She mistakenly reads “point of lack” as “part of luck”; Ahwesh corrects her. Later, again over similar footage, Ahwesh reads the excerpt again, imitating Martina’s metronomic rhythm. While the appropriation and insertion (uncredited) of these bits of theory set up a broad field of resonance with the footage of Martina and Jennifer, there is clearly, as in The Deadman, meant to be no one-to-one correspondence between the texts and the film. Martina’s “misreading” clearly undermines whatever authority we might have granted to these texts (especially the Lacan, since that is the text whose reading is both enforced and bungled). Ahwesh’s enforcing Martina to rehearse the Lacan also seems to signal the filmmaker’s own acknowledgement of the burden she forces her footage to bear, both in its own terms and vis-à-vis Lacanian theory. As well, even our own desire to over-read the film in terms of its quotation of Lacan seems to be made suspect by the film’s own deceptive nonchalance. For a film seemingly rather lacking in rigorous form, Martina’s Playhouse actually sets up an electrifying network of correspondences.
The film of Ahwesh’s that most determinedly takes on the subjects of sexuality and vision is undoubtedly The Color of Love (1994). Essentially it is a found footage film. According to Ahwesh, a friend dropped off a load of old film canisters that had been left outside, prey to the elements. Inside one canister Ahwesh discovered a Super-8mm pornographic film of two women making love to each other and to a man who appears to be dead or unconscious. The film had become degraded and decayed which gave it an amazing richness of color and texture. Ahwesh “did an improv on the optical printer”, “slowing some sections down and speeding others up a bit, repeating some things, and elongating the cunt shots” (10). Then she added a score of tango music. What resulted is one of the most beautiful and provocative artefacts in film history. The use of the tango music seems a clear nod in the direction of Un Chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1928). Like its surrealist predecessor, The Color of Love is an assault on the norms of vision. It is explicit; it shows too much. The seductive surface of the film (if ever there were a case for haptic cinema or embodied vision, this is it) draws us into a pas de deux of attraction and repulsion.
The Scary Movie (1993) is another collaboration with Martina Torr, who by the time the film was shot, was some years older than she was in Martina’s Playhouse. Shot in wonderfully high contrast black and white with very low key lighting, the film is one of Ahwesh’s most beautiful and most light-hearted; it is also the most reflexive of her many nods towards the horror genre. The film features Martina and co-star/playmate Sonja Mereu. While Martina is costumed in cheap girls’ dress up clothes, Sonja has a fake moustache, black gloves and prosthetic monster fingers. The first shot is a repetitive and jerky hand-held pan of a hand drawn music score while the sounds of Psycho-like violins play on the soundtrack. So begins what might be called an anatomising re-reading of the horror genre. The entire soundtrack is a pastiche of music and sounds native to the horror film – screams, strings, squeaking doors, footsteps, etc – although with a few corny phrases and sound effects that sound as though they’ve been lifted from a Warner Brothers cartoon. At various points a prosthetic rubber hand (obviously manipulated by a human extending from offscreen space) reaches mock-eerily to caress Martina who pretends to be asleep. Sonja probes/assaults Martina with kitchen tongs and later stabs her repeatedly with a tin-foil knife, and in turn is stabbed by the rubber hand wielding a similar weapon. In the middle of the film’s duration, Sonja holds up a poster announcing the credits (she is credited as the “Doctor/Killer”, Martina as the “Patient/Hand Lover”). Then we see the girls screaming, then dancing. They seem to have escaped their outing into the horror genre. The film ends.
The Scary Movie toys with the creaky machinery of horror while simultaneously articulating an understanding of childhood as a joyously ludic domain, one part Romantic innocence, one part grand guignol. As well, it reveals the violence of the genre – violence usually directed against women – to be a play of silly and thoroughly controvertible conventions. While Ahwesh clearly enjoys indulging in the tropes of the horror film, she also is distant enough from it to end her film with her heroines fully alive and unscarred.
The horror film haunts Ahwesh’s work as a generic possibility (there are elements of it, for instance, in the found film source for The Color of Love), but Ahwesh treats it most elaborately in Nocturne (1998). Ahwesh based her script on a review she read online of a Mario Bava film The Whip and the Net (1963). Nocturne is loosely about a woman whose lover is dead but whose ghost continues to visit her. The plot is a pretext for Ahwesh to explore familiar thematic material (the irreducible excesses of life, death and sex) while giving free reign to her visual imagination. Nocturne is perhaps Ahwesh’s most unembarrassedly beautiful work. The film shifts back and forth between black and white film and pixelvision. The camera luxuriates in the play of light and shadow, landscape, the patterns of wallpaper, the sharp and forbidding beauty of the face of its main character (played by Anne Kugler). While ostensibly a ghost story, the film seems to want to lose itself in the phenomenal rather than the noumenal. Ahwesh’s pixelvision cinematography stages a kind of intimacy of infinite regress. The digital graininess of pixelvision makes it seem that the closer the camera draws to its object, the further the object moves away, or breaks into millions of tiny constituent parts, disappearing into what Lyotard has called the “unpresentable”. Here Ahwesh’s cinema opens out onto the sublime, which is itself an ecstatic, even religious, experience, one arrived at through the brooding swarm of the material.
Nocturne shares its pixelvision cinematography with Strange Weather (1993), a fake documentary about crack addicts that Ahwesh made with Margie Strosser, a fellow traveller of her Pittsburgh Super 8 days. Set and shot in Florida, Strange Weather‘s camera observes its pseudo-subjects from an almost unbearably close physical range as they arrange scores on the phone, freak out about being caught by the police and kill time telling stories while waiting for a hurricane to roll into town. The film’s feeling of hypnotic tedium and its milieu of grimy, nervous languor are achieved through its extreme close up cinematography and its near Warholian interest in duration. By threatening to swallow up its overdetermined “subject” (drug addiction), the film’s outlandish form (which is almost a kind of formlessness) produces a space for ethical reflection on this same subject that could not be accessed through the usual, tired discourses on drug use.
In recent work Ahwesh has continued to force serious philosophical questions from unlikely material. The footage that constitutes She Puppet (2001) was recorded directly from Ahwesh’s computer as she played the video game Tomb Raider, famous for its robotically voluptuous animated protagonist Lara Croft. As she seems to push the character to the outer edges of the Tomb Raider world, different female voiceovers read from the work of Sun Ra, Joanna Russ and Fernando Pessoa. As we watch Lara Croft fend off attacking huskies and machine gun wielding commandos, dying again and again, we catch ourselves attributing the content of the voiceover texts to Lara’s subjectivity. She Puppet therefore cunningly demonstrates the improbable persistence of the processes of spectator identification. But more importantly, the film performs this work in the context of posing larger questions about the incredibly abstract, but at the same time all too real and particular, nature of the category of the female in our cultural imaginary. There is nothing real or realistic about the animated image of Lara Croft, and yet, through the repetitive acts of violence and self-destruction, she becomes real and we find ourselves believing in her on the very basis of her being obsessively violated. In many ways She Puppet is the most succinct and powerful essay on the position of women in the field of cinematic vision since Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.
The contours of Ahwesh’s work expand far beyond the few examples I have discussed here (11). What holds the body of her work together is its global resistance to the notion of being held together, to boundaries, to resolution. Ahwesh’s explanation of her resistance to narrative might serve as a sort of ars poetica:
The reason I’ve never liked narrative is because traditionally narrative film has to have resolution. By the end, you’re supposed to be able to figure out why things happened the way they did. And I’ve always been more into presenting a problem and getting you into an emotional place where you understand the calamity or joy or desire within a person’s life. It’s like a texture, or a mood, a moment – not this is the story and this is how it turns out. (12)
This attitude has generated a labile openness and indeterminacy in Ahwesh’s work that has proved richly rewarding. While her films consistently engage and challenge us in their experiments with form, they do not present us with a closed textual or authorial system. They have, rather, the courage to act centrifugally – to fling us away from themselves and back into the world from which they come, of which they are a part and which they have enriched.
Pittsburgh Trilogy (1983) 50 mins, film
Ode to the New Pre-History (1984–1987) 25 mins, film
From Romance to Ritual (1985) 10 mins, film
The Fragments Project (1985–1995) 50 mins, film
Philosophy in the Bedroom (1987) 10 mins, film
I Ride a Pony Named Flame (1988) 5 mins, video
Martina’s Playhouse (1989) 20 mins, film
The Deadman (with Keith Sanborn, 1990) 40 mins, film
Strange Weather (with Margie Strosser) (1993) 50 mins, video
The Scary Movie (1993) 7 mins, film
The Color of Love (1994) 10 mins, film
the vision machine (1997) 20 mins, film
Nocturne (1998) 30 mins, film
73 Suspect Words and Heaven’s Gate (1999–2000) 8 mins, video
She Puppet (2001) 15 mins, video
The Star Eaters (2003) 24 mins, video
Certain Women co-directed with Bobby Abate (2004) 72 mins, video
* Much of Ahwesh’s early work on Super 8 is uncatalogued
Peggy Ahwesh, “Lara Croft – Tomb Raider”, Film Comment, July–August 2001, p. 77.
Manohla Dargis, “On the Deadman”, Artforum, May 1990, pp. 29–30.
Tom Gunning, “Towards a Minor Cinema: Fonoroff, Herwitz, Ahwesh, Klahr, Lapore and Solomon”, Motion Picture, vol. 3, nos. 1–2, 1989–90, pp. 2–5.
Michelle Handelman, “Women’s Studies”, Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2002, p. 12.
J. Hoberman, “Attack of the Mutants”, The Village Voice, 14 March 2000, p. 115.
Scott MacDonald, “Peggy Ahwesh” (interview), Millennium Film Journal, 39–40, 2003, pp. 1–30.
Ivone Margulies, “After the Fall: Peggy Ahwesh’s Vérité”, Motion Picture, 3, Winter 1989–90.
Catherine Russell, “Culture as Fiction: The Ethnographic Impulse in the Films of Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton” in John Lewis (ed.), The New American Cinema, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 353–378.
Biography and filmography with brief outline. Peggy Ahwesh can also be contacted here.
Reel New York
Peggy on The Vision Machine.
Electronic Arts Intermix
Some of her films are available for rental and/or sale. Site also includes a biography and bibliography.
Stranded in the Jungle–17
A piece on The Color of Love.
Interview with Peggy Ahwesh
Requires Acrobat Reader.
Project Page – The Star Eaters
Information about this work, includes production stills.
- Scott MacDonald, “Peggy Ahwesh” (interview), Millennium Film Journal, 39–40, 2003, p. 1.
- This intersection of talents rates in my mind as one of those great footnotes of film history – up there with Georges and Sylvia Bataille (the latter would later become Mrs Jacques Lacan) and Luchino Visconti all working on Jean Renoir’s Une Partie de campagne (1936).
- MacDonald, p. 2.
- MacDonald, p. 23.
- MacDonald, p. 24.
- MacDonald, p. 21.
- For example, when Marie stops to piss in the woods and an intertitle appears declaring, “Marie pissed…”. The film recalls Bresson’s use of the tautological voiceover in Pickpocket.
- Catherine Russell sees this film as an example of postmodern ethnography. Cf. “Culture as Fiction: The Ethnographic Impulse in the Films of Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton” in John Lewis (ed.), The New American Cinema, Durham, Duke University Press, 1998, pp. 353–378.
- Ahwesh in MacDonald, pp. 25–26.
- Currently she is at work, with her current collaborator Robbie Abate, on Certain Women, an episodic, multi-character, multi-plot work based on Erskine Caldwell’s eponymous collection of short stories. Ahwesh chose the source text precisely because of its shoddiness as literature. The stories all tend toward melodramatic studies in female abjection.
- MacDonald, p. 30.