What mysterious force lay behind the teenage grrrl’s crudely drawn but strangely evocative masks?
Sadie Benning has been a cause celebre in the queer community for almost a decade. Born in 1973 to a filmmaker father and an artist mother, she began making short films at age 15 and two years later came out as a lesbian. An iconoclast even as a teen, she employed the infamous “Pixelvision” camera in most of her early work and continues to use it. For the uninitiated, Pixelvision was a “kiddie camcorder” from the late 1980s that sold for $100. Few kids bought them, but artists and filmmakers did, seeing fresh possibilities in the low-resolution format that gave everything an enticingly vague, “pixelated” look. (Rumor has it they now sell for as high as $1,000, though one appeared recently on the online auction house for around $300.)
If her format was obscure, her subjects weren’t. The early films are in the classic diaristic mode of experimental film: shot in her bedroom, starring an array of objects both culture-constructed (Barbie, natch) and self-constructed (masks). Her main subject was herself, coming to terms with a pervasive 1980s culture of junk TV and mindless consumerism and finding some kind of comfort level there as a budding dyke-artiste. In the early films, she appears as a fragmented character, floating elusively in and out of the frame. But Jollies, made when she was 17, shows her as an increasingly bold presence in her own work. In overdub she reads some lines describing her sexual awakening: “It started in 1978 when I was in kindergarten. They were twins and I was a tomboy. I always thought of real clever things to say, like I love you.” A brief visual counterpoint to these words is the famous Diane Arbus shot of twin little girls.
Benning’s manipulations of her material show a surprising complexity. In spite of her youth she was increasingly regarded as an important video artist, with frequent showings at film festivals and museums and a Rockefeller grant at 19. During an interview with The Advocate in 1990, she showed a strong political bent too: “My dad said to me, ‘You know, I’m really worried that all your work is just going to be on one subject.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, my life.’ He makes [experimental] films. What are his films about? They’re about his life. It just so happens that his sexuality isn’t something that people are going to label or talk about or say, ‘He’s the heterosexual artist.'”
One can only wonder what Benning’s father made of The Judy Spots, her five short films starring a grimly oppressed papier-mâché teenager named Judy that were shown on MTV in 1998. It’s hard not to see these brief works as autobiographical; in spite of their length, they have an intensity that could only have come from a sensibility that’s studied our culture and come to some disturbing conclusions. In “Judy Feels Sad,” Benning takes the admonition “You shouldn’t cry in public” to hilariously dark extremes, as her pitiful moaning puppet unravels emotionally before our eyes, complete with cut-out teardrops on strings. “Judy Hates Her Job” shows the impossibility of reconciling society’s demands for programmed behavior with Judy’s desire to be herself, marked by her stuck-record screams of “I’m a people person!”
Benning’s integration of drawing, masks, and video with a sure sense of how the consumer world impinges on, indeed overwhelms, the inner life is brilliantly played out in Flat Is Beautiful (1998), her most ambitious work to date. This 56-minute featurette shot partly in Pixelvision (interiors) and partly in Super 8 (exteriors) again has the feeling of autobiography. The story traces the life of latchkey kid Taylor (Sammy Steel), a 12-year-old girl living with her mother and a gay roommate. (Watch for a playful hardcore interlude between the roommate and the mailman.) Here Benning takes a potentially fatal artistic risk in having her actors wear crudely drawn masks throughout, but this not only doesn’t detract from the story but gives it enormous force as her characters’ authentic feelings and desires continuously strain to break through these rigid, unforgiving, literally constructed identities.