Stuart Gordon’s Alternative Avant-Garde

Stuart Gordon’s Alternative Avant-Garde

Stuart Gordon’s Alternative Avant-Garde

On the legacy of the horror movie auteur.


I have twice reviewed films directed by Stuart Gordon—his adaptation of David Mamet’s play Edmond in 2006 and his gruesome fable about airheaded self-involvement and the will to survive, Stuck, in 2008—taking care to disclose that the filmmaker was a friend. This was fair notice but also a considerable understatement. Along with the other, far more prominent brothers, sisters, and whatevers of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, I used to call Stuart not just a friend but Fearless Leader, in three-quarters jest. This was in the 1970s and early ’80s, before he got his hands on movie equipment, as he’d always wanted to, and made himself internationally famous with Re-Animator, the surpassingly grotesque, gory, and hilarious H.P. Lovecraft adaptation he devised with his old friend (and proto–Organic Theater conspirator) Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris. Given this information, you will not be surprised that I learned from Stuart how to make stage blood. (The best formula: McCormick red food dye titrated into Wisk laundry detergent, which imparts a lurid, purplish hue to the mixture and enables you to wash the costume in a sink between shows.) I learned a lot more as well; so much, in fact, that Stuart has loomed unseen over this film column since the day I began writing it. When I found out on the morning of March 25 that he had died—not of Covid-19 but heartbreakingly isolated from his family and friends because of the pandemic—the light of the present dimmed (not that it’s bright to begin with, here in my social-distancing quarters) as I spiraled into the past.

Which is where I see a lot of us now spending our time. Despite many journalistic speculations about how life will change after Covid-19, in everything from the conduct of elections to the stuff you run into at art galleries, these visions of the future are all bluff and guesswork. Nobody knows anything quantifiable—how long the pandemic will last, the eventual death toll, the magnitude of the economic damage, the time that recovery will take—let alone such phantoms as qualitative outcomes. As I write, I don’t even know when theaters will reopen or which film titles might be current as you read this, if you’re among the people with access to streaming services. I do know that fresh streaming releases will be ongoing, with films originally planned for the theaters and those meant from the start for the likes of Netflix or Amazon. But to judge from the preponderance of articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as the personal comments that reach me, people for the moment are less interested in cinematic novelty than in finding comfort or distraction in movies from the past.

In this, too, Stuart remains my teacher. In many ways a traditionalist, more friendly toward 1950s Warner Bros. and comic book illustrations than to the formal conundrums he encountered in 1970s art houses and art museums, he would have been perfectly happy to see people enjoying the oldies—but despite his well-earned reputation as a genre-loving fantasist, I think he would have loathed any sign that people were using films to retreat from the world rather than engage with it. My thoughts go back to a fanzine writer who emerged with me from a preview screening of Stuck. Eyes glittering and voice throbbing with joy, he cried, “Stuart Gordon makes the violence so real!” And that, in my experience of his combined ethics and aesthetics, was always the point.

Stuart loved his actors when they threw themselves breakneck into their roles, not simply because he wanted to goose the audience (though his taste did run toward big effects, as suggested by the title he was contemplating for his memoirs, More Is More) but because he thought people ought to feel that something was truly at stake in every moment. He hated nothing more in a show or a movie than to see actors expertly shuck and jive instead of caring intensely about the situation they were in, even if it was a mental duel between Lord Cumulus, Avenger of the Universe, and Chaos, Prince of Madness. When Stuart added a section of audience engagement to one of his shows, the actors had damned well better be in people’s faces, forcing an interaction and not miming their way through the house. When he watched other people’s work, he would be scathing—in a genial, belly-laughing way—whenever a director blithely skated past an inconvenience of plot or character rather than work it through on the grounds of the premise.

As with Stuart’s notions of how plays and films ought to be directed, so, too, with his sense of show business economics. He accepted grants for the Organic Theater when he could get them, but having begun his career at the University of Wisconsin baiting warmongers, censors, bigots, self-promoting local officials, violently repressive police, and any authorities who thought there was something wrong with running around naked, he distrusted government and foundation money. It could vanish easily, and if you depended on it too much, you were probably paying too little attention to the people who should have been persuaded to support your work: the audience. How honest were your defiant gestures—how real—if you expected an arts council to fund them? Stuart preferred to safeguard the work by running the Organic Theater like an old mom-and-pop business, with his wife and perennial star, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, sharing the risks and responsibilities.

Ma and Pa Gordon’s attitude could hardly have been more different from the trends that had been taking hold in the East Coast avant-garde. By the mid- to late 1970s, the nickel-and-dime, grassroots experimenters of the previous decade’s theater and film had begun to codify themselves into a semi-academic, grant-seeking, proudly anti-commercial circle, validated principally by themselves, their own press corps, and a growing team of institutional curators. I know I’m painting with too broad a brush, and I’m sure the scene didn’t feel so insular from within, but viewed from the shores of Lake Michigan, much of the work being done then in New York was notable for its combination of communal self-approval and condescending irony. Conventions and themes familiar to a general audience were good only for being tossed into one of several versions of a cerebral yet inexplicable postmodern mélange, where they could be mocked, “interrogated,” and turned into gibberish. The goal, as often as not, was admirably political, but the method amounted to an attempt to knock down existing power relations by semaphore, thanks to the breeze of your flailing arms. There was rarely any contact, just a shadowboxing battle royale among images and ideas, in which nothing was expected to be authentic except the status that the artists claimed for themselves.

By 1985, when Re-Animator staggered horribly into the world, this academic avant-garde lay helpless before Ronald Reagan and the resurgent Hollywood crudity that had triumphed with him. (For the full story of this dual ascension, see J. Hoberman’s Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan.) It was possible in this context for critics to receive Re-Animator with excitement but also difficult for many to see that Stuart, too, was practicing avant-garde filmmaking, though of a different kind. His cinema was as opposed to Rambo: First Blood Part II as anything you could see at the Collective for Living Cinema or Millennium Film Workshop and yet was immediately accessible to anyone with a strong stomach and a sense of humor. The path of least resistance, though, was to type Stuart as a happy, irresponsible schlockmeister, serving up thrills to a niche audience. The possibility that he had something to say and meant it sincerely didn’t much come into the conversation.

To be fair, people whose most important agenda was to break the death grip of patriarchy could be forgiven for thinking of Stuart’s work as rearguard rather than avant-garde. As an artist talking to and about the dominant culture in terms it could understand, he risked keeping dominant terms in place and might have expected people to call him on it. But when works of art touch on reality—real emotions, convictions, and sensations, along with elaborations of premises as if they were solid and whole, if gonzo—you might give artists some credit for being right-acting, even if they’re not explicitly right-thinking. Besides, what was so wrong-thinking in Re-Animator? It was a story about arrogance masquerading as benevolence, madness as a search for truth, and the gradual acquiescence of a well-intentioned, normatively thoughtless man in hideous crimes. Do you want to tell me that theme isn’t real?

Much has been said over the past weeks about the prescience of Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’s 2011 Contagion, and with good reason. With Re-Animator in mind, though, I prefer to think about the Covid-19 movie that Stuart Gordon might have made, set in hospital corridors awash in body parts and bodily fluids, in the White House conference rooms where the situation is definitely under control, and in a corporate laboratory where someone is just sure of a lucrative solution. Much of it would be hilarious, except for the part that wasn’t. As Stuart said after Re-Animator was released, “Violence should horrify. If it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with it. It should not be seductive.”

Can I think of any recent movies in which something’s wrong? Easily. Take Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau, which has been much admired for using genre tropes (sci-fi, western, psychedelic splatterfest) for ostensibly political ends. Give Bacurau a chance. Watch it on a streaming service for its tale of rural Brazilians fighting back against an invasion of extortionate, murderous creeps from the Northern Hemisphere. Then ask yourself if the filmmakers’ attitude toward the country people is any better than paternalistic sentimentality; if genre mimicry should excuse a jolting, clunky visual style; and above all, if the film’s violence horrifies. When I watched Bacurau at last year’s New York Film Festival, I was appalled to hear the hall rock with cheers for each new butchery. Dornelles and Mendonça Filho gestured toward any number of actual social and political evils, but they clearly did not make the violence real to their audience

Something similar might be said of Craig Zobel’s recent US release The Hunt, which resembles Bacurau in a way that ought to unnerve the latter’s fans. Both have plots that involve murder for sport, with the predators in Zobel’s film being blue-state elitists and the prey red-state MAGA types. Well, bitter political animosities do divide the country, and Zobel (whose Great World of Sound is more deserving of your attention) has certainly pointed toward them. But his translation of this societal rift into a shoot-’em-up means what, exactly? Nobody can say, except that he’s put himself into the marketing category of “controversial.” The substance of his characters’ lives, the motives of their beliefs, melt away in the blood and guts being spilled for fun. So it goes, too, with Dornelles and Mendonça Filho. They send out a semaphore of political struggle but deliver pornography.

I shelter in isolation and brood too much on the past—as perhaps you do, these days—and long to encounter other people once more in a common space. Movies can’t spring us from this viral predicament, but now and at all times, the good ones can answer that need for connection. Even though they’re just light, shadow, and sound, films can lead toward a form of human encounter, in an equivalent of shared space, but only if the artists behind them desire it. That, too, is something I learned from Stuart Gordon. Because of him, I can never be satisfied with a movie merely because it signals a message I agree with. I need it to be made in such a way that I imagine someone bent over a sink, squeezing the last drops of food dye out of the costumes.

He made the love so real.

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