The Act Of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes
The Films of Larry Wessel
by Jack Sargeant
Blood-snot hangs from the animal's nose, too weak to stand it slowly succumbs to gravity, crashing onto the dirty brown sand where it lays, rasping for breath, in an ever expanding pool of its own stickiness. The beautiful young matador dances around it, pirouettes like a ballet dancer and kills the bull. The golden fringe on his suit glistens in the scorching sunlight. The crowd goes wild.
The truth - in as much as there can be truth - is frequently an unpleasant thing. Few people understand this better than the Southern California based filmmaker Larry Wessel, who has created a series of anti-mythic video documentaries which explode the audiences' preconceptions by unflinchingly depicting that which - in the homogenised, frigid world in which most people inhabit - is deemed as bizarre, unsightly and alien.
Wessel grew up in a household where film was considered a "religion", and began filmmaking whilst still a child. As he remembers: "I started making films in 1968 at the age of eleven with an 8 mm movie camera. My cinematic debut was a horror film called The Black Glove. I cast myself in the starring role as a knife wielding psychopath". Two years later Wessel adapted Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart" into a short super-8 film titled The Vulture's Eye, for which he gained an `Honorable Mention' in the 1972 Kodak Teenage Movie Awards. At the age of 16 Wessel directed a black&white 16mm sync-sound version of Salinger's A Perfect Day For Bananafish, and was accepted into the cinema department at the U.S.C.
"I was very disappointed by my cinema education at U.S.C. I didn't feel that I was learning anything that I didn't already know. I also felt that there was an effort being made by the faculty of the cinema dept. to destroy my creative spirit. This was during the years 1975 to 1980. I earnestly wanted to direct B-horror movies at this time. My cinema professors considered my films and screenplays as having "moral problems"!! I eventually dropped out in disgust".
In 1985 a mutual friend introduced Wessel to the artist Raymond Pettibon, who asked Wessel to direct two film-scripts The Whole World Is Watching - Weathermen `69 and Sir Drone. The two artists worked together on shooting these scripts, using Pettibon's video camera, however the collaboration collapsed when - according to Wessel, Pettibon "became ... frustrated that it was taking so long to shoot these that he threw up his hands and quit. After leaving the project he wanted me to give him his camera and all of the videotape that I had shot. I returned his camera but kept the tapes. I borrowed a video camera from a school teacher friend of mine and continued shooting without him. In a few weeks time he had re-shot his own quickie versions and promptly released them". Pettibon's videos were both subsequently released in 1989.
Although disgusted by the failure of the collaboration, Wessel had gained the necessary technological experience, and subsequently began to work in video, primarily because the medium was so much cheaper than film, Wessel; "Aesthetically I prefer the crystal clarity of a Diane Arbus photograph to the low fidelity reproduction of the video picture which Nam June Paik likens to the paintings of Claude Monet!" He also recognised that the ontology of video meant that, as an artistic medium, it enabled "truly independent film making!" free of the constraints - financial and practical - of having a large crew of sound engineers, lighting technicians, etc., instead enabling the director to work alone, and able to use the camera - where necessary - as discreetly as possible.
Wessel began his video-documentary career with the stunning Taurobolium (1994).
This feature length Mexican bullfighting documentary was shot over thirty-six Sunday afternoon sessions in Tijuana, just south of the border, over the period 1991 - 1993. On each Sunday afternoon there were six fights, and Wessel shot a total of 216 fights in order to fully capture the atmosphere of the event. Taurobolium deftly cuts these multiple bullfights into a narrationless stream of images that depict the bloody activity against the backdrop of Tijuana brass band music and bludgeoning poverty. Taurobolium is structured "in the same manner that an actual bullfight" and thus "functions as a primer for the uninitiated. Didactic narration would dilute it's impact. I wanted to achieve the sensation of actually being there!"
Wessel's interest in bullfighting began at "the end of 1990, I was visiting my friend Brendan Leech. He showed me some photographs he had taken at the last bullfight of Tijuana's 1990 season. These pictures caused my jaw to drop and my eyes to bug out of my head! I then read My Life as a Matador by the great Mexican matador Carlos Arruza and La Fiesta Brava by Barnaby Conrad. I became obsessed. I felt morbidly driven to collect everything on the subject of bullfighting: books, records, posters, paintings, postcards, toys, you name it! When the 1991 season finally arrived, I picked up the telephone and made a reservation for what Ernest Hemingway described as `a front row seat at a war`".
The combination of repeated images and narration free presentation would come to inform the aesthetic of much of Wessel's subsequent video making practice. As Wessel comments: "My favourite documentaries have always been the cinema verite films of Frederick Wiseman. Seeing them broadcasted in the late 60's and early 70's on public television had an enormous impact on me. Titicut Follies (1967) is his masterpiece. Even though it was banned from being shown, I was lucky enough to see [it] in a psychology course I was taking at U.S.C. in 1977. These cinema verité films made me realise that it was possible to create a documentary with the power of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of The Will (1934) without the artifice of music or didactic narration".
Wessel's next video was Carney Talk and Other Amusing Anecdotes by Robert Williams as told to Larry Wessel (1995) and seeks to revitalise the lost art of the true raconteur.
Consisting of a talking-head shot of hot-rod and underground comic artist Robert Williams as he recounts numerous tales for the delectation of the viewer. The video was originally going to be a six-hour long spoken word epic entitled Yucky Secrets and was to feature numerous personalities. However Wessel became aware that it was Williams who was the master storyteller: "I have been a big admirer of the artwork and storytelling of Robert Williams since the early 70's when I first became aware of Zap Comix. I met him in 1983 at Big Daddy Roth's Rat Fink Reunion. It was soon after this that Robert Williams' paintings became wildly popular and other artists who wanted a piece of the action started copying his style of painting. It didn't take long before his imitators started imitating each other! This got me thinking about many things including the nature of individuality and what separated Robert Williams' genuine vision from that of the counterfeiting copy cats. I became interested in the unique experiences Robert had during the 1950's on the mean streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico. His stories were so funny and so revealing of the hidden history of 1950's America, I edited out everybody else".
Inspired by the late-night Christian evangelist talk show host Dr. Gene Scott, Carney Talk was shot with an unmoving camera: "When asking his TV audience for money the camera would frame his face so close and tight that the entire TV screen would be two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. It was as if the TV had become the face of God! The only other thing on the screen was a telephone number. This giant face of Doc Gene would stare with intense annoyance for as long as twenty minutes without uttering a word and then, without warning, would yell at the top of his lungs, "Call me dammit!!". He would refuse to continue preaching until enough money was telephoned in and there would just be this giant face staring angrily at me in my living room! I was thinking of the impact of Doc Gene's giant face when I shot Robert Williams".
Larry Wessel first heard of the San Francisco based transgender support The Lost Girls group through an article in Jack Boulware's cult magazine The Nose.
Through Glenn Meadmore, Wessel met The Goddess Bunny, crippled with polio, the performer became the central focus for Sugar And Spice (1995), alongside transgender luminaries Lypsinka, The Cosmic Danielle, and many others. The video's most moving and candid moments come as Wessel pays witness to the performances, backstage gossip (from the moving to the cheesy), and the gender transformations (including great footage depicting exactly how to hide-your-penis when changing identity) that define the group, whilst accumulating footage in and around the Latin nightclubs that form the community's social nexus.
Wessel's next video remains his epic - at more than two and a half hours in length - Ultramegalopolis (1986)
is possibly too long for one continuous viewing unless one is a dedicated fan. Set in and around Los Angeles, Ultramegalopolis is nothing less than a tour with Wessel through the city. With no thematic constraints, other than presenting the schizophrenia that is contemporary LA, Wessel constructs a collection of images and portraits of the city's inhabitants; from a disabled break dancer through graffiti artists, a crazed sidewalk preacher to a boxer, the reminiscences and observations of an ex-con to the exhilarating performance by an urban percussionist, amongst others. On its way the video also takes in the mass spectacle of a Desert Storm parade and a Black Power group speaking on the sidewalk. Ultramegalopolis presents a ride through LA, and allows the audience to see things they would possibly be unable to otherwise, however Wessel does not let the film degenerate into pointless voyeuristic-gawking or a cheap holiday in somebody else's misery, rather his largely unmediated long-takes of the varied personalities creates a space in which these individuals are able to present themselves.
In collating the material and editing the film Wessel wanted its structure "to reflect the vast continuously urban sprawl of Los Angeles. I had about 250 hours of footage that I had shot over the course of seven years. The daunting task I had was to log and story board all of the footage that I felt reflected the spirit, the personality, the essence, and the mindscape of Los Angeles. Ultramegalopolis evolved over time... I had no idea what I was in for when I started. I approached it as an expedition into uncharted territory. The first shooting that I did took place in graffiti-yards which were sprouting up like toadstools all over Los Angeles in 1990. One day at a graffiti-yard known as the Belmont Tunnel site I was lucky enough to capture Hex, one of the kings of graffiti art, spray painting an enormous mural of the Frankenstein monster! Ultramegalopolis full of magic moments like this where I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with my video camera".
In many ways Ultramegalopolis is Wessel's most personal work, as it charts his own wanderings through his home city "the structure of Los Angeles as a megalopolis, the population is spread out across a vast area of suburbs. This creates isolation. The pioneer spirit of the wild west is still alive in the suburbs of Los Angeles. This is where you'll find people who crave this kind of solitude. Creative individuals. The people perceived by society at large as oddballs, loners, eccentrics, and outsiders. People like myself. Los Angeles is the home of Wesselmania. I love Los Angeles".
Wessel's most recent video is Tattoo Deluxe (1998).
Wessel was inspired to make the video following a chance meeting with the tattooist Jeff Thielman, who informed Wessel that he was opening a new tattoo parlour called Tattoo Deluxe with fellow tattooist Peter Loggins. Shot in the tattoo parlour over a two year period, from 1996-1997, the video documents the various personalities that enter the studio. Throughout the video Wessel is able to get access to the thoughts and opinions of both customers and tattooists, as well as those of various people who hang-out at the parlour, as Wessel states: "Everybody seemed to enjoy the attention. Generally speaking, tattooed people are not very bashful".
Cinema verité - an often acknowledged influence on Wessel's aesthetic
- was never able to achieve (despite the claims of its directors and supporters) a state of narrationless neutrality simply because the very presence of director, camera and editor circumnavigated any real possibility of capturing an `authentic' `moment'. Wessel, however, is able to shoot alone, discreetly, and free of the technical constraints of film, and thus, although a video such as Ultramegalopolis may be no more of a clear and distinct picture of the truth than any verite text, its shooting-from-the-hip, (apparently) unedited long takes do offer a fascinating twist to the debates on naturalism within the cinema, as Wessel observes "I'm very good at making myself invisible. I try to become part of the surrounding environment. I never disturbed the natural habitat of the people I videotaped in Ultramegalopolis. If you hang around long enough people tend to forget that you are there. Of course it is impossible to point your camera without being subjective. This is a dilemma. It becomes a matter of one's proximity to the truth. When it comes to documentary filmmaking, cinema verité is as close as you can reasonably get".
"The truth is very important to me. When I set out to make my documentaries I want to be as objective as possible.
What I dislike about a lot of documentaries is that they are biased. These so-called `documentary filmmakers' all have `axes to grind' and are busy revealing more about themselves than the subjects they profess to be documenting! Take bullfighting for instance. People tend to be very polarised when it comes to bullfighting. They are either for bullfighting or against bullfighting. It is because of this polarisation that I wanted to document bullfighting the way it has never been done before... the way it is!"
Wessel's work is less concerned with engaging in the ultimately stupefying practices of democratic-liberal-humanist debate then presenting "the realities of the thing". Wessel uses the video to document events as they unfold, without need for justification or recourse to offer a space for "the thoughts of the artist, writer, etc", indeed even Wessel's personal opinions do not enter the work, instead he points his camera and shoots. As he observes: " My films are full of people expressing opinions that in no way conform to my own. I like to give my audiences the benefit of thinking for themselves. It's simple really. I just tell it like it is! Spin doctors be damned... Truth is stranger than fiction!!"