by Peggy Ahwesh
Where do you start? There’s no Monopoly Board No Start. Do not pass go. I think you start by just being there, and being curious and having the drive to make films. *
In 1980 when I was working as the film programmer at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, I organized a show of some of the local Super 8 filmmakers. Since no one actually had finished movies I made up titles for everybody and went ahead and included the show on the calendar. Rick Pieto was to make Dreams Congo, Rich Moore’s film was Knifepoint in the Greyhound Station, Mary Carroll’s title was Wrapped in American Flags, and so on. Understanding these filmmakers, their neuroses, desires and proclivities became part of my job description as it turned out and the key to making things happen. We were a small and obsessive film community, built on the founding principles of trust and amusement, and it was the Super 8 format that became the designated medium for our aesthetic documentations of life’s dramas. Events like this Super 8 show and the Visiting Filmmakers’ Dating Service were my two great triumphs as a programmer.
The years I spent in Pittsburgh were ones of intense camaraderie, creative playfulness and wicked sensibility building. When the Italian filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi came and screened their scented films in 1981, we were already in our tight orbit, and their trance inducing films bonded us closer. It was an exciting event of rare 9.5min tinted home movies accompanied by the wafting of various perfume scents heated up on little burners and fanned through the room in a lyrical rhythm with the film images. The combination of the smells and the pictures was seductive and one was powerless against them. It was everything we cared about: a flickering, tantalizing sensorium radiating intelligence and beauty that experientially altered your understanding of film and history.
There was not much to do in Pittsburgh outside of our own eccentricities and imagination and we realized that the town offered a rich context for Super 8 film production. It was a social landscape of post industrial fatigue and hopelessness with a host of discoveries to be made. J.T. Vale was Pittsburgh’s high philosopher of Super 8mm with his “Zen steadycam” cinema which combined breathing techniques, camera movement and a sympathetic “synchronicity” with his performers. J.T. collected people. His friend Art was deep into Wilhelm Reich’s science experiments of polar reversals and energy fields and one of my first Super 8 films was documenting his experiments. We climbed up into the woods over the highway, alongside a stream. Art placed various metal rods at angles to the water to create an atmospheric reversal that was supposed to cause snow to fall even though it was July. We watched the compass spin wildly and waited for the sky to cloud over. It didn’t work but Art had a pretty convincing explanation for it. It seemed that the routes of the airplanes overhead disturbed the magnetic alignment of the atmospheric particles. For me, the drama of the mad scientist challenging nature was what was compelling and failure ended up being more meaningful and cinematic than success could ever be.
But Natalka Voslakov was the most glamorous of all the Super 8 filmmakers and had the best real life adventure stories. She was imaginative to a fault and was always living some outrageous drama which became fodder for a new Super 8 epic. Many of us were influenced by the Pittsburgh triumvirate of Warhol, Ondine, and Jacoby** but Natalka’s construction of self as a living artwork had the highest degree of refinement. Once Pam, Natalka and I attended a lawn party in celebration of Madame Blavatsky’s birthday. Natalka had on an insanely tight lime green mini‑dress that had big circles cut out at the hips, spike heels and bright yellow fishnets. She was eating a banana. Nearby was a circle of people trying to make contact with Blavatsky at a seance. One of the guys was so distracted by Natalka that he leapt up and accused her of having an aura that was too strong and started pushing her around. He thought she was somehow purposefully blocking the psychic connection to Blavatsky. A fight ensued and they tried to force us to leave. By the time the police came, there were no spiritual vibes left and, as it turns out, the cop was a neighborhood friend of Natalka’s and wanted to know if she wanted to press charges against them. I ran out of film early on but it was typical of the way things went. Continually averting disaster and hoping that the Super 8 camera was working to capture the experience on film because you could never get a repeat performance, having never imagined such a strange situation in the first place.
Natalka was impossible, stubborn, hours late for any appointment, compounding every activity with disorientation and distraction. To me she embodied the ethos of Super 8 production and the low budget movie aesthetic based on daily life that we were practicing. None of the planning actually applies to what happens. Nobody performs as expected. Everybody’s a star. Nobody gets paid. Everybody jumps starts themselves into character by invisible means. Only Super 8 would work for us under these terms and the films were all a testament to the personalities involved. I shot Natalka’s Super 8 feature Teenage Love (1981) of a working class teenager (Natalka) who has an unacceptable punk for a boyfriend (Reid Paley) who is bad because he is ignored by his rich parents. This scenario is intercut with the adult drama of an unemployed woman (Natalka) living in an unhappy mess with her cynical hipster boyfriend (Reid) with both of them wondering what went wrong. It’s an elaborate improvisation of childhood memory and adult angst. Natalka was obsessed with Reid at this time and had to ignore him during the entire production out of nervousness and fear of losing control.
Our ultimate filmmaker was Kurt Kren, the bad boy of the Austrian avant‑garde. In 1981 Kurt was on tour with his films, driving around the US to his various gigs, living out of his car and checking everything out. He stayed in Pittsburgh for an extra 3 weeks after his show, went with us to the clubs and showed us his “taboo” reel, the Eating, Shitting and Pissing Films. We crammed into the back room of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers to watch it and talked about it for weeks. In those days, we tended to play out the relationship between desire, the self and the history of cinema in a romantic and overdetermined way. Sexual exploits in and around the workplace were a special category and somehow we thought that combining all aspects of aesthetics and sexuality would solidify a relationship with the movies. Rick, working as the projectionist, had sex in the booth during a double bill of Vertigo and Rear Window with the woman who had come to lecture on desire and voyeurism! This act had elaborate theoretical complexity and poetic depth to us. It made ultimate movie sense.
Film, baby, powerful tool for love or laughter, fantastic weapon to create violence or ward it off, is in your hands. The only possible chance you’ve got in our round thing is not to bitch about injustice or break windows, but to make a concerted effort to have a loud voice. The loudest voice known to man is on thousand‑foot reels. . . *
The filmmakers, the bands in the emerging punk scene, the photographers, an odd assortment of crazy people and for some reason, a number of people who worked as bank tellers, made up our arts community. Parties were the organizing principle. The way things were for several years was that at a party so and so would announce they were having the next party. Bands would come and play, movies would be shown on the wall and people would get really smashed until the police showed up. Black Flag was the most regular name band that came through town, every 6 months or so it seemed, but basically, we were the scene, the landscape, the news and the fashion police. The bands had names which all started with The: The Puke, The Shut Ins, The Five, The Shakes and The Cardboards. I don’t think any of them are still together.
I don’t keep up with Natalka much anymore. After a bad marriage to a Republican and losing a few too many battles to the empire she ceased being the public fixture she once was. A couple of summers ago she got into this habit of calling me up and leaving messages the length of the tape on my answering machine. ***
“Peggy . . . You should never leave your phone number on the answering machine. You might have a Fatal Attraction. Some kook gets your number and starts to stalk you or something. Well, you’re either sleeping or you’re out. Since it’s, let’s see, it’s 2 in the morning, maybe you’re sleeping. One never knows with you. I didn’t call you to just ask you about what I should do and my problems. 1′l1 shut up for a change. . . but, the suicide pack exists, baby. If we don’t have our features done by the millennium. . . ’cause we got to be there. And I’m in the minus, minus 97 bucks in the bank account. I know I owe you 140 bucks but I bounced my phone bill and the proofs from the lab, can’t pay for them. Now the 14th is this Saturday . . . get on the bus or whatever. You got to be here for the big opening of the Warhol Museum. Everybody wants to see you. We have to go together. We should be in it. . . our films projected at the opening. It has nothing to do with the talent, it’s the timing. It helps if you have some real talent, but. . . Madonna, who has no talent but is a hell of a business woman, I give her credit for her business brain. That’s all she has going for her. That and. . . hey, I was a post‑modernist sex symbol long before Madonna, you know that. The coup d’etat will be, the first people that get it on in the Warhol Museum. Who come out of the bathroom with smiles on their faces. Even though I’m minus 97 bucks. can’t get the phone turned off and I can’t have the gas turned off. . . Notice how hyper I am. I took two B6s. Wait ’til I tell you, oh the kind of men I’ve been meeting. I just want to make money for you and, for me. I care about us making our work. And I’ve been talking to the few decent men, the 3 or 4 around town here. They say, “You American women better get your act together and tell your stories. It’s your time”. Damn straight. With what I’ve learned over the last years. . . hopefully I’ve learned something (laughs). . hopefully I’ll figure it out. . .”
It took me a while to figure out that I was supposed to archive the tapes and that she considered them her current art project. When I listen to her voice: the confessional tone, the self mockery, the resilience of her sense of self coming through this ephemeral medium, I am reminded of the sustenance and value of our Super 8 experience. Memory does play its funny tricks and often leaves a happy blur of impaired contentment on the narrative of the past. But I think that my particular fiction of the period is a good indication of the overriding principles that guided us.
*Quotes are from “The Total Filmmaker” by Jerry Lewis.
Roger Jacoby, an incredible experimental presence and a very active presence in the Pittsburgh film community. He was Ondine’s lover for a time. Roger died of AIDS in 1984.
***excerpt of an answering machine message from Natalka Voslakov during the summer of 1994.