Saturday, March 30, 2013

Hug Me Tight: Tom Rhoads (1987-1989)

by James Hansen

This piece was originally published in Dirty Looks 3.3 "Tom Rhoads: 3 Films" as part of a screening which took place at The Kitchen in New York, NY on March 26, 2013. ( Thanks to Bradford Nordeen for the opportunity. 

Tom Rhoads was a gentle, tortured soul. In the words of Luther Price, he was “a nice guy who would buy you an ice cream cone.” Nonetheless, watching the 8mm films of Tom Rhoads, one has to wonder how long he stood still in the sun, gripping the ice cream cone with a crooked smile on his face, anticipating the arrival of someone – anyone – so that they can finally pry the melting treat from his hand. The tender films appear as unearthed, forgotten time capsules. Intensely personal and deeply felt, they reveal unknown subjects lost in time, waiting on life or death or both.

Active between 1987 and 1989, Tom Rhoads created 18 works which reflect the memories of his difficult childhood and burgeoning homosexuality as filtered through the tattered remnants of culture and family. Green, Warm Broth, and Mr. Wonderful display Rhoads’s ritualistic pouring over these fragmented, material histories through both sound and image: the carefully crossed feet of a dead starling, the vivid colors of blooming flowers set against an empty sky, the watchful eyes of dolls and stuffed animals who observe the daily actions of a mother and witness the punishment of her children, the bleeding light of the sun peering through a patch of trees, the haphazard shapes of clipped toenails, the swirling repetition of patterned wallpaper, the implicit violence and oddity of sexual acts, the calming voice behind the picture of a well known face, the warbling calls of pop music.

There is no room for ironic detachment here. Rather, each sound and object is inflected with the full weight of its past life. If they nevertheless remain at a distance, Rhoads reveals the sincere sorrow of their sliding away. In Warm Broth, perpetually fading, yet eternal cries of a pull-string doll fill the soundtrack. “Tell me a secret. Sing me a song. I like flowers. I love you mommy. Hug me tight.” These innocent requests remain even as aggression and sexuality appears written on the walls. Male bodies become increasingly prominent. An isolated figure sits in a chair, facing a corner, feeling ashamed and punished. A perpetually melting fudgsicle leaves a dirty stain. The fragments of childhood and queer sexuality retroactively regenerate as an abandoned crime scene; Rhoads ponders the aftermath of his own life and death.

While these have been called “home movies from hell,” Rhoads’s enclosed family histories push towards a means revivification through the act of fading away. In Green, Rhoads always counterbalances entropy with persistent life. Incorporating reel-to-reel tape of him and his sister Sally – the same name as Price’s aunt who committed suicide on the day he was born – Green references death and family, while at the same time offering songs of love and encouragement. The emotional intensity of the film comes from this grouping of despair and hope, forgetting and remembering, interior emotion and its exterior manifestation.

Though the film opens with a rendition of “Let There Be Love,” perhaps more significant is the appearance of Patsy Cline’s “I Can See An Angel Walking.” The camera swirls and points to the sky. (“I can see an angel walking/ Someone else is by his side.”) A soft shimmer of sunlight shines down. (“I can hear an angel talking/ And he looks so satisfied.”) The playful voices of children persist. (“I can see an angel smiling/ By his side I’ll never be.”) Echoing the opening shot of the dead starling, there is an image of a static, dead butterfly. (“In my heart I’ll go on crying/ Only tears are left for me.”) In the film’s final moments, Rhoads cuts around the image. The butterfly rotates, shifts positions; for a few moments, its wings flutter. Breaking free from its deathly cocoon, the butterfly is reborn. The angel walks again. Rhoads finds a way for his films to act as an always fleeting, sometimes painful form of reincarnation. Tell me a secret. Sing me a song. I love you. Hug me tight.

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