Abigail Child: Mayhem (1987)

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Through a catalogue of looks, movements, and gestures, Mayhem presents a social order run amok in a libidinous retracing of film noir conventions. Sexuality flows in an atmosphere of sexual tension, danger, violence, and glamour; antagonism between the sexes is symbolized in the costuming of women in polka dots and men in stripes. Censored in Tokyo for its use of Japanese lesbian erotica, this tape creates an image bank of what signifies the sexual and the seductive in the history of imagemaking, pointing to the way we learn about our bodies, and how to use them from images.

“Abigail Child’s series IS THIS WHAT YOU WERE BORN FOR? is one of the most assured and important projects to have emerged over the last decade. Constructing from and subverting a wide galaxy of source materials, these films are archeological digs into the very stuff, the conceptions, we are born into. Child decomposes the materials and gestures that would compose us. The films are charged with a startling and playful musicality and poetic and rigorous compression. Each image and sound cuts deep and works over time containing hidden and unhidden detonations working against the manufactured ambush that images have in store. Agile dances through treacherous debris, they negotiate an obstacle course of polar anatomies zig-zagging with corkscrew twists and nuclear splits — a gambol against the hazards.

Detournments, deviations, disruptions, allures. Can aggression be sumptuous? These films are volatile and they have bite. Here the subliminal cannot caress, it comes out with its hands up, the smile wiped from its face. The accelerated velocity of these films doesn’t create an alternate camouflage. At this speed viewer passivity is unsafe and active viewing is a necessary pleasure. We are provoked to get up to speed, to be resourceful, dance, break step. These films put a spin on things. Shift the coordinates. The peripheries relocate to the core drawn by the centrifugal force of the editing. Posing a threat to threatening poses these frictions erupt with new clarity.”

Mark McElhaten, Associate Curator of Film & Video American Museum of the Moving Image 1990 [currently curator of Avantgarde Visions, New York Film Festival]

*Avant-garde filmmaker Abigail Child began her career in San Francisco in 1977 with the experimental film Some Exterior Presence. She had been originally trained to make documentary films, but as her interests primarily lay in the technicalities of film form, she switched to the cutting edge where she became recognized for her fast-paced, whimsical short films. From 1981 through 1989, she began producing a seven-part film, Is This What You Were Born For?, a reworking of different film genres, such as film noir, pornography, and the documentary, designed to explore their underlying content and social setting. In 1987 Child created Mayhem, a film about lesbianism. She moved to New York in 1980 where in addition to filmmaking, she was also active in the avant-garde film movement: teaching, putting together public screenings, and publishing theoretical writings in several film and poetics journals across the U.S.