Camping with Curt McDowell

Brotherly love: Curt McDowell and Mark Ellinger (with Janey Sneed Ellinger) in Siamese Twin Pinheads.

Curt McDowell’s sex films have an emotional rawness and an intimacy to them that feels unique both to hard-core pornographic cinema and underground film.  He spent the other half of his career making camp films—comedies in the key of Kuchar.  McDowell would end up blending the two modes to delirious effect in Thundercrack! (1975), a camp melodrama punctuated with scenes of hard-core sex, and to a lesser extent in Naughty Words (1974), a one-minute goof in which (between giggles) McDowell’s friends read off a list of sexual slang words over footage of pictures taken from dirty magazines.  Camp, which always signifies the co-presence of sincerity and irony, became a way for McDowell to laugh at the sex that he would take seriously in films like Confessions (1972), Loads (1985), and Ronnie (1972). 

Siamese Twin Pinheads (1973), for example, is a willfully tasteless gag film in which McDowell and friend Mark Ellinger appear as mentally retarded Siamese twins, joined at the head via a pair of stockings, who grunt and moan their way through a performance of “Jesus Loves Me” at a talent show presided over by a nun (whose habit consists of a black peacoat wrapped around her head).  The film’s immature sense of humor takes a turn for the sexual when, midway through the twins’ rendition of “Jesus Loves The Little Children,” McDowell takes Ellinger’s penis out of his loincloth diaper and starts masturbating him.  The moment is typical of the casualness with which McDowell treats sexuality in the comedies, and of his willingness to cross sexual borders with his actors, many of whom (like Ellinger) were friends and family members.  (In Thundercrack! McDowell would go on to film a scene of unsimulated sex featuring his sister Melinda.)                            

Ainslie Pryor regards a pair of underwear left on her doorstep by George Kuchar in Boggy Depot.

The comedy of Boggy Depot (1974), a musical in miniature, is sweeter and more innocent.  McDowell and Ellinger, again playing a pair of brothers (though no longer conjoined at the head), conspire to hypnotize their roommate Damon (George Kuchar) into embarrassing himself in front of the object of his affection, Lulu (Ainslie Pryor).  Damon leaves Lulu a love note in the form of a pair of underpants hung on her doorknob.  The plot, such as it is, ends up not making very much sense; like Mike Kuchar’s Sins of the Fleshapoids, Boggy Depot feels like improvised children’s theater, made up on the fly and with little regard for continuity.  The song lyrics, set to the tunes of pop hits like “Sway,” are little more than doggerel.  But Boggy Depot has a homemade charm that’s difficult to resist, and when Ellinger and McDowell break up laughing in front of the camera it’s hard not to join them.  It’s an example of McDowell’s filmmaking at its silliest and most endearingly schlocky.

Home movies: A Visit to Indiana.

The comic tone of A Visit to Indiana (1970, co-dir. Tim Davis), meanwhile, is pointed and satirical.  Over grim 8mm footage of rural Midwestern life—represented by shots of homely old people, factory buildings, gray skies, and casseroles—an off-camera McDowell offers up pained responses to a surly male interlocutor’s questions about his family.  A Visit to Indiana depicts the Midwest as a banal hell made up of constrictive social roles: to be a man is to work at the local Alcoa plant, to be a woman is to be compulsively devoted to one’s housework, and everyone, regardless of gender or age, is expected to eat constantly (“lot of eating in the Midwest…”).  The film captures the utter desperation with which artfags like McDowell—who defected from his hometown of Lafayette, IN for the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1960s—so often flee for the coasts.  McDowell turns his camera on America’s heartland with a morbid fascination for its numbing routines and oppressive behavioral codes, making it clear that you can’t go home again (and thank God for that).  

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