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October 21-November 18, 2006 at drkrm. gallery, Northeast Los Angeles

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

Still from the set of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” 1964, film directed by Roger Corman

Still from the set of
"Masque of the Red Death.

Vincent Price on the set.

The collision between high art and pop culture is one that has plagued the art world for over a century. Where is that mysterious dividing line that lets us easily identify how to categorize objects to place in neat piles? Titled “Nevermore,” this exhibition of film stills once again raises the specter of how confusing the battle lines are. The particular subject here is Roger Corman’s series of films, produced from 1960 to 1964, that interpreted some of the classic short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Of the eight films, seven of them starred Vincent Price. These movies, especially with the advent of late night cable television, have become cult classics in their own right, with director Corman now dubbed as the king of the B-movie (the term referred originally to the lower budget, lesser talent movies that were made to serve as the back end of a double feature, a practice that faded from movie theaters decades ago). For many fans, Price’s reputation is based on this series of movies.

So, is this simply a selection of popular film stills culled out and presented for the entertainment of a generation of television addicts? Perhaps it is the gallery’s effort to endorse an elevated reassessment of Corman’s reputation as a major filmmaker (a view that many in that industry have come to embrace). Or are we dealing with more substantive aesthetic issues in the broadly Duchampian tradition? Is this about taking objects out of their context so as to create a separate art that by its very nature redefines and creates a new context?

The fact is that this is a very clever installation that will appeal to a variety of tastes. Yes, on a pop culture level it is a celebration of motion pictures and all of the fake glitter that implies. On another level, we can acknowledge the unique talent of an artist who helped redefine the horror genre for generations of movie aficionados. By intentionally incorporating elements of vamped up humor Corman effectively launched what we call “camp.” Finally, we can examine the art that is extractable and make judgments on aesthetic merits that transcend any original intent.

There is an admittedly personal note struck by this exhibit. I grew up on these movies and vividly remember watching them. To me they were all that movies were supposed to be: engaging you throughout even as they made you anxious and tense awaiting the outcome of the drama. To see the stills from the making of the films is thus voyeuristically fascinating. They serve as documentary evidence of the process of one of our culture’s greatest collaborative genres, namely filmmaking. The still of the cast and crew working on the climatic scene from the “Pit and the Pendulum” is spellbinding. The power of this image, that it was so etched in the memory of this then young fan, flooded back as a shock.

There is a long and distinguished history, take Andy Warhol as a quick example, of artists who have appropriated images from another genre for use in their art. Translating the mental image stimulated by Poe’s literary original into a fixed cinematic reference point that can be shared collectively is itself an act of appropriation, albeit with a commercial purpose foremost in mind. But the emotional impact of the still’s familiarity is not the product of its connection to the source material, but of the personal history associated with the film. This unintended consequence--certainly Corman would have never given such a possibility a moment’s thought—carries with it the potential to bring us to deeply authentic emotional territory, or to be frankly exploitative.

A color still from “The Masque of the Red Death,” or Vincent Price’s portrait on the set rise above mere documentary status, demanding independent appraisal. The intensity of the photographs makes us understand the power of the medium. Composition and contrast are not just an artist’s formal tools, but a filmmaker’s as well. These stills allow us to study and understand the skill in designing a scene that is often obscured by the dramatic action, which keeps us focused on the narrative.
The blurring of the lines in art is a good and healthy characteristic. It forces us to look afresh and examine objects and ideas with a new perspective. “Nevermore” gives us an opportunity to do just that--and have fun at the same time. Look at the photographs and make your own appraisal: High art or pop camp.