MoMA Retrospective Celebrates the Films of Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix

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MoMA Retrospective Celebrates Films by Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix

“Habit”

For a while, any discussion of New York film studio Glass Eye Pix naturally revolved around its original creator, Larry Fessenden, who directs, produces, and/or stars in many independent Glass Eye productions. Fessenden is the spirit behind Glass Eye Pix and the human face of the band, with no front teeth and all. (He lost it in a mugging in 1984, a year before Glass Eye was founded).

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) aptly titled its new Glass Eye Pix retrospective “Oh humanity! The films of Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix.” Running March 30 through April 19 at MoMA and online, this is a more comprehensive survey of the various Glass Eye filmmakers, and therefore a better showcase of their general spirit of camaraderie, than even the previous 2010 program at (now defunct) reRun Gastropub in Brooklyn.

Fessenden’s presence can be seen in all MoMA selections, both in front of and behind the camera for his own work as a director, but also in the range of artists he has encouraged in his capacity as producer, including the transcendental minimalist Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”) and genre purist Ti West (“The Innkeepers,” “The House of the Devil”). The MoMA retrospective highlights a few other worthy filmmakers, like psychedelic sound designer turned writer/director Graham Reznick and production designer turned stop-motion filmmaker Beck Underwood.

Focusing primarily on Fessenden’s work, from his early shorts to his recent COVID-themed short “Fever,” not only encourages a cinematheque vibe appropriate for this Glass Eye Pix tribute: it also encourages attendees to see Glass Eye Pix as the independent horror equivalent of a neo-romantic artist collective. It’s a welcome and essential shift in how Glass Eye’s successes have been understood, since, for years now, even their smartest boosters have praised the studio as a springboard for bigger and better things.

In 2011, the New York Times (Eric Kohn) described Fessenden as a “cheap horror kingmaker”; in 2010, the Voice of the village (Michael Atkinson) has suggested that “Fessenden’s work as an impresario” is “perhaps more influential than” Fessenden’s directing credits. And in 2009, Fessenden himself said Filmmaker’s magazine (Lauren Wissot) that “I have always encouraged people to move on as soon as the Glass Eye approach becomes oppressive or limiting.” This prospect seems particularly timely since the MoMA retrospective begins less than two weeks after the theatrical release of “X,” the latest film directed by Glass Eye alum Ti West. “Larry validated us thinking we were talented,” West said in the temperature (in 2011).

“River of Grass”

MoMA’s emphasis on Fessenden’s work as a director also inadvertently shows why his films – and Glass Eye Pix by extension – are uniquely associated with the horror genre. When most people think of Glass Eye Pix, they probably think of films that were produced for or because of Scareflix, a genre-centric Glass Eye subdivision helmed by filmmaker James Felix McKenney (“Automatons”, ‘Satan Hates You’). There are also some standout non-horror Glass Eye Pix titles, like Reichardt’s ‘River of Grass’, in which Fessenden co-starred and served as an associate producer. But even Fessenden will tell you that he kind of fell into the latter role “by accident”, as he told Filmmaker’s Magazine“just by sticking to it for so long.”

Fessenden’s pivotal role in spotlighting Reichardt not only illustrates his noncommercial generosity and his ability to attract and help cultivate “like-minded directors,” according to the temperature. You can also see what attracted Reichardt to Fessenden in “Wendy and Lucia», a sort of neo-realist drama about a woman (Michelle Williams) and her missing dog. Sight and sound (Atkinson again) vividly describes Reichardt’s approach to portraying his film’s working-class milieu – “decayed infrastructure, Wal-Mart subsistence, weeded neighborhoods, lives ruled by petty commerce” – as being “less restrictive ” and “less autonomous”. conscious” than Reichardt’s best-known international art house contemporaries.

Most of Fessenden’s films – as well as the audio pieces he wrote and directed for Glass Eye’s delightful “Tales from Beyond the Pale” audio piece series – could also be described as “less self-aware” and ” less restrictive” in their “truth-horror style”, to use Fessenden’s description of “Habit,” a 1995 remake of his 1982 feature debut. “Habit,” a horror drama about an alcoholic (Fessenden) who fears his new lover may be a vampire, is first a psychological drama, then a horror movie. In 1998, “Habit” cinematographer Frank DeMarco gave American cinematographer (Michael Ellenbogen) an overview of what makes “Habit” a Larry Fessenden movie:

Because we were so discreet, I could steal snapshots of our surroundings. I kept an eye out and often captured those “happy accidents” when incredible, unusual, or insane moments from New York unexpectedly crossed the plane of our fiction.

Fessenden also steals moments in time from the “Impact Addict” shorts he shot in 1987 with post-Evel Knievel/pre-“Jackass” performance artist David Leslie. Fessenden and Allyson Smith shot Leslie as he fought and/or blew himself up in various New York City settings, including a Chinatown Lunar New Year parade that appears to have been filmed with stolen cameras and then edited by an aspiring impressionist painter. The “Impact Addict” films will screen at MoMA in a terrific set of Glass Eye debut shorts with “White trash can”, a short film directed by Fessenden which would later be reworked as the opening scene of “River of Grass” by Reichardt.

“Wendigo”

The horror genre is just the commercial mold that Fessenden and his fellow misfit filmmakers have tried to reshape to suit their lo-fi sensibilities and alienated tastes. It’s to Fessenden’s credit that every new director’s credits seem to be his best, including “Skin and Bones,” his fantastically creepy episode of the short-lived 2008 prime-time TV horror anthology series.” Fear Itself”. “Skin and Bones” sounds like an extension of Fessenden’s interest in the Wendigo, a flesh-eating Algonquin-American wraith who, in Fessenden”wendigo” and “the last winter», announces either a change of ecological paradigm, or a kind of hallucinatory mass psychosis. The most horrible conceit in Fessenden’s films is that while we might live in a beautiful world, we certainly aren’t, and the future isn’t beautiful either. So how does it feel to sink into exhaustion with a mix of dread and excitement? What does a perpetual and inevitable collapse look like, rising on your tiptoes and then crashing to the edge of yourself?

Fessenden’s gothic dramas speak of a strangely intimate kind of apocalyptic guilt; it is his way of protesting against the post-industrialized world against which his films exist. It should then be that “Under”, the only average entry in Fessenden’s body of work, is also included in the MoMA program. This shrill, tongue-in-cheek horror pastiche is the only time Fessenden has semi-successfully shoed himself in a pre-made mould. At one point, Fessenden also worked on an unproduced remake of “The Orphanage”; there has also been talk of adapting Marvel Comics night werewolf series, though it sadly seems to have been more of an unfulfilled desire than a tentative plan. Maybe it’s a good thing those dream projects never came to fruition. Who wants a Larry Fessenden remake or a Larry Fessenden comic book movie when we have “Depraved», the typically inventive and moving riff of Larry Fessenden on « Frankenstein »?

If Glass Eye Pix has become known for its horror movies, it’s only because their most exciting filmmakers share Fessenden’s worries about the future. McKenney’s”Automatafeels like a non-nostalgic jeremiad as well as an avant-kitsch homage to schlocky 1950s B-movies and ingenious no-budget 1970s sci-fi student films like “THX 1138” and “Dark Star.” ” by Robert Mockler”Like meis a macabre post-beatnik/post-Facebook road movie that sometimes feels like a cross between “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Natural Born Killers.” And Reznick’s”I see youis a Lynchian crisis about a young publicity photographer’s frustration at not being able to properly visualize his father’s face (among other Freudian anxieties). Fessenden has memorable on-screen roles in all three films.

Horror filmmakers became increasingly obsessed with HP Lovecraft’s fiction, style, and concerns, but Fessenden was always more Poe than Lovecraft. Speaking about his films’ recurring focus on ecological collapse and global warming in particular, Fessenden said the temperature that “The horror that really interests me is this horror of self-betrayal.” In one way or another, Glass Eye Pix’s titles all fit into this generous thematic umbrella, which always seems large enough to accommodate a few more.

For more information on Oh, Humanity! Larry Fessenden’s films and the Glass Eye Pix retrospective, click here.

Simon Abrams
Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a New York native and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York Times, vanity lounge, the voice of the village, and elsewhere.


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