Blank Narcissus (Passion of the Swamp) is a comedy reflecting on a couple of moments. The first, the foundational legend of Pink Narcissus in which James Bidgood elaborately dressed his Manhattan studio apartment to film and photograph sequences with his lover and street trade before returning the space to its humdrum reality; the second, the belated candid and confessional DVD commentaries of extravagantly queer filmmakers like Wakefield Poole and Kenneth Anger as they rewatched their historical images. (With commentaries now also historic artifacts.) In the disjuncture across present and history, word and image, between abstract and symbolic fantasy and the preciseness of gossip and compromise, there is a revelation of image and words that is silly.
Blank Narcissus is also a work about the nature of film as a matter of process. In the discussion of film, the relationship between iconic and indexical signs has been fruitfully bound together. Yet there is a potential counter history of filmmaking that Blank Narcissus taps into. This history is concerned with the indexical nature of film, less in terms of an ontological reflection of the world, than with the process and alteration of it, prompting us to see the act of creating films as material interventions and the residual film itself a limited presentation of the greater work. In terms of space, this could range from the napalming of forests in Apocalypse Now, the restoration of courtly palaces for The Leopard, to the magick rituals of Kenneth Anger’s films. Pink Narcissus, when first circulating anonymously, was misidentified as an Anger piece for its colours, its sexuality, but also an intuition of its incantatory power.
Pink Narcissus transforms the public space it is projected in. The film’s deep pinks, reds and blues bounce off the screen and illuminate not just our eyes but the bodies of the audience and the theatre itself. Made at a time when homosexuality was illegal, the film creates a queer space in which men can erotically watch men with men. (This is reductive but indulge us.)
This public transformation is mirrored by the private transfiguration of space that took place every few months in Bidgood’s home as James (and his star Bobby Kendall) consecrated and re-consecrated the railroad apartment into a site of performed and lived-in fantasy. It is this ritual of relationship that Blank Narcissus opens up. Immersed in the moments of a couple coming together to create a work, Blank Narcissus limns the divide between interior and exterior, reality and fantasy, weaving them into the pattern of performance and action. It also wonders what happens when the work is over and whether it leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
About John Edmond
John Edmond works around film. A researcher and programmer, he currently runs Container, a film and moving image screening series.