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FLEA Circus

Joan Sees Stars directed by Joan Braderman starring Joan Braderman at the Harvard Film Archive

By Rachel E. Silverman

Like many Americans, performance artist Joan Braderman is entranced by popular culture. Her video, "Joan Sees Stars," addresses this national obsession with movies, television, and the celebrities that inhabit them. In the style of "Beavis and Butthead," Braderman's talking head is superimposed above choice film clips from classic movies and contemporary television programs, as she deconstructs the ways in which the entertainment industry invades "our lives, our beds, and our dreams."

The first segment of her video, "Starstruck," addresses the particular hold that certain celebrities have upon our culture. The segment is highly autobiographical. For several years, Braderman was severely ill with colitis at the same time that her close friend, Leland, was dying of AIDS. For both of them, watching television and classic films served as therapy. As Braderman says, "movie stars dominated our mental life, images became medicine" as they were set free in a "world without sick bodies."

In this segment, she also portrays Leland's life-long fascination with Elizabeth Taylor. Presenting news clips in which Liz' many illnesses, marriages, and weight fluctuations are treated with the gravity of national emergencies, she shows that the American public, as well as Leland, avidly follows Taylor's life.

For most people who have been sick for an extended period of time, and have been entertained and relieved by watching a constant stream of television and movies, this section will ring true. My father, for instance, when severely ill like Braderman, escaped from illness into a world of Audrey Hepburn classics and "The Fugitive" reruns.

The video becomes less compelling, however, when addressing Leland's death from AIDS. While Leland indeed might have sung Ethel Merman's hits from "Gypsy" at his death bed, it is frustrating to see yet another media portrayal of a gay man as a show-tune singing, camp-obsessed queen. It is hard to feel any connection to Leland, since Braderman rarely shows the substance and humanity behind the stereotype. Only when she shows the viewer a photograph of her friend, could I feel any attachment to him.

The second half of her video, entitled "Movie Goddess Machines," deals more specifically with the ways in which TV and movies define female beauty and gender roles.

Braderman views the media as an almost monstrous Orwellian creation--we don't just watch television, it also watches and speaks to us. Calling television the "tiny surveillance center in your home," Braderman insists that TV mandates: "Buy this, don't buy that, don't be fat, identify with my beauty, my wealth, my thighs."

While the well-chosen film clips amusingly highlight her theses, the points themselves are rather obvious. She talks on and on about the way that television creates a "prison house of beauty," in which "wrinkles and bulges are criminalized by TV figure fascists and aerobic storm troopers." It seems she is preaching to the converted when she says this--the audience of most performance art probably already recognizes the media's control of body image.

In addition, she presents some of her points in a heavy-handed fashion. For instance, she lectures on female body images while her head is attached to a body made up of meat parts. She splits the screen with a clip from "How to Marry a Millionaire," in which Marilyn Monroe sings seductively to a bunch of tuxedoed gents, with another clip featuring the Frankenstein monster. By doing so, Braderman overstates her point that Marilyn Monroe is a monstrous media creation, the ultimate "Movie Goddess Machine."

Braderman also talks of the ways in which movies define gender roles. When she was growing up, films were divided into "girl movies" ("All about Eve," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Gone with the Wind," for example), and "boy movies" ("Rebel without a Cause," "The Wild Ones"). She watched these "girl" films for clues as to "who and how to be," in preparation for her future "career as a woman."

While the films she discusses are wonderfully entertaining, I view them as movie classics lacking strong contemporary meaning. These films did not actively shape my generation, since we grew up on "Star Wars," not "A Star is Born." Consequently, her autobiographical sketches might be more meaningful to someone closer to Braderman's forty-something age, who grew up when these films were more relevant.

In keeping with the production company's moniker (No More Nice Girls Productions), Ms. Braderman's words are frequently polemical, yet tinged with a dry sense of humor. Often, however, Braderman seems to find herself more humorous than the audience might. Some of the campy special effects, such as having flames spew from her mouth when she is upset about an oppressive media representation, became irritating after a while. Nonetheless, the video is relatively short (one hour), fast-paced, and filled with terrific clips from movies including "On the Beach," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Breakfast at Tiffany's." "The Wizard of Oz," "Frankenstein," and "Sunset Boulevard."

Still, instead of watching Braderman deconstruct these great films and the celebrities who star in them, go out and rent the movies themselves and come up with your own criticisms about popular culture. They could very well be more insightful than Braderman's.

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