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Oppenheimer Commands Non-Linear Universe

JOSH OPPENHEIMER Santa Fe, NM Special Concentrator Dudley House

By Marios V. Broustas

Slightly slouched over as he walks down Dunster Street, Joshua L. Oppenheimer '96-'97 looks like a slinky. His shoulders, acting in unison with his hips, wave back and forth as his whole body sways with each step. Wearing a tattered, green tweed blazer, Oppenheimer hardly looks the part of a master illusionist.

But then again, Oppenheimer lives in a different world. It is a fantastical, non-linear universe where he is in complete control of images and ideas that, above all, move fast.

The Anti-Christ. Aliens in the Capitol. Microwaved babies. Cowboys. 1950s suburban living.

Oppenheimer's trick, which is the beauty of his Hoopes Prize-winning film, "The Entire History of the Louisiana Purchase," is making sense of confused images, putting them together to paint a compelling portrait of America and its heartland.

Conversation with Oppenheimer, like his film, centers around images and ideas that are rarely constrained by linear time.

In one moment, Oppenheimer talks about dressing in drag at a protest to make a point and describes how he infiltrated a neo-Nazi group by pretending he was an alien abductee. Then, it's on to his year off as modern day troubadour in Calcutta and the filmmaking he will pursue while on his Marshall Scholarship next year.

The achievement of Oppenheimer's storytelling--whether in film or in person--is that it challenges preexisting perceptions. He succeeds because he has a natural talent for spitting out images in raw form.

In one scene from his movie, a mother casts her baby out to sea in a visual retelling of Moses in the bulrushes, replete with rats and sunken trailer homes. The image is set against a stark, gaping landscape reminiscent of Oppenheimer's native New Mexico.

Dusan Makavejev, a visiting lecturer and a well-known international filmmaker who advised Oppenheimer's film thesis, explains that scenes like the baby in the ocean and the more striking image of a baby "burning" in a microwave succeed because Oppenheimer's storytelling is intriguing but not overly "bookish."

Oppenheimer first approached Makavejev two years ago and asked to join the professor's advanced film class. Makavejev turned the inexperienced student down, but within months, Oppenheimer developed a project that Makavejev agreed to advise.

"He was already more dynamic than most other students," Makavejev says. "He moves well; he moves fast."

Oppenheimer, an affiliate of Dudley House, was raised in a politically-charged family in his hometown of Santa Fe, New Mexico. His mom Carol, a labor lawyer, says politics is standard fare for dinner-table conversation. (Oppenheimer's step-father is also a labor lawyer, and his father is a professor of political science.)

"We've always talked about politics in our home and tried to figure out the best way to make changes," says Carol Oppenheimer. "There has never been any question that we live at a time when poor people have not been given the rights they are entitled."

Outside of film circles, Oppenheimer's public image has been shaped by his flamboyant protests and his public squabbles with the administration.

For nearly two years, Oppenheimer (along with Moon Duchin '97) was The Crimson's posterchild of gay activism. Oppenheimer's shaved head and black combat gear--and his affinity for biting quotations--made him conspicuous on this carefully-groomed, moderate campus.

He was at the center of the protest in a government class the fall of 1995, when he dressed in drag to rail against Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 for his anti-gay comments at a prominent Colorado trial, his disdain for women's studies and his support of the controversial The Bell Curve.

The group of protesters presented Mansfield with the "Heinrich Himmler Award For Faculty Excellence" and a massive bouquets of flowers. The protesters then held up signs reading "Keep Harvard Straight," "Keep Harvard White," "Keep Harvard Rich," "Keep Harvard Christian" and "Keep Harvard Male."

"The attack had nothing to do with Harvard," Oppenheimer says. "We used [our access to Mansfield] to stage a real-world counter-attack against things Mansfield did--also in the real world--to hurt our communities."

Oppenheimer was also a co-conspirator at the protest of a speech delivered by Ralph Reed at the Institute of Politics. There, Oppenheimer and several other students dressed themselves in nun's habits, and staged a kiss-in where men kissed men and women kissed women.

Oppenheimer and others were dragged out of the protest by police and now, six months after the incident, Oppenheimer says he issued a complaint with University officials immediately after the protest charging that they violated his rights. According to University policy, demonstrators are allowed to protest as long as they do not prevent the speaker from being seen or heard for an extended period of time.

"Free speech was used to silence us," he says, noting that the protesters stood at the back of the Reed speech and held up signs reading "No Free Speech for Faggots" in protest.

Oppenheimer says he never pursued his complaint with Harvard, as the film took up much of the time during this year.

But that doesn't mean Oppenheimer is satisfied with the state of activism on campus. He says the University breeds a culture of complacency that makes sustained activism unlikely.

"We are much less militant than we should be on every issue," he says. "As with all things we should be taking over University Hall.... It shouldn't be once every 25 years, but once every two months."

Oppenheimer takes credit for working with fellow activists to force College administrators to open a gay student center. In the same breath, he also blames the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) for avoiding the kind of flamboyant public image that he says is needed to foster an environment that fosters discussion about gay issues.

He says that as political chair, he made the then-Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students' Alliance (BGLSA) one of the most often heard, if not influential, voices on campus. And yet, during his term as political chair, he received no fewer than 10 requests by "more conservative, assimilationist gay students... almost exclusively gay men" to tone down his protests and to organize a gay Republican political group.

He turned down the requests, declining to participate in anything that might help the right-wing movement.

"Being men at Harvard, unlike women, brings on a feeling of having made it," Oppenheimer says. "So it breeds an [attitude that] we don't want to be too out, or troublemakers."

Since stepping down as political chair at the beginning of the spring semester of 1996, Oppenheimer has virtually disappeared from the campus political scene.

He says his commitment to Harvard activism may have decreased as he has become more involved in his thesis, but his devotion to activism has not declined in the least.

"Campus activism, as opposed to activism in a broader community, is not my priority," he says, noting that last fall's Reed protest was for a national cause.

Oppenheimer has also been busy practicing a different kind of activism.

Since the summer of 1995, Oppenheimer has been infiltrating neo-Nazi organizations in London, the Northeast United States and the Pacific Northwest.

In London, Oppenheimer infiltrated a group dedicated to using prayer and electroshock therapy to turn gay men straight. Posing as the group's security coordinator, he managed to help sabotage a conference by releasing locusts and flies in the church which hosted the event.

Oppenheimer says that he picked up some of the activist tactics he used at Harvard, like the protest in drag in Mansfield's class, while in London.

Back in the United States, Oppenheimer has infiltrated numerous prominent Christian right groups, in one case posing as a legislative liaison, practicing what he refers to as a marriage of theater and activism.

Oppenheimer, whose work is motivated by his family's flight from Nazi Germany, says he has never helped any of the groups and that he pulls away whenever he senses that he is being given too much responsibility.

While infiltrating groups, he monitors their activities and conducts interviews with members which he then uses in his films.

Oppenheimer's current work, like his thesis, focuses on the growth of America's heartland and its culture that has developed a fascination with the paranormal, anti-government and right-wing movements.

"He got the marvelous overall idea that this country was always going West," Makavejev says of Oppenheimer's thesis, "and people are living without history so they are unaware of how small this country was."

"Finally there was this huge space that was looking like America--the Louisiana Purchase--and then the country went further West and what stayed was the heartland," Makavejev says.

Oppenheimer will continue to explore the nation's heartland as he pursues his dream of becoming a professional filmmaker next year, when he will use his Marshall Scholarship to attend the National Film and Television school in London.

He is currently raising funds to make a feature-length film.

"The world is really coming to him," says Makavejev. "He is going to be a new name."CrimsonKit W. GattisJoshua D. Oppenheimer '97 (not pictured) led this protest during a Ralph Reed speech, resulting in the arrest of students by campus police.

He was at the center of the protest in a government class the fall of 1995, when he dressed in drag to rail against Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. '53 for his anti-gay comments at a prominent Colorado trial, his disdain for women's studies and his support of the controversial The Bell Curve.

The group of protesters presented Mansfield with the "Heinrich Himmler Award For Faculty Excellence" and a massive bouquets of flowers. The protesters then held up signs reading "Keep Harvard Straight," "Keep Harvard White," "Keep Harvard Rich," "Keep Harvard Christian" and "Keep Harvard Male."

"The attack had nothing to do with Harvard," Oppenheimer says. "We used [our access to Mansfield] to stage a real-world counter-attack against things Mansfield did--also in the real world--to hurt our communities."

Oppenheimer was also a co-conspirator at the protest of a speech delivered by Ralph Reed at the Institute of Politics. There, Oppenheimer and several other students dressed themselves in nun's habits, and staged a kiss-in where men kissed men and women kissed women.

Oppenheimer and others were dragged out of the protest by police and now, six months after the incident, Oppenheimer says he issued a complaint with University officials immediately after the protest charging that they violated his rights. According to University policy, demonstrators are allowed to protest as long as they do not prevent the speaker from being seen or heard for an extended period of time.

"Free speech was used to silence us," he says, noting that the protesters stood at the back of the Reed speech and held up signs reading "No Free Speech for Faggots" in protest.

Oppenheimer says he never pursued his complaint with Harvard, as the film took up much of the time during this year.

But that doesn't mean Oppenheimer is satisfied with the state of activism on campus. He says the University breeds a culture of complacency that makes sustained activism unlikely.

"We are much less militant than we should be on every issue," he says. "As with all things we should be taking over University Hall.... It shouldn't be once every 25 years, but once every two months."

Oppenheimer takes credit for working with fellow activists to force College administrators to open a gay student center. In the same breath, he also blames the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) for avoiding the kind of flamboyant public image that he says is needed to foster an environment that fosters discussion about gay issues.

He says that as political chair, he made the then-Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Students' Alliance (BGLSA) one of the most often heard, if not influential, voices on campus. And yet, during his term as political chair, he received no fewer than 10 requests by "more conservative, assimilationist gay students... almost exclusively gay men" to tone down his protests and to organize a gay Republican political group.

He turned down the requests, declining to participate in anything that might help the right-wing movement.

"Being men at Harvard, unlike women, brings on a feeling of having made it," Oppenheimer says. "So it breeds an [attitude that] we don't want to be too out, or troublemakers."

Since stepping down as political chair at the beginning of the spring semester of 1996, Oppenheimer has virtually disappeared from the campus political scene.

He says his commitment to Harvard activism may have decreased as he has become more involved in his thesis, but his devotion to activism has not declined in the least.

"Campus activism, as opposed to activism in a broader community, is not my priority," he says, noting that last fall's Reed protest was for a national cause.

Oppenheimer has also been busy practicing a different kind of activism.

Since the summer of 1995, Oppenheimer has been infiltrating neo-Nazi organizations in London, the Northeast United States and the Pacific Northwest.

In London, Oppenheimer infiltrated a group dedicated to using prayer and electroshock therapy to turn gay men straight. Posing as the group's security coordinator, he managed to help sabotage a conference by releasing locusts and flies in the church which hosted the event.

Oppenheimer says that he picked up some of the activist tactics he used at Harvard, like the protest in drag in Mansfield's class, while in London.

Back in the United States, Oppenheimer has infiltrated numerous prominent Christian right groups, in one case posing as a legislative liaison, practicing what he refers to as a marriage of theater and activism.

Oppenheimer, whose work is motivated by his family's flight from Nazi Germany, says he has never helped any of the groups and that he pulls away whenever he senses that he is being given too much responsibility.

While infiltrating groups, he monitors their activities and conducts interviews with members which he then uses in his films.

Oppenheimer's current work, like his thesis, focuses on the growth of America's heartland and its culture that has developed a fascination with the paranormal, anti-government and right-wing movements.

"He got the marvelous overall idea that this country was always going West," Makavejev says of Oppenheimer's thesis, "and people are living without history so they are unaware of how small this country was."

"Finally there was this huge space that was looking like America--the Louisiana Purchase--and then the country went further West and what stayed was the heartland," Makavejev says.

Oppenheimer will continue to explore the nation's heartland as he pursues his dream of becoming a professional filmmaker next year, when he will use his Marshall Scholarship to attend the National Film and Television school in London.

He is currently raising funds to make a feature-length film.

"The world is really coming to him," says Makavejev. "He is going to be a new name."CrimsonKit W. GattisJoshua D. Oppenheimer '97 (not pictured) led this protest during a Ralph Reed speech, resulting in the arrest of students by campus police.

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