JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The happy family catches a bit of television.

The Girl Scouts, looking like Siamese Twins.

Dorine is beginning to “beautify” herself.

Extreme diagonals echo a Dan Flavin installation.

Dorine is wearing accessories “borrowed” from her victims and the most makeup we’ve seen yet. “I’d love to go to lunch.”

 

Dorine, in at attempt to enchant Daniel, lets her hair down. She’s also wearing Norah’s pearls.

 

The television they keep watching doesn’t show anything other than blue.

Perhaps a tribute to horror films everywhere, Dorine prepares her revenge on Norah.

Norah tries to hide between washing machine and dryer.

Dorine’s transformation is complete.

Time for a promotion!

 

Conclusions

Sherman’s women are characters of curious strength and aggression, both in Office Killer and in her photographs. This is not a world in which men have the upper hand. They are even conspicuously absent. These women may be alone, their space may be confined by the boundaries of the frame, but they are also in control of that space. Even Sherman’s Fashion series photographs are aggressive, her women’s refusal to mimic conventions of femininity and expected glamour, a sign of latent aggression bordering on hostility.

Untitled #122, 1983

In Sherman’s Untitled #122, the blonde wig is willfully unbrushed, one eye barely peeking out, but still looking directly at us, a rare moment of one-to-one confrontation, the fists clenched resolutely on either side of her hips. This is a woman who doesn’t give a fuck, and she doesn’t give a fuck in couture. She’s not going to play by your rules, she’s not going to toe the line, and she’s got no interest in being touched. Despite the minx appeal of some of Sherman’s images, there is not one coquettish, come-hither glance. It’s impossible not to see a pre-vulnerable Virginia behind the 80s power suit and the thick hair, the tension and aggression. Both Virginia and Untitled #122 are clenched figures, women whose strength is in marked defiance to the cut of their skirt. Their femininity is grimly hostile.

Virginia: German, in leather, and about to die.

If a woman builds her career on pictures, what happens when she makes a movie? Is the movie different for having come after photographs? Are the photographs different for having been followed by a movie? It is impossible for anything to exist in a vacuum. Everything is a corollary to what has come before, during, and after. Most critics are guilty of looking at Sherman’s photographs without even mentioning the film, or of looking at the film only through the lens of the photographs rather than vice versa. Even Johanna Burton, in her essay “A Body Slate,” cites Rosalind Krauss and Norman Bryson, who both conclude that “reading Sherman’s various photographic series retrospectively, one will find traces of her later work gestating in the earliest.” She even quotes Bryson as observing

“an atmosphere of dread, off-screen and at the fringes of the representation, a fear for and of the body at the very moment of its sublimation or disappearance.”[15][open endnotes in new window]

Yet, despite the additional perspective to be gained by inserting Office Killer into this dialogue, it’s not mentioned. When it’s inconvenient, which it often is, Office Killer is simply excised from Sherman’s body of work. It’s as if the discourse on Sherman was established with her Untitled Film Stills and all we have done since then is expand on the same ideas, continually relying on an

“urge to posit Sherman’s characters…as passive and preyed upon: in danger of (or in process of) being consumed variously by the (media-produced) male gaze, by culture at large, even by space itself.”[16]

There is a noticeable absence of the movie from the critical discussion of her work, despite the fact that her images and the film have so much in common that a productive dialogue could grow organically. Why has Office Killer been ignored? It’s not simply that Molly Ringwald wasn’t the lead, or that the movie met the curse of a female film director, of which there is also a lack in Hollywood and beyond. It can’t even be blamed on the studio’s poor distribution, since the film is available enough for art historians, if they chose to watch it. Strangely, no one watches it or chooses to discuss it.

When I wrote to Sherman, asking her to tell me what to do with my life, I was actually asking for her to tell me what to do with my body, what to do with the physical limbs and parts that compose the me I want to become, or am struggling to decipher. Sherman’s photographs are an encyclopedia of body language, but it is not so simple. The language is not based on realism. Her photographs are never snapshots. They are always performed and elaborately arranged. Each gesture, each object, is loaded with meaning. She communicates via posing, but this is not an index to living. She makes you question stereotype and learned behavior through her compositions and subjects, through the diorama-like environments she creates for each scenario. She exposes the ruptures under the surface by taking every day life and shifting it off kilter. Her photographs work for the attention they bring to that which does not fit, to the exact point of the tear, and to the isolation inherent to that moment. In her photographs, Sherman is always alone. Her work is a reference manual to body language with a solo subject. The rest of the world is merely implied, if not conspicuously absent.

While Sherman is not in Office Killer, she has said that Dorine is “a stand-in” for herself.[17] Even though there are other characters in the film, unlike in Sherman’s photographs, it is a small group, a group as strangely disassociated from any larger world as the main subject of her photographs, and a small group who is strangely disassociated from itself. There is minimal physical contact in the movie, at least between living beings. The characters cannot connect with each other on any real level, their lives just intersecting with each other without any real synergy, bodies seeping and dripping but never merging. The film is a literalization of the body’s solitude as depicted in Sherman’s photographs. It is a literalization of the body’s inability to be touched by others, of the body as a prophylactic, protecting internal organs from germs and disease, of the various potentials of body arrangement without real exposure, connection, or contamination. Dorine can place a leg here, an arm there, but her body is still hers, their bodies are still theirs. We are each alone, together. Even when present, we are fundamentally absent, a core sense of isolation running through our lives and Sherman’s work.

Touching, as we see in Office Killer, leads to disaster. Touching, as we see in Sherman’s photographs, is to be avoided. In her Untitled Film Stills, through to her most recent work, in every image in which we see Sherman, she is alone. In similar work, by other photographers, there is always the implied duality of the photographer and the subject, but, in her case, Sherman is the photographer, and the subject, and the assistant. Sherman famously works alone. She is both the gazer and the subject of the gaze. In almost all of the Untitled Film Stills, she looks outward, beyond the camera, outside of the frame. In Untitled Film Still #3, the one which most closely echoes the scene in Mrs. Michaels’ kitchen, the character’s head is cropped off, one eye cut off by the top of the image, the other eye just millimeters from sharing the same fate, both eyes staring above and beyond. But we know no one is there. Just like no one is ever there. She cannot even connect with us, her viewer. We stare at her, but she is forever out of reach.

Nowhere is this absentee status used more ironically than in her Centerfold series. Centerfolds, by nature, are sexual, come-hither, very tape-me-to-your-locker-room-door. Not for Sherman. In the famous series she prepared for ArtForum, she made her first set of horizontal images, only these were not blond bimbettes. In fact, in her own notes for the series, she listed various lying down positions: “sleeping, fallen or thrown, unable to walk, lounging.”[18] Nowhere is there a reference to sex. Fallen or thrown? One would be hard pressed to image a Pamela Anderson centerfold where she is fallen or thrown. None of Sherman’s centerfolds are “done.” The hair is often sweaty and mussed, the faces glistening and shiny—and it’s the kind of shiny that would never make it into the pages of Playboy. This isn’t the shine of a light orgasmic mist. This is the shine of sweat, of fear, of humidity. If it’s to be found erotic, it’s not the erotic of airbrushed Playmates. This is the shine of women without a compact, without a stylist, without a makeup artist. Her centerfolds are alone, and none of them beckon you to come closer. Even in her other images, some of which have a coquettish appeal, Sherman never suggests that you touch her. In photographs where her character is more conventionally attractive, like in Untitled Film Still #3, the essence of the pose is so mannequin-like, there is still a detached artificially which enhances the separation between viewer and model.

Untitled #90, 1981

In Untitled #90, Sherman’s centerfold has a telephone, but the telephone cord isn’t wrapped seductively around a bulging breast or a curvaceous midsection. In fact, we barely see her body at all. Sherman’s centerfold is dressed to the very base of her neck, wrapped up in what appears to be lavender flannel or cotton. There is no beguiling gaze, she isn’t even looking at us at all. Her eyes, in the shadow of her mousy brown hair, are looking downward, at the base of the telephone perched beside her on the couch. She is not happy about waiting for a phone call. She, in fact, looks as though she might have just received a phone call from a dying mother, from a cheating suitor, or from a mortgage company revoking a loan. If Sherman hadn’t told us this was the Centerfold series, we’d never make that conclusion. Centerfolds, by their very come-hither nature, want to connect with us. Pamela is asking us to come closer, to lick her, to taste her flesh, to bite her lips, to tug on her bra strap. Sherman asks us to kindly keep away.

Pamela, deliciously (un)available.

Nevertheless, both Sherman’s and Pamela’s images share the same emphasis on construction, arrangement, and inaccessibility, however disparate their execution and intention. Pamela’s gender performance is artificial as a Sherman, just with a different vernacular. Pamela gives us the impression that she wants to be touched, but what we touch can never be Pamela, or the fantasy breaks down. It’s why airbrushing is an integral part of porn, or any kind of glamour photography. Pamela is just as unavailable to us as she is to Borat.[19] Pamela’s persona, built on her visual image, is, like Sherman’s images, the opposite of a Nan Goldin, the antithesis to the snapshot.

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed (1981)

While Goldin aims at the anti-performative, at the “real,” the premise of Pamela’s image, and centerfolds in general, is their availability as communicated through conspicuously artificial arrangement. Exposure equals accessibility. Even though Sherman’s work is constructed around the notion of the unavailable, it, too, is built on the notion of the performance as communicated via arrangement. It’s the vernacular of body parts, of body language.

Learning how to manipulate the marketplace, learning how to arrange, is both the lexicon of these images and of consumerism. Sherman’s work deals with the body in a very particularized way, a way of presentation with very specific attention paid to manifest content versus latent content, where the latent content is almost more conspicuous for its latency. This is always accompanied by an awareness of stereotype that borders on opposition. Sherman’s understanding of the language of stereotype is so thorough that she is able to turn it inside out, playing both with the stereotypes themselves while willfully contradicting and complicating them. Throughout it all, there is an intense curiosity about this lack of intimacy, an isolation in the sense that her figures are always solitary, but also an isolation that stems from her treatment of the body as if it were a doll. She is even isolated from herself, a puppeteer of her own limbs and expressions. She arranges herself in such a way that concepts of beauty and horror are not relevant—it’s what comes out of them that is interesting.

“The world is so drawn toward beauty that I became interested in things that are normally considered grotesque or ugly, seeing them as more fascinating and beautiful…It seems boring to me to pursue the typical idea of beauty, because that is the easiest or the most obvious way to see the world.”[20]

She sees herself from the outside in, watching what happens when she picks herself apart. The character of Dorine is a stand-in for Sherman because they both share this intense aura of non-intimacy and voyeurism, while also being captivated by notions of arrangement. Both Dorine and Sherman are interested in observing what happens when they create scenarios and assemble bodies. When Dorine brings the bodies home, she is bringing them into her studio, switching her role from that of detached voyeur to puppeteer in the dead womb of her house. These are her children, her figurines. Dorine isn’t interested in having adult-like relationships with these people. Instead, she creates little boy and girl situations, like a makeshift tea party, but always with a sense of isolation and detachment. After all, her friends are dead. She is an arranger of things that don’t talk back—either words and grammar, at work, or bodies and limbs, at home. The plot allows Dorine, like Sherman, to be the voyeur, to be the puppeteer, and this only gets stronger as the movie progresses.

Maybe Sherman’s work is not about the mask, or the feminine gaze. Maybe, instead, it is about arrangement, about revealing what is exposed and communicated when you arrange something in a particular way, exploring the ramifications of the relationship between arrangement and the body in contemporary culture. It’s not a commentary about the female, but about the body, on what happens between body and clothing, objects and space, about the code and language of the body. There is a sense of wanting to be invisible, much like the puppeteer is invisible, in order to be able to see the results of your actions and arrangements.

If life is a script, it is the copyeditor who makes the changes. It is the role of the woman (or the gay man) to arrange since it is a feminine responsibility to adjust and alter. Copyeditors arrange and cut. Dorine literalizes this with her bodies. Photographers and copyeditors arrange what and how you see. Sherman is always playing with the dead in her images—what makes it bearable is that the figure is her. Dorine’s transformation makes her a Sherman woman. The other characters become a piece of her diorama after they die. They have to be killed in order to be dressed up. It’s Dorine that makes the Shermans. Everyone else is an extra. The next best thing to working alone is using people who are dead.

When the flash bulb goes off, is rigor mortis that different from striking a pose? Bodies frozen in unnatural movements. “Hold that shot.” For any kind of representation, a violence has to occur, a ripping from original content/context, a recreation on different terms, however contrived and artificial. Something must be changed, held longer, space shifted and altered, a self-consciousness inherent in any representation. Dorine echoes the violence inherent in both representation and teaching, as she leaves dead bodies behind in her quest to create the ideal scenario, to both learn from it herself and to teach Norah. This is what happens when you send us home to do our work, Dorine tells her.

Dorine’s visible actions are

“linked to the inner, mental imaginings of the puppeteer.”[21]

In both Johnny Mnemonic and Office Killer, Barbara Sukowa (Virginia) plays very German, very staged, very posed characters, but she is not the only one. To varying degrees, all the other characters are merely puppets, as evidenced by their lack of progress or evolution, devices in the narrative arc of Dorine’s journey. Johnny Mnemonic (1995), directed by Sherman’s longtime friend and former boyfriend Robert Longo, was released two years before Office Killer. While painting a very different picture from the one Sherman creates in Office Killer, it, too deals with issues of arrangement, of puppetry, of a lack of consciousness, all while struggling to find a certain kind of independence, a journey to slice the umbilical cord from that which controls, and the concurrent failure of the human body.[22]

This notion of being controlled and arranged, marionette-style, pervaded several other films during the mid to late nineties. The Truman Show (1998) exposes a man’s universe as actually a soundstage, and his unknowing role as the world’s most famous television star. In Dark City (1998), John Murdoch discovers that his city is being controlled by aliens who want to take control of his mind and destroy him. In The Matrix (1999), the crucial narrative stems from the protagonist’s revelation that life on Earth may be nothing more than an elaborate simulation created by a malevolent cyber-intelligence, while in Being John Malkovich (1999), a puppeteer discovers a door in his office that allows him to enter the mind and life of John Malkovich for 15 minutes each time. Even the basic notions of posing and arrangement started becoming important in fashion and music scenes during the late 1970s to early 1980s and continued in the artwork of Richard Prince and Robert Longo, friends and significant others of Sherman, or even through the fashion world, via the work of Guy Bourdin whose fashion images often featured women arranged in doll-like poses and situations.[23]

At the same time as this filmic trend, people were literally and metaphorically disappearing as a result of AIDS, technological developments, and shifts in the workplace. No one knew where anyone belonged anymore. They stopped talking to each other in person. Communication became abstract and anonymous, when it happened at all. A pervasive sense of isolation began to spread, both in real-life interactions and also in Sherman’s work. This isolation was coupled with an aggression, a refusal to age (or do anything) gracefully, to play by anyone’s rules of how women (or people) should behave. There is strength in the steely solitude of Sherman’s solitary figures. They are alone because they chose to be, because their bodies are prophylactics from a world of disease, contagion, and weakness. Even in couture fashion, Sherman’s women dare to look away, to leave their hair uncombed, to apply their makeup badly if they apply it at all. There is a duality in her images, much like there is a duality to her subjects, always two ways of looking and being looked at. Is Mistress Untitled #122 clenching her fists because she is a victim of female hysteria? Or is she clenching her fists because she is preparing to kill? Are her centerfolds ready for bed (an assumption inherent in Sherman’s titling of the series) or are they resolutely alone and unavailable? Is our housewife of Untitled Film Still #3 frilly or domestic? There are two ways of looking, each equally important, and Sherman is in the middle, creating both, defying definition, exactly as a woman in the 21st century must do. I must reposition myself in relation to the image, pulling at the tension between the artificial and the real, the performative and the self. Her work isn’t simply about stereotypes, but about aesthetic explorations of image, woman, genre, bodies, and space, about complicating the code with which we live our lives.

Go to Notes page


To topPrint versionJC 52 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.