LARRY WESSEL and ICONOCLAST: THE MOVIE
By Kent Adamson
ICONOCLAST is a complex masterwork. A rare film, nearly four hours in length, that plays well in any format – on the big screen in a darkened movie theater, and also as a terrific 3 volume dvd set. I first saw it on the big screen, the best way to see it, at Allison Anders’ DON’T KNOCK THE ROCK film festival in Los Angeles, which was the world premiere of the film. It was a sold out house, and despite the length and two intermissions, the audience stayed with the entire show. A fascinating biography of story teller, legendary prankster and pioneering noise musician BOYD RICE, ICONOCLAST also unfolds an alternative, independent view of post World War Two American culture. It is one of the few films ever made over three hours in length that justifies its running time. It presents the developmental context and entire life story, the complete creative life, of a contemporary American artist, WHILE HE IS STILL ALIVE, refining and developing his art on camera. The movie is a unique intersection between Boyd Rice and Larry Wessel, and plays like an unfolding, living art piece – a live ongoing digital biographical sculpture.
As a SEXTUPLE HYPHENATE Producer-Director-Writer-Cinematographer-Editor-Self Distributor Larry Wessel has been one of the FEW truly independent American filmmakers, working singly since he was a teenager. He started his solo career PRE-PUNK PRE-D.I.Y in middle school. His movies are made in a non-dogmatic, organic state of research and revelation as he shoots them. A Wessel documentary unfolds at its own pace, without voice over or narrative devices. Starting with 16mm and Super-8 film in the 1970s, he subsequently embraced every format which would facilitate his story telling. In the epic bio-documentary ICONOCLAST, Larry pushes his subject and audience beyond the limits of mere videographic digital cinema, and defines the true artistic meaning of INDEPENDENCE. INDEPENDENT CINEMA. INDEPENDENT THINKING.
ICONOCLAST is the perfect match of filmmaker and subject, a fascinating spiral. It is a perfect document of the aesthetic sensibilities of two creative minds meeting in a third medium as did Les Blank/Werner Herzog – BURDEN OF DREAMS 1982, Peter Watkins/Edvard Munch – EDVARD MUNCH 1974, Henri-Georges Clouzot/Pablo Picasso – LE MYSTERE PICASSO 1956.
In terms of style, Wessel shoots long takes and lets his subjects draw their full stories out. Confrontation asserts itself within the subject and unfolds organically to the objective camera. If there is any hanging to be done, the subject will slowly wrap a noose around their own neck, and pull the trap door lever with their own hand. It is a fascinating technique, watching a person methodically paint their way into a tiny, tiny corner, where an inescapable truth hems them in, and shades the entire impact of a film.
ICONOCLAST, like its subject, seeks the balance between good and evil through deep examination of the placement and uses of both – historically, as well as in modern American society, and in the often overlapping cults of show business, politics and theology.
ICONOCLAST traces the life of Boyd Rice by structurally following the geographic and temporal space he has traveled in sequence. It is broken up into three sections: Lemon Grove, San Francisco, and Denver. Growing up in the shadow of a giant lemon, a huge plaster symbol of civic pride, near the border of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, Rice struggled to escape the boundaries of the community early on. The isolation and ignorance of the town, only minutes from Mexico, is made clear when Rice describes his first job at Taco Bell. The locals had to be educated to the food they were about to purchase by phonetic spellings of the dishes. A burrito was presented as a “buh-rhee-to” to the fast food buying public of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Rice began a series of pranks on the community, as well as developing a very personal approach to painting, photography and fine art, mainly to relieve boredom, and challenge the Lemonheads who surrounded him. The big bright yellow sour lemon hovers like a meandering blimp, cruising slowly over the life of Boyd Rice.
As glam music and culture flourished in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Rice moved through both cities, eventually settling in Northern California. His years in San Francisco were groundbreaking and controversial. He would ultimately be influenced by relationships with three people who would loom large in his life and the rest of his career – Satanist Anton LaVey, Federal prisoner Charles Manson, and the creative and technical genius of painter Beth Moore-Love.
Eventually relocating to a bunker in the heartland of America in Denver, Rice became a citizen of the world. He continues to paint, tour and record, and his influence significantly shaped the careers of musicians Marilyn Manson and Rozz Williams,
To understand the process and development of ICONOCLAST as a movie, and Larry Wessel creatively, it is important to understand the worldwide cultural significance of post war Los Angeles, Southern California, the South Bay area and in particular the city of Manhattan Beach. In the rapid suburban expansion of the 1950s and ‘60s, the small oceanfront community served as a research and development laboratory and simultaneous test market for a variety of tightly held cottage industries producing and promoting California Style products. Toymakers like Mattel, hot-rodding automotive performance innovators like TRW (also a huge U.S. military contractor), home products like Metlox ceramic California Pottery and even motion picture special effects and animation were produced by hand locally in Manhattan Beach. Southern California industry flooded the world with toys and images of Rat Finks and cars designed by ”Big Daddy” Ed Roth. Mattel’s Hot Wheels sent advanced design around the world, and their Barbie Dolls shattered boundaries and sales records overnight for girl’s toys, and promoted the California fashion industry in miniature.
Often a suburban garage doubled as a home grown laboratory, while a modernist designed, Eames influenced ranch house doubled as a product showcase. As national, and later worldwide, attention focused on the South Bay area of Los Angeles, the culture continued to expand further with local artisans producing music, film, and lifestyle products like clothing, surfboards, sailboats, custom car designs and furniture made for use in the temperate, open air beach towns of the Pacific coast. Surfboard shapers like Dewey Weber became product designers, and ultimately industrialists. Open toed sandals, baggy short pants, and colorful T shirts represented freedom from repressive school uniforms, but they also became new uniforms – required modes of dress for social acceptance, conformist markers for non-conformists. This was the environment that Larry Wessel was born into, an inspiring, colorful and historic flourishing of a unique, nearly indigenous, culture at its world peak of influence. It would also be a world to which he would forcefully rebel, ultimately establishing his own creative universe, fine art and film production methods and private studio with global distribution and influence… all inside the belly of the beast.
Plunging deeply into the darkest depths, holding your breath through harsh undercurrents, and kicking against the crosscurrents, is an excursion into blackness. With no sun, the light can only come from within. Larry Wessel began swimming in uncharted waters at an early age.
Taking on more than most teenagers, Larry began making movies at the age of eleven with a Super-8 film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart”. His major work in high school was a 16mm synch-sound film adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s 1948 short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. The ambition of these adaptations – Poe and Salinger – and their imagination and technical skill, won Wessel awards and took him into the Cinema department of U.S.C.
Attending classes in urban Los Angeles, not far from the site of the L.A.P.D. shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army, provided a doorstep to record and respond to the culture wars of the 1970s. With each exploration into everything from the Watts Towers, to Hollywood rock and roll, to the extreme color of Argento flavored blood, Wessel expanded his creative vocabulary and intelligence and pushed the limits of the film school faculty. The keys to the locks on the means of production were largely in the hands of the husbands of the Junior League. Janitors of culture, their eyes and ears were fogged by their own dust, the smoke they kicked up from clapping their erasers in the faces of students. Outside of the classroom however, the University was alive in every area of performing arts. The Runaways played one of their earliest live shows at the student activities center, John Houseman was the head of the drama department, and film was screened on a 24 hour basis.
As teenagers from everywhere descended on Hollywood in a glam swept wave, Larry left the halls of academe, and began to work on his own, independent of the commercial system that led mostly to television. He became a triple threat filmmaker, exhibited artist, and live performer, perched on the precipice of local Los Angeles culture. A witness to, and active participant in, the original punk explosion. His artwork was exhibited at the early La Luz de Jesus gallery, then located on Melrose Avenue, and adapted for use on book covers and in magazines. Wessel made a nonstop series of short films in Super8 and 16mm, hired himself out to work on films for Roger Corman and others, and began to experiment with the boundaries of live performance, in a series of live band appearances. In response to a decaying corporate entertainment culture, teenagers around the world spontaneously seized the means of production and created a new culture. It was an organic dam burst in every area of expression and arts – film, music, dance, spoken word, live performance, and fine art.
Before the labels “Punk” and “D.I.Y.” were applied by media, thousands of kids and hundreds of bands and artists were actively creating and influencing each other. Ultimately, Larry’s live performances came to a peak with his participation in two pioneering bands. Putting on shows with “The Imperial Butt Wizards” meant every form of visual, sonic and physical assault on audiences. The band blasted songs soaked in blood and body paint, and was notorious for starting fires and transforming nightclubs into smoking infernos. Later, collaborating with Glen Meadmore and Vaginal Davis in the band “Pedro, Muriel and Esther” Larry pushed his performances off the stage, into the crowds. The band quickly became known for attacking their audiences, ripping their clothes off and performing live sex acts on them. Each performance was a spontaneous outburst of outrageous revenge on a bloodthirsty public. “Pedro Muriel and Esther” was a hugely popular act. At a frenzied peak of word of mouth publicity, public controversy, and tension with bookers and venues, Larry quit live performance cold. He left the band because he felt he had begun to repeat his performances out of sensation, which made him feel like a dancing bear in a carny geek show.
Plunging deeper into creating collage art, Wessel concentrated on an eye popping series of meditations on sex, tiki and beatnik culture. These works brought a new round of attention to his art by being meticulously hand crafted, and thematically extreme.
As film gave way to videotape and digital advances, Larry embraced new technologies, and again pushed his own boundaries to the limit. His films are widely divergent in subject matter, but all are marked by their deep focus on the thriving humanity in each culture.
HOLLYWOOD HEADBASH takes on El Duce and The Mentors and the Hollywood punk world around them. ULTRAMEGALOPOLIS is a multilayered meditation on Los Angeles. SUGAR and SPICE looks at transgendered street life. CARNY TALK opens up the world of contemporary Low Brow artist Robert Williams. SEX, DEATH and the HOLLYWOOD MYSTIQUE goes into Sharon Tate’s death house to reopen the issues of Charles Manson in a Hollywood context.
The epic TAUROBOLIUM was five years in the making. Wessel shot four seasons of bullfights over four years in Tijuana. Post-production took place over one year in the pre-digital era. The film had to be edited by hand shot by shot with no time code. The technique and process of putting this film together set the stage for ICONOCLAST. The final film is a rhythmic vision of a savage blood sport. It begins with the preparation of the Matadors, the fierce, violent action in the ring, much blood spilled over hot sand, and the final disposition of the slaughtered bulls, horses and people in charnel houses and hospital beds. TAUROBOLIUM is a favorite documentary of bullfight aficionados the world over.
As Larry Wessel meets Boyd Rice in the digital dance of ICONOCLAST, his camera patiently records the performer’s stories, public confrontations and live performances. While the stories unfold, his clever hand craftsmanship tells a larger story… the history of hidden underground culture, its intersection and collision with the mainstream pop world, and the balance between good and evil in everyday American life.
Larry Wessel’s ICONOCLAST will be screened this weekend as part of the Anthology Film Archives. More Information here.
Bio: Writer/filmmaker Kent Adamson has known Larry Wessel since they were teenage trouble makers. They have never had a single argument, but they did kill humanoids together for Roger Corman, and watched Samuel Fuller threaten to shoot his first A.D. on the set of The Big Red One.
Tomorrow at You Would Say That, Wouldn’t You? is a Q&A between Kent Adamson and Larry Wessell. Be there or be pear shaped!