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by Nato Thompson

Claire Culture:
Milford Thomas and the Public Work of Filmmaking

Text / Joey Orr

In 1976, when Milford Earl Thomas was in sixth grade and living in Arab, Alabama, he enlisted his family's Super-8 camera as well as the cutter and splicer they used for family movies to make his first film, Dracula Roams New York. His dad was the cameraman and the main action of the film was Milford pacing along the side of a chicken house—his set for a dark New York alley—wreaking havoc and destruction on the city. The scene reminds me of an old essay by Michael Warner, which describes a young John Waters delightedly conscripting his toy cars into horrible crashes and shouting, "Oh, my God, there's been a terrible accident!"1 But Warner eschews easy psychoanalysis of this private event, suggesting that Waters' pleasure is based on his "identification with publicity."2 Instead of casting this kind of publicity as a facile type of obsession with public relations, we might think about the various ways of being public, or as Warner suggests, counterpublic.

Milford Thomas, production still from Claire, 2001, 35mm film, black and white, 53 minutes: family portrait with James Ferguson, Sister Mish P. DeLight, and Toniet Gallego (photo: April Groom)

On Thursday, November 3, 2011, at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta—a decidedly sterile environment for the event—Thomas screened his silent film Claire, in celebration of the tenth anniversary of its debut. Inspired by the Japanese fairy tale of Kaguyahime, commonly known in English as "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," this fifty-three-minute film was shot on a Mitchell Standard 35mm hand-cranked camera and is intended to be screened with live accompaniment by Orchestra de Lune's performance of composer Anne Richardson's original score. It is hard to describe the experience of watching this film as Thomas intended. It is closer to performance art than movie-viewing. Given the cost of assembling the necessary orchestra, opportunities to attend a screening are rare, which makes doing so feel like being part of a limited-edition artwork. The very technology that has been accused of aura destruction serves here to reinstate it.3

Milford Thomas, still from Claire: The Water Nymph Faerie Dancers (Audrey Pickett, Kathleen Matusewich, and Keribeth Dlearo) (courtesy of the artist)

Thomas was inspired by a 1981 screening of Abel Gance's Napoléon, 1928, at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, which was set to a score by Carmine Coppola. Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, 1992, provided another foundational reference. Thomas was struck by a brief sequence shot with a hand-cranked camera, which he describes as a kind of antique capture of contemporary subjects, an uncanny simultaneity of past and present. But more importantly, Thomas believes that the viewing of silent film offers greater imaginary potential than the experience of talkies, which is why he insists on silent film's place in contemporary art practices. In fact, he has described the vernacular of the silent-film era as one of insinuation. It is the film's coupling of radical faeries Sister Mish P. Delight and James Ferguson with this sense of playful insinuation and its out-of-ordinary moments that make Claire feel so queer.

Milford Thomas, promotion still from Claire: Toniet on the moon

The film is only half of the story, though. DJ, cabaret, and rockabilly subcultures were thriving in Atlanta in the late 1990s. Thomas discovered his lead, Toniet Gallego, performing as a mermaid at the original MJQ lounge. In 1995, when Thomas committed to realizing the film, he was raising money for it while also casting, scouting locations, directing, and editing. He has been rallying people to help him make films from a very early age. When you cannot afford to pay people, you have to find ways to otherwise convince them to offer their skills. Vigorously committed to providing a robust cultural experience for his beloved supporters, he threw fundraising parties that are now infamous for creating their own kind of perverse subculture. Among them were the Black and White Lunacy party, Cosmo-Country Sideshow, 1920s Den of Sin, Glamour Farm, The Garden of Good and Evil, and Trip to the Moon, to name a few. The parties were part of the culture of the work's production. Referring to this time, Thomas remarked, "A lot of us were honing our gifts."4 And the events were filled with every curiosity, from carnival to clogging. In fact, in the wake of these efforts, Thomas has been pursued as a party planner—opportunities he declines. This unique system of value exchange does not work when it is capitalized.

Director of photography Jonathan Mellinger and Assistant Cameraman Pat McDonnel line up the shot of Joshua (Sister Mish P. DeLight) as director Milford Thomas looks on during the production of Claire (photo: Thomas Tulis)

Sustainability was a huge issue at that time. The 1996 American Creativity at Risk Symposium at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design tackled such issues as untraditional governmental, social, and familial funding networks. Indeed, Creative Capital, the US-based foundation that supports, funds, and counsels working artists, was born in large part from the conversations sparked by the NEA's discontinuation of its grants to individual artists and the subsequently increasing influence of social venture philanthropy.5

left to right: Milford Thomas, Black and White Lunacy, 1997, invitation to Claire fundraising event (courtesy of the artist) / Milford Thomas, Cosmo-Country Sideshow, 1998, invitation to fundraising party for Claire at Club MJQ, Atlanta (all images courtesy of the artist)

But, while Thomas' public and cultural exchange practices were shaped during this same period, they do not follow the venture capital models of these examples. A winner of the 2006 Sundance Institute Annenberg Fellowship and a veteran of numerous Sundance Labs, Thomas has come to understand that he is not a career director. Redesigning projects for studio approval often means sacrificing the aesthetic that first drew him to making his films, which frequently have to do with his interest in technology's role in narrative construction. In advance of the anniversary screening for Claire, there was a short presentation about his latest project, Pretty Like Me, which promises to be an homage to the low-budget, exploitation horror films of early 1970s. The audience's attention shifted back and forth between the muscle boys on stage and the invitations they had received, which variously goaded them into contributing their skills and talents to this newest project. In the space between the invitation and the ultimate film, a whole culture of exchange will spring up, a means-to-an-end transformed by public practice. And if it's anything like Claire, the film itself will become, among other things, a collective artifact.

NOTES 1. Michael Warner, "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject," Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992, 393.
2. Ibid.
3. Jeffrey Skoller has made this point in Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005, 4950.
4. Interview with the author, November 13, 2011.
5. Email conversation with Ruby Lerner, Executive Director of Creative Capital, November 23, 2011.

Joey Orr is an Arts and Sciences Fellow at Emory University's Institute for the Liberal Arts in Atlanta. He currently serves as an associate editor for the Journal for Artistic Research (Bern, Switzerland) and is a founding member of the idea collective John Q.

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