Lesson Plan: Peggy Ahwesh’s Martina’s Playhouse

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Ian here—

What follows will be quick, because I did not spend an entire day on Martina’s Playhouse (1989) when I taught it in my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” course. It shared a day with Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley’s Schmeerguntz (1965) and Nelson’s My Name Is Oona (1969), for a week themed around parenthood.

I assigned Ahwesh’s interview with Scott MacDonald as reading for this week. I was interested in what sort of reactions the prominent child nudity and role-play in this film would provoke, particularly given that, all things considered, the events we see onscreen aren’t all that strange. (MacDonald puts it well when he reminisces that “The minute I would turn on my little Super-8 camera to make home movies, two of my boys would drop their pants … Any parent sees that kind of nudity all the time.”[i]) There is, however, a real difference between private family moments and public exhibition, and I was hoping that my students had some strong reactions I could bounce ideas off of.

My students did not disappoint. Reactions posted on the course discussion board the night before class revealed a wide spectrum of unease. Martina’s mother’s actions while role-playing, encouraging Martina to mime breastfeeding with her, were characterized as “disconcerting” behavior that students felt “disturbed” by. One student reported being “left nervous and uncomfortable” by the film. Another said, “I felt like I wasn’t supposed to see what was on the screen.” One student dug deeper into the source of her anxieties, pointing out that in the film “we see a sexual side to a young girl which is often shied away from in documentation of childhood,” with the result that what we see “strikes us as wrong even though it is play.”

I brought this idea of the “sexual side of childhood” up during class discussion, and the opinion in the room was more or less unanimous. Students found Martina’s behavior to be disturbingly sexualized. I wanted to dig deep into why, exactly, this was. As MacDonald points out, children get naked quite often. For the most part, we understand a non-attachment to clothing, as well as a tendency towards roll-play and a fascination with all things “adult,” to be an unremarkable part of human development. Is there something different, though, about seeing this behavior on a screen, in a collective setting?

Students agreed that there was. And, of course, the specter of child pornography reared its head: especially in the US, images of child nudity are subject to extreme suspicion, as evidence of deviant sexuality and possible child abuse. (Ask yourself: In 2016, what other images are considered illegal to possess? For the most part, Western society has grown out of its other iconophobic taboos.)

The shadow of child pornography is an obvious and potent source of discomfort. But I wanted to push things further. I showed the first few minutes of the film (fast-forwarding through some parts, showing just enough for the students to get a sense of its order), and asked students if they could imagine a different organization of the material … and whether that organization might have a different effect on the viewer. For reference, these are the first ten sections of the film:

  1. Martina on roof, eating a sandwich and wordlessly staring into the camera (the header image for this post).
  2. Shots of flowers, then the “talking flower,” reciting Bataille. “The object of human love is never an organ, but the person who has the organ.”
  3. Martina on the roof again. “I am M-A-R-T-I-N-A. What’s that spell? Did you hear me?”

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  1. Flowers and Bataille again. “If the sign of loved is displaced from the pistol and stamens to the surrounding petals, it is because the human mind is accustomed to making such a displacement in regard to people.”
  2. Jennifer Montgomery screams into the camera, then giggles nervously. “It didn’t feel good at all; I didn’t feel comfortable with it.”

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  1. Martina, in her underwear. “I’m not ready! I have to do this.” Ahwesh: “I thought Froggy was a boy!” Martina: “He was a girl. I thought he was a boy, but he was a girl.” Martina narrates the pictures.

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  1. Jennifer Montgomery flirtatiously makes crude visual jokes with the microphone. “It’s the perfect shape” (to use as a dildo). Giggling, she starts to take off her pants, to use it as one. “No, no, I couldn’t possibly … alright yes I could. I couldn’t. Maybe I could.” Montgomery pulls her pants down. Ahwesh eggs her on: “Stick it up your ass!” “Can you see?” asks Montgomery. We can’t: the film runs out.
  2. More flowers. Martina, with great difficulty, recites Lacan. “It is in this point of lack, that the desire of the subject is constituted.”
  3. Montgomery talks about a fantasy of “getting down on my knees and begging you to go to bed with me,” claiming that her appearing in this film is a substitute for that. She talks about how her friendship with Ahwesh is build on them reciprocally lending each other filmmaking equipment.

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  1. Martina, nude, attempts to put on a diaper. She wants to be a baby in the film. Disrupting her plans, her mother instead role-plays as a baby. Martina insists that she gets to be the baby telling her mother that she has to put the diaper on her. She threatens to take all of her clothes off, and does. After Martina rolls on the floor naked, her mother helps her put the diaper on.

Here, I pull attention to the figure of Jennifer Montgomery. It’s not immediately clear what she’s doing in this film, at all. What, I ask students, is the relationship between Montgomery and Martina? Generally, they recognize that the two form mirror-image foils: Montgomery’s behavior seems infantilized (though still very sexual), and Martina comes across as sexual (although she is an infant).

But then I ask students to imagine Ahwesh in the editing room, and the different organizations that this material could have fallen into. How much, I ask, is our reading of Martina’s behavior as sexual primed by the fact that we have first seen Montgomery’s come-ons before we arrive at Martina’s baby-and-breastfeeding roleplay? Here, I like to put forward one of the classic thought experiments dealing with the primacy effect.[ii] Consider the following list:

skyscraper    cathedral    temple    prayer

Now consider the same items, re-ordered:

cathedral    temple    prayer    skyscraper

Notice how the word that doesn’t fit with the set changes, depending on which one we hear/read first? I encourage students to think of Ahwesh’s editing strategies as a way of toying with our associations in this manner, re-arranging the material to provoke the reaction she wants.

If Ahwesh wanted to make a film primarily about the infantilism of adults, she would have started with Martina, and then moved on to Montgomery. Martina’s behavior might have still struck us as odd, but its context would have been different, as we wouldn’t have the swirling mass of associations leading up to Martina’s most noteworthy acts of exhibitionism.

But that’s not the film Ahwesh wanted to make. She very much wanted to make a film about childhood sexuality. That’s why, before we see some of Martina’s more outré behavior, we are first primed by the Bataille, by the Lacan, and by Montgomery’s flirtatious exhibitionism. Seeing Montgomery first act childish and sexual helps us read Martina’s behavior as both childish and sexual, as well.

That’s all of the film I had time to cover in class, but, in case you’re curious, here is my breakdown of the film’s remaining sections:

  1. Brief shots of Super-8 film equipment, and more flowers. Over footage of a flower, Ahwesh recites the same snippet of Lacan that Martina earlier was asked to recite.
  2. Martina, dressed again, stares at the camera. Her mother starts role-playing as a baby, and asks not for a “story,” but for “milk.” Martina takes off her dress and “breastfeeds” her. Martina reads her mother-baby a story.
  3. Montgomery talks about needing to be angry as a “precondition for me to be articulate at all.” She says she thinks that “everybody’s angry all the time, especially women.” Discussion of their friendship, Montgomery’s anxieties about Ahwesh’s behavior, and her need to create a cache of nostalgic things.
  4. Violin performance.

[i] MacDonald, Scott. “Peggy Ahwesth.” In A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pg 124.

[ii] Mayer, Richard. Thinking, Problem-Solving, Cognition. New York: Freeman, 1983. Pg 67. I come to this experiment by way of David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, pg 190.

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