i open the window and out i swim
by Douglas Messerli
David Wojnarowicz (director) Beautiful People / 1988
After his highly controversial film (although that word, in the context of The National Portrait Gallery actions, seems inexplicable) Fire in My Belly, artist David Wojnarowicz made his last film before his 1992 death of AIDS, Beautiful People (1988).
That film begins with “3 Teens Kill 4 no motive” band member, Jesse Hultberg. That band began when three teens, Hultberg, Wojnarowicz, and Brian Butterick, all working as busboys in New York City’s Danceteria on West 37th Street, performed at a staff party in December 1980, joined by Max Blagg, who had suggested the group’s name. The group performed, with the later inclusion of Doug Bressler, William Gerstel, and Julie Hair, and, of course, with the later absence of Wojnarowicz, until 2018, when they played at the closing of History Keeps Me Awake At Night at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
In this film, the camera follows Hultberg from the moment of awakening in his bed, through his early morning bathroom ministrations, and his gradual application of makeup as he slowly transforms himself into a drag representation of a female, while in the background the 3 Teens Kill 4 band plays “Special Reserve.” The song which begins “Lying here, waiting...tie me down but hold me under” seems appropriate for the events of the 7 minute video, as Hultberg visually changes his blander male self into an attractive young woman.
“People say, come on in. I open the window and out I swim,” the lyrics continue as Hultberg puts on eyeliner and lashes, lip stick, and fingernail polish, slips on his dress and positions his wig readying, as the song puts it, to “find out what you’re about.”
With a crash the black-and-white film suddenly turns into a color film, revealing Hultberg’s gown, gloves, and purse to be all in crimson. And as she carefully wades into the water fully dressed she suddenly reminds us of two major icons of femininity from two distinctly different generations.
On the one hand, the startling revelation that Hultberg’s gown which appeared black previously is actually bright red cannot help but remind any film aficionado of the scene from Jezebel in 1938 wherein Bette Davis attends the grand ball, where all young women are socially required to wear virginal white gowns, decked out in a full crimson dress. So memorable was Davis in her attire (black in a sea of white frills in the black-and-white original) that some viewers remember the movie as being filmed in color. The work, as I argue elsewhere in these pages, is a coded queer film.
More than 20 years later, in the 1960 Fellini masterwork La Dolce Vita Anita Eckberg waded into Rome’s Trevi Fountain with Marcello Mastroianni at her side in a similar manner to Hultberg’s entry into the lake. That film was also in black-and-white, but interestingly in the posters was represented aa wearing a a black gown with a flowing red train—apparently combining the two elements that Jezebel evoked.
As she enters the water we hear a voice repeating over and over: “What I really want to do is run away, change my name, become a woman, and forget the whole thing.” Like a broken loop tape, the voice repeats “run away, run away, forget, forget,” as she wanders further and further into the lake before finally sinking out of sight.
Has she drowned herself or simply baptized herself in the water to become an entirely new being? Obviously, Wojnarowicz, faced with his own imminent death, makes no attempt to answer.
Los Angeles, March 30, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).