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MoMA Retrospective Celebrates the Films of Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix

"Habit"

For a while, any discussion of the New York-based movie studio Glass Eye Pix has understandably gravitated around its original creator, Larry Fessenden, who directs, produces, and/or stars in many of Glass Eye’s indie productions. Fessenden is the animating spirit of Glass Eye Pix and the human face of the group, missing front tooth and all. (He lost it during a mugging back in 1984, one year before the founding of Glass Eye). 

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) have fittingly entitled their new Glass Eye Pix retrospective “Oh, the Humanity! The Films of Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix.” Running from March 30 through April 19 at MoMA and online, it's a more comprehensive survey of Glass Eye’s various filmmakers, and thus a better showcase for their general spirit of camaraderie, than even the preceding 2010 program at the (now gone) reRun Gastropub in Brooklyn. 

Fessenden’s presence can be seen throughout MoMA’s selections, both in front and behind the camera for his own directorial work, but also in the range of artists he’s fostered in his capacity as a producer, including the transcendental minimalist Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff”) and the genre purist Ti West (“The Innkeepers,” “The House of the Devil”). MoMA’s retrospective puts a welcome spotlight on a few other worthy filmmakers, like psychedelic sound designer turned writer/director Graham Reznick and production designer turned stop-motion filmmaker Beck Underwood.

Focusing primarily on Fessenden’s work, from his early short movies to his recent COVID-themed “Fever” short, not only encourages an appropriate cinematheque vibe for this Glass Eye Pix tribute: it also encourages attendees to see Glass Eye Pix as the indie horror equivalent of a neo-romantic artists’ collective. That’s a welcome and essential shift in the way that Glass Eye’s successes have been understood, since, for years now, even their smartest boosters have praised the studio as a springboard for bigger and better things. 

In 2011, the New York Times (Eric Kohn) described Fessenden as a “kingmaker in the realm of cheapie horror”; in 2010, the Village Voice (Michael Atkinson) suggested that “Fessenden’s work as impresario” is “perhaps more influential than” Fessenden’s directorial credits. And in 2009, Fessenden himself told Filmmaker Magazine (Lauren Wissot) that “I have always encouraged people to move on as soon as the Glass Eye approach becomes oppressive or limiting.” That perspective seems especially timely since MoMA’s retrospective begins less than two weeks after the theatrical release of “X,” the latest movie directed by Glass Eye alum Ti West. “Larry validated us by thinking we were talented” West said in the Times (in 2011). 

"River of Grass"

MoMA’s deep focus on Fessenden’s work as a director also inadvertently shows why his movies—and Glass Eye Pix by extension—are uniquely associated with the horror genre. When most people think about Glass Eye Pix, they’re probably thinking about the movies that were either produced for or because of Scareflix, a genre-centric Glass Eye sub-division that was spearheaded by filmmaker James Felix McKenney (“Automatons,” “Satan Hates You’). There are also a few exceptional non-horror-related Glass Eye Pix titles, like Reichardt’s “River of Grass,” which Fessenden co-stars in and served as associate producer on. But even Fessenden will tell you that he sort of fell into the latter role "by accident," as he said to Filmmaker Magazine, “just by sticking with it so long.” 

Fessenden’s central role in bringing Reichardt to prominence not only illustrates both his uncommercial generosity and his ability to attract and help cultivate “like-minded directors,” according to the Times. You can also see what drew Reichardt to Fessenden in “Wendy and Lucy,” a sort of neo-neorealist drama about a woman (Michelle Williams) and her missing dog. Sight & Sound (Atkinson again) keenly describes Reichardt’s approach to representing her movie’s working class milieu—"decaying infrastructure, Wal-Mart sustenance, gone-to-weed neighborhoods, lives ruled by petty commerce"—as being “less restricting” and “less self-conscious” than Reichardt’s better-known international arthouse contemporaries. 

Most of Fessenden’s movies—as well as the audio plays that he wrote and directed for Glass Eye’s delightful “Tales from Beyond the Pale” audio play series—could also be described as “less self-conscious” and “less restricting” in their “horror vérité” style, to borrow Fessenden’s description of “Habit,” a 1995 remake of his 1982 feature debut. “Habit,” a horror drama about an alcoholic (Fessenden) who fears that his new lover may be a vampire, is a psychological drama first, and then a horror movie. In 1998, “Habit” cinematographer Frank DeMarco gave American Cinematographer (Michael Ellenbogen) some insight as to what makes “Habit” a Larry Fessenden movie:

Because we were so inconspicuous, I could steal shots of our environment. I kept an eye open for, and often captured, those 'happy accidents' when amazing or unusual or insane New York City moments would unexpectedly cross through the plane of our fiction.

Fessenden also steals moments in time in the “Impact Addict” shorts that he filmed in 1987 with the post-Evel Knievel/pre-“Jackass” performance artist David Leslie. Fessenden and Allyson Smith shot Leslie as he beat and/or blew himself up in a variety of NYC settings, including a Chinatown Lunar New Year parade that looks like it was filmed with stolen cameras and then edited by an aspiring impressionist painter. The “Impact Addict” films will screen at MoMA in a terrific bundle of early Glass Eye shorts along with “White Trash,” a Fessenden-helmed short that would later be reworked as the opening scene of Reichardt’s “River of Grass.”

"Wendigo"

The horror genre is just the commercial mold that Fessenden and his fellow misfit filmmakers have tried to refashion to their lo-fi sensibilities and alienated tastes. It’s to Fessenden’s credit that each new directorial credit seems to be his best, including “Skin and Bones,” his fantastically creepy episode of the short-lived 2008 prime-time TV horror anthology series “Fear Itself.” “Skin and Bones” feels like an extension of Fessenden’s signature interest in the Wendigo, a flesh-eating Algonquin-American wraith who, in Fessenden’s “Wendigo” and “The Last Winter,” heralds either an ecological paradigm shift or a hallucinatory sort of mass psychosis. The most horrifying conceit in Fessenden's movies is that while we could be living in a beautiful world, we definitely aren’t and the future doesn't look great either. So what does that feel like, sinking into exhaustion with a mix of dread and excitement? What does a perpetual and inevitable collapse feel like, tiptoeing up to and then splashing apart on the edge of yourself?

Fessenden’s gothic dramas are about a weirdly intimate sort of apocalyptic guilt that is; they’re his way of protesting the post-industrialized world that his movies exist in spite of. It’s fitting then that “Beneath,” the only so-so entry in Fessenden’s body of work, is also included in MoMA’s program. That shrill, tongue-in-cheek horror pastiche is the only time Fessenden’s semi-successfully shoehorned himself into a prefabricated mold. At one point, Fessenden also worked on an unproduced remake of “The Orphanage”; there was also some talk about adapting Marvel Comics’ Werewolf by Night series, though that sadly appears to have been more of an unfulfilled desire than a tentative plan. Maybe it’s a good thing that those dream projects never materialized. Who wants a Larry Fessenden remake or a Larry Fessenden comic book movie when we’ve instead got “Depraved,” Larry Fessenden’s characteristically inventive and soulful riff on “Frankenstein”?

If Glass Eye Pix has become known for its horror movies, that’s only because their most exciting filmmakers share Fessenden’s anxieties about the future. McKenney’s “Automatons” feels like an un-nostalgic jeremiad as well as an avant-kitschy homage to both the schlocky B-movies of the 1950s and the ingenuous no-budget sci-fi student movies of the 1970s, like “THX 1138” and “Dark Star.” Robert Mockler’s “Like Me” is a macabre post-beatnik/post-Facebook road movie that sometimes resembles a cross between “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Natural Born Killers.” And Reznick’s “I Can See You” is a Lynchian meltdown about a young ad photographer’s frustration at not being able to properly visualize his father’s face (among other Freudian anxieties). Fessenden has memorable on-screen roles in all three movies.

Horror filmmakers have become increasingly obsessed with the fiction, style, and preoccupations of H.P. Lovecraft, but Fessenden was always more Poe than Lovecraft. Speaking of his movies’ recurring interest in ecological collapse and global warming in particular, Fessenden told the Times that “The horror that really interests me is this horror of self-betrayal.” Somehow, Glass Eye Pix’s titles all fit under that generous thematic umbrella, which always seems big enough to accommodate just a few more.

For more information about the Oh, the Humanity! The Films of Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix retrospective, click here. 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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