If Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s Strange Culture can be frustratingly incomplete, it’s because the case it documents is very much still in legal limbo. The strange culture of the title is post-9/11 America, the “society of fear” in which its real-life subject, conceptual artist and University of Pittsburg professor Steve Kurt, finds himself in an absurdly Kafkaesque spiral. When Kurt’s wife Hope died from heart failure in May 2004, paramedics saw the apparatus of his scientific studies and contacted the feds; with nary an instant to grieve the death of his wife, Kurt found himself accused of bio-terrorism on such evidence as research samples of bacteria and what looked like Arabic writing on a friend’s gallery invitation. Terrorism charges were dismissed only to be replaced by still-pending fraud indictments, a face-saving strategy by the Justice Department the film not so subtly links to the government’s refusal to own up to the mistakes of the war on terror. Aping the kind of multimedia protest projects the couple originally organized in their Critical Art Ensemble group, Hershman-Leeson structures the film as an act of meta-activism, mixing documentary snippets, improvisatory bits of reenactment improv (with Thomas Jay Ryan as Kurt and Tilda Swinton as Hope), and fourth wall-breaking interludes where the actors discuss the man’s quagmire. Kurt himself appears throughout to comment on the project, and his remarks on the film’s portrayals (not to mention the use of graphic-novel art to visualize the debacle’s most traumatic sequences) often threaten to turn Strange Culture into the alt-weekly cousin of American Splendor. As disjointed and affected as Hershman-Leeson’s other work, the film nevertheless efficiently illustrates how internal paranoia is employed to silence art and dissent, with its outrage tempered with a lightness of touch that rescues it from being just a movie of bumper sticker slogans.
- 75 min
- Lynn Hershman-Leeson
- Lynn Hershman-Leeson
- Thomas Jay Ryan, Tilda Swinton, Peter Coyote, Steve Kurtz, Josh Kornbluth, Shoresh Alaudini, Cassie Powell
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: