'Narcissister Organ Player': Film Review
A New York performance artist reveals her body but little about herself in this blend of performance film, documentary and memoir.
An outré but not necessarily provocative blend of performance film, documentary and memoir, Narcissister Organ Player showcases a pseudonymous woman (Narcissister, also the film's director) whose stage productions usually involve her wearing very little more than a creepy mask and some lingerie. Though clearly demonstrating there's thought behind the provocations, the pic doesn't make much of a case for their artistic merit, and will play best with the already converted. Certain niche audiences will find it fascinating and/or emotionally powerful, but — among those who are unfazed by the sight of a masked woman pulling things out of her vagina — most will shrug.
A denizen of New York avant-burlesque venues, Narcissister landed briefly in the public eye in 2011 for dating Marilyn Manson and appearing on America's Got Talent. On the reality show, she demonstrated a gift for pairing dance (she trained with the Alvin Ailey company) with clever costumes, transforming herself several times without pausing for a wardrobe change.
But her signature works seen here would never make it past broadcast censors. She writhes nearly naked, covered in creamy goo, through intestine-like passageways; she mimes masturbation; she pulls props from body cavities in ways one might associate with red-light-district novelty shows. As the performer herself told The New York Times (speaking of her stage persona in the third person), “A lot of what she’s doing is porn in an art context.”
Viewers who are unconvinced that this art is any good are offered few reasons to get off the fence: Though we hear plenty from Narcissister about what it all means, the film doesn't speak to other artists, critics or scholars who might compare her to (and weigh her work against) others who've toyed with identity in this way or explored the expressive possibilities of pornography.
In fact, it turns out that the movie is much less a showcase for the woman's art than a tribute to her late mother, who delivered constant affirmation that her daughter was a genius the world just didn't understand. At the start, the film's talk about Narcissister's parents seems to fit into the usual art-bio format. But as 20, 30, 40 minutes pass, we start to wonder if we'll ever hear about the pic's ostensible subject. Except for a very brief bit about her wounded self-esteem, she says very little about herself: The child of a Moroccan Jew and an African-American, she felt unattractive among the blonde California girls of her youth. She says she always took pride in "this gorgeous body" and sought acceptance through sex, but felt outcast for her darker skin and kinky hair.
(Though she insists on anonymity in her life and on film, coyly covering up her face when she shows her old family pictures, the artist has no qualms about exposing her brother and parents — especially her mother, seen both in her youth and during the ravages of illness, clothed and naked.)
Even a doc about a major artist wouldn't expect us to care as much about family history as Organ Player does; and the longer we hear Narcissister talk about her mother, the less interesting the latter seems to be.
We do get ample footage of public performances, some vintage and some recreated for the movie. Many sequences return to images of the garters-and-heels-clad woman traversing a giant's digestive tract, eventually exiting in the company of feces. Very similar to animated sequences in Richard Elfman's 1980 cult film Forbidden Zone, the scenes demonstrate none of that picture's outrageous, taboo-tweaking humor.
And then, in the final act, Narcissister (in voiceover) tearfully recounts her mother's death before the movie shows a seaside memorial-cum-performance piece. With several other masked women surrounding her, Narcissister holds a dildo-like candle in her vagina to set an effigy of her mother on fire. Then, carrying what are presumably her mother's actual ashes, she goes for a swim and distributes them underwater. Mom would have loved it, surely; to others, the weird mix of solemnity and self-absorption may suggest we actually don't want to know more about the woman behind the mask.
Distributor: Film Movement
Director-production designer: Narcissister
Producers: Narcissister, Taryn Gould
Directors of photography: Bernard Isaac Lumpkin, PJ Norman, et al
Editor: Taryn Gold