Even if you don’t know the name of the director or the glitter-covered club kid stars, you’re probably familiar with Tom Rubnitz’s viral video “Pickle Surprise.” With over two million views and counting, the Internet granted the East Village filmmaker a prolonged afterlife. (He died in 1992 due to complications from AIDS.) After inadvertently connecting with a new generation of YouTube viewers, what is the legacy of Rubnitz’s fast-paced, TV-drenched brand of cinematic camp on today’s filmmakers and artists?
This question was explored on Sunday, August 14 in a whirlwind of videos and films at the Anthology Film Archives, courtesy of a screening organized by Dirty Looks’ Bradford Nordeen. The videos ran the gamut from literal reinterpretations to subtle references to Rubnitz’s films. Barry Morse’s “Ookie Cookie” combined tropes from “Pickle Surprise” and its sequel “Strawberry Shortcut” into an obsessively direct tribute to Rubnitz’s queer psychedelic vision while Brice Dellsperger’s “Body Double 34” featured transgender models on magazine covers maddeningly lip-synching dialogue from My Own Private Idaho. Overall, Rubnitz’s lineage appeared in the form of copious drag queens, shocks of color, media-soaked imagery and an over-the-top hallucinatory style.
The screening was a part of a staggering series of cinematic programming at Anthology launched in conjunction with the exhibition THINGS at Participant Inc. Also curated by Nordeen, THINGS highlights the underseen artworks and zines from three late queer figures: filmmaker Curt McDowell, writer Robert Ford, and Rubnitz himself. Nordeen juxtaposes these three creatives’ drive to document their lives and interests with works from younger queer artists. Reflecting a similar genealogical impulse, Nordeen’s companion programming at Anthology not only featured Rubnitz and McDowell’s films, but it also presented a multi-part series “Passing the Torch: Contemporary Visionaries” that focused on the duo’s enduring inspiration.
While designed to be viewed together, I was most interested in the second “Passing the Torch: Contemporary Visionaries (Tom Rubnitz)” screening that selected the heirs to Rubnitz’s visual overstimulation. While Curt McDowell’s films with George Kuchar like Thundercrack! rival only John Waters’ early movies in their bizarre and grotesque take on sexuality, McDowell’s influence does not seem that hard to locate in the contemporary art and film fields. Just look at the gross-out aesthetic of Luther Price or the other wonderfully deranged directors connected to the Cinema of Transgression like Nick Zedd or Richard Kern.
And indeed, the McDowell-focused screening showcased videos that pushed the boundaries of eroticism and acceptability. For example, Aimee Goguen’s hypersexual “Sports Tape 3” zooms in on the crotch of an athlete’s running shorts. I’ll just say, he finishes strong.
In comparison, Rubnitz’s legacy seems more curious and difficult to define, particularly since much of his recognition—beyond the support of his vibrant but small East Village community—came after his death. Much of this has to do with his chosen format: a short video that was seemingly casually made with friends. As Nordeen articulated in his introduction to the screening, “The question has always been: where were these objects intended for?”
And Nordeen is right. Rubnitz’s adherence to the short-form video doesn’t easily fit into a theatrical setting. Instead, the videos seem more at home amusing friends, colleagues and collaborators within the confines of nightclubs like the Pyramid Club.
However, with the advent of the Internet and YouTube, his videos found both a home and an audience. And therefore, it’s no surprise that the most successful videos in the screenings merged today’s digital culture with his drag-centric flair. Take, for example, the video “Adventures of Peppré Ann & Froends, Episode 4: Gone Fishing.” The video was made by Josef Kraska who also directed two of the afternoon’s music videos, Dynasty Handbag’s “Vague” and Macy Rodman’s “Lazy Girl.” In “Gone Fishing,” viewers meet the redheaded, freckled, and enthusiastic drag queen Peppré Ann who embarks on a dazzling number of baffling adventures under ten minutes. She runs through corn fields chased by a drone, trades lipstick for a comically enormous hat, makes and chokes down an unsatisfactory mayonnaise and lettuce sandwich, and, as the title indicates, she fishes.
In addition to the silly situations that Peppré Ann gets herself into, the video’s style comes directly from life-simulation games. Speech bubbles pop up with barely comprehensible phrases like “Om bored” and a giant lacy gloved hand acts as a cursor for Ann to pick up found supplies like yogurt or an ear of corn. This appropriation deftly mirrors Rubnitz’s embrace of media oversaturation in the 1980s. Instead of the prevalence of TV in Rubnitz’s day, Kraska both satirizes and celebrates the visual culture of The Sims generation.
Beyond digital culture, Rubnitz’s influence seems to lend itself the easiest to the music video format. This is no mistake since Rubnitz himself made several music videos for the cheesy and sleazy platinum-haired club crooner John Sex including “Hustle With My Muscle” and “Bump and Grind It.”
With a similar campy lounge singer vibe as John Sex, Seth Bogart’s video “Eating Makeup,” made with Jennifer Stratford, perhaps best captures the chaotic and raucous atmosphere of videos like “Pickle Surprise.” The video begins with a lineup of hungry, makeup-covered women licking their lips and singing “What kind of makeup am I going to get to taste?” before digging into lipstick, eyeliner, and fake lashes. Guest singer Kathleen Hanna’s parts are mouthed by a giant makeup compact with large teeth from which Bogart emerges to belt the chorus. The whole thing looks like a Pee-wee’s Playhouse episode gone horribly awry—surely Rubnitz would have approved.
Bogart’s technicolor romp showcases the possibilities inherent in tracing the legacies of queer artists, particularly those who have passed like Rubnitz, and creating a meaningful ode to a predecessor. While times and artistic concerns change, the screening was proof that artists will still draw on the strengths of the queer forefathers (and mothers) that came before them. Even if it was first seen on a late night YouTube binge, the artistic strategies of visionaries like Rubnitz live on.