Small Screen Berkeley: ‘Wojnarowicz’ and ‘FTA’

Reviewed: A fantastic documentary and worthy tribute to the artist David Wojnarowicz; and the story of Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and others touring US military bases in 1971.

Wojnarowicz: F–k You F-ggot F–cker. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber

It’s not every week I screen a film with the f-word in — or even implied by — its title. This week’s column, then, is a particularly special one: it includes two films, one new and one 50 years old, with titles incorporating arguably the naughtiest word in the English language. What a time to be alive!

I first encountered artist David Wojnarowicz in Richard Kern’s 1986 short subject You Killed Me First, an incendiary examination of the curdled rot at the heart of the American nuclear family. In the film, Wojnarowicz plays an unhinged patriarch raining fear upon his obedient but wary wife (renowned performance artist Karen Finley) and rebellious daughter (the marvelously monikered Lung Leg).

As we learn in director Chris McKim’s Wojnarowicz: F–k You F-ggot F–ker (its sub-title derived from the unexpurgated title of a painting, the film is available via the Virtual Roxie and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood), David Wojnarowicz grew up in a suburban New Jersey house where his physically abusive father forbade laughter, crying, and other expressions of emotion. Fleeing to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in 1965, the adolescent Wojnarowicz survived as a street hustler for years until unintentionally becoming a famous artist after performing with No Wave group 3 Teens Kill 4 and, in one instance, dumping cow carcasses in a gallery.

McKim’s film details the rebellious artist’s struggles against the gallery system — which he described as “one of the great obstacles to art” — as well as his personal struggles with substance abuse (he quit heroin cold turkey) and, most significantly, his rage against the mythic ‘one-tribe’ United States of America. It’s startling to hear Wojnarowicz declare from the long ago past (he died of AIDS in 1991) “if I were a violent person, I’d go into the Capitol building and start annihilating the people responsible;” less surprisingly, his art drew the condemnation of politicians such as Jesse Helms (who Wojnarowicz declared a desire to douse with gasoline).


Today, of course, this kind of ‘violent language’ would be deemed entirely unacceptable by many on the left, and — depressingly — it’s hard to imagine liberals flocking to Wojnarowicz’s defense as they did when his $15,000 NEA grant was rescinded due to political pressure in the late 1980s. This fantastic documentary is a worthy tribute to a great artist, and a bracing reminder of how much has changed in the 30 years since his death.

‘FTA’: Fonda and Sutherland on tour

FTA. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber

In 1971, Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and a troupe of others (including singers Len Chandler and Holly Near) toured US military bases in Asia to provide a radical counterpoint to the red, white and blue entertainment junkets led by Bob Hope. Their tour was filmed and edited into FTA (‘Fuck the Army’, currently streaming at the Elmwood), which was briefly released until — you guessed it — being pulled from distribution due to unhappy politicians.

Now it’s back — and what a welcome return it is. Blending performance footage of the group’s ‘political vaudeville’ with commentary from newly radicalized G.I.’s struggling to understand and survive the Vietnam War, FTA now also includes an introduction from a fabulous looking Fonda.

How did the group get away with performing before large crowds of military personnel in Hawaii, Okinawa, and Japan? That’s a question FTA doesn’t answer, but no such tour would ever be permitted in, for example, Iraq or Afghanistan now. Live entertainment has largely been rendered irrelevant on the hooked-in 21st-century battlefield, and political dissent is even less welcome.