Johanna Spyri’s novel Heidi became a literary sensation almost immediately after publication in 1881, spreading the story of an intelligent and adorable Swiss orphan girl across the world. Popular with both children and adults, it was part of a trend in Germanic writing that glorified peasant life. Five-year-old Heidi is dumped upon her crotchety atheist grandfather in the Alps by her aunt. She proceeds to befriend young Peter the goat herder and his family, warming the heart of her grandfather in the process. In the second half of the story, she is sent to Frankfurt to assist with a wealthy girl, Klara, thought to be an invalid. Again, she charms the household, but is homesick for the Alps, wishing to read stories to Peter’s blind grandmother. After becoming sick herself, she returns home and begins to thrive once more. Klara misses her friend and makes the trip to visit Heidi. Once there the wholesomeness of the countryside inspires her to learn to walk.
Heidi has been brought to the screen more times than Emmanuelle, most famously by Shirley Temple in 1937, directed by Allan Dwan. Aside from the main characters, what most adaptations share is a contrast between the rural and urban lifestyles. The rural characters are seen as more authentic, where the rural ones are seen as crushed by the decadence of the bourgeois city life. Truthfully, this story upset me as a kid. A cheerful little girl’s parents die tragically, then she has to go live with a sour old man on top of a mountain and SHE has to cheer HIM up. It turns out, I wasn’t the only one to find a darkness bubbling underneath this story.
In 1992, Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna asked Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley to participate in a group show of Los Angeles based artists. The two used the opportunity to create a video along with a gallery installation based around Spyri’s iconic character. According to McCarthy, “in American horror films, your car runs out of gas in the middle of the woods and you go to the farmhouse where this crazy inbred family cuts you up. There is this fear of rural life. In Switzerland, you run out of gas and you really do meet Heidi, this sweet young girl or this sweet grandfather who takes care of you. Heidi becomes Americanized in a sort of dysfunctional horror film.” (1) The idea of two renowned American deviants tackling one of the most beloved tales of rural Alpine innocence must have delighted the Austrian audiences accustomed to the excesses of Viennese Actionists.
In the early 90s, Paul McCarthy was known as a performance artist liable to work in the “brown” arts (along with motor oil, condiments, and paint, you might get a bodily fluid or two). Today he’s a superstar in the American art world, but giving him free reign hasn’t always worked out for philanthropic institutions looking to spruce up their space with some contemporary art. His performances would shock even a punk rock audience and leave the artist himself battered and covered in juices. I hope the belabored gallery janitors tasked with cleaning up his messes were all given raises. And if you’re serious about the War on Christmas, look up his 2014 sculpture Tree (an 80 foot inflatable Christmas tree displayed in the Place Vendôme of Paris that looked remarkably like a butt plug) or Santa Claus from 2001 (colloquially called the “butt plug gnome” by the poor people of Rotterdam that commissioned it).
Mike Kelley’s rag doll assemblages and defaced history book pages turned galleries into warehouses of pathos. His art has appeared on album covers (Sonic Youth’s Dirty) and John Waters has said of him, “The real naysayers who can’t see the reverse beauty of Mike’s sculptures or paintings should be outraged because they secretly know that his art does hate them and they deserve it.” (2) His trajectory started in his hometown of Detroit in the punk art collective band Destroy All Monsters (along with artists Niagara, Jim Shaw and, later, Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton). Installations like Mobile Homestead (2010) and Day Is Done (2005) handled American life with both humor and sympathy. His suicide in 2012 saddened those familiar with his work.
Both artists came from working class backgrounds and found one another in the art world of Los Angeles. In 1987 Kelley appeared in McCarthy’s Family Tyranny: Modeling and Molding video, with the only direction being “I am the father, you are the son.” (3) In the eight-minute video, a Son (Kelley) is physically forced to watch as his Dad (McCarthy) mashes a baseball bat into a container of white foodstuff, plays with dolls, and crams fluid into a dummy, singing “Daddy’s come home from work again, Daddy’s come home from work.” Think of it as an episode of Nickelodeon’s Double Dare filmed in a JT Leroy book. Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone was a much fuller collaboration; Kelley became an active participant, introducing his own ideas instead of simply appearing as a performer.
Intended to be viewed as part of a larger installation, Heidi isn’t quite a traditional movie and is discussed in modern art criticism more frequently than in film circles. The video exists outside of the frame of almost every film distribution network, too; it won’t be shown at any repertory screenings or film festivals, you can’t get it from bootleg sites, and Netflix and Amazon don’t want it, either. The entire installation was shown at New York’s Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in the summer of 2017, the first time in the US since 2001. The official means for obtaining the Heidi video is through Electronic Arts Intermix (eai.org). EAI is a nonprofit video art resource geared toward distributions to art galleries and universities rather than movie theaters. The price of the video is dependent on what type of institution you are, what format you need it in, and what you’re going to do with it, for example, the price of an ‘educational rental’ on DVD is $125, a “screening rental” digital file is $260, but an “archival purchase” on Digital Beta NTSC is $1,975. (4) There are so many signposts leading cult film buffs AWAY from Heidi, but I encourage you to hunt it out.
The four main characters are either stand-in dummies or portrayed by Kelley or McCarthy in rubber masks. The dummies were created by the Universal Studios effects department and the masks were purchased at “joke shops on Hollywood Boulevard.” (5) The Grandfather mask looks remarkably like the grandfather from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Visually, its closest comparison would be the work of Gregory Dark; the constructed sets and shot on video camera work are functional and professionally executed, much like early music videos. Of course, Dark’s videos have more commercial interruptions. Breaking from narrative film expectations, even fans of Kenneth Anger or the Kuchar brothers will need to be prepared for a challenging viewing experience. Unconcerned with tidy storytelling, actions are repeated over and over with slight differences each time, characters disappear from one shot to the next, and the timeline is fragmented. Much of the middle portion of the video could be shown in any order without changing the impact of the story.
Heidi begins at the end with the assault of Heidi by Peter the goat herder, Grandfather interrupts and Peter is thrown from the window to his death. Two puppets, a gruff sounding frog and a sweet sounding bee, appear as a Greek chorus and discuss the characters and their relation to nature. We are treated to the site of a bare ass sticking through a hole (the “Great Sphere”), narration reveals the heavy symbolism: “on one sphere culture, the other, nature, and a great chasm lies in between.” In the next segment Heidi tends to Klara the sick girl (a dummy) by cutting her ears off. Grandfather plays with his food and sings “Little girls go back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth” over and over. A therapist recounts a story to Peter of a “large retarded boy” in a mental hospital who masturbates his giant penis into doll heads. During the therapist’s story we see Grandfather and Heidi holding Klara the sick girl (again, a dummy) over a pan as she pees and shits salamis. Grandfather attempts to teach Heidi to read, making her read sentences like, “Heidi is too innocent to cover herself with anything but a garland of mountain flowers.” Grandfather has sex with a hole in the wall while Peter watches from another hole. Peter is alone in the hayloft and is shown to be a vulnerable character, saying, “I’m scared, where is everybody?” Finally, Heidi is shown back in the hayloft from the beginning, the camera zooms out to reveal her lying in bed between Peter and Grandfather.
What might be the most frustrating and confounding aspect of the piece for a film fan in 2017 is the dialogue it seeks to engage in with other artists and art theories. Long passages of the 1908 essay Ornament and Crime by architect Adolf Loos provide narration, and the first shot is of a waif painting (perhaps by Margaret Keane) on display in the chalet. The gallery installation uses Duchamp’s 1966 Étant donnés as the framework for the sick girl’s bedroom, and makes use of a collage of kitsch postcard images ranging from Alpine mountain ranges to stills from horror films.
I get it — why should we have to know about stuff to enjoy a movie? The answer? You DON’T have to know about Loos or catch the Duchamp references, because the emotional point being made is deeper than art theory. Ornament and Crime fits neatly into the scene where Grandfather is attempting to teach Heidi to read, because he’s also attempting to exert control over her. Loos’ arrogant words “children are amoral, so are primitives,“ help tie control with abuse in the story. Think of how much winking and fan signaling is done in the typical Marvel superhero epic — does the average viewer need to know comic book minutia to appreciate all the spectacle on display? Do you need to know the history of Loos’ American Bar design to appreciate a couple of grown men wearing masks and wrangling dummies? NO! John Waters said appreciating contemporary art is like “joining a biker gang.” (6) Don’t let art intimidate you, it only wants to connect with you.
- McCarthy, Paul (1996) Paul McCarthy, Phaidon Press, p130
- Waters, John (), Role Models, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books, p___
- Monk, Philip (2000), Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy: Collaborative Works, The Power Plant, p11
- Kelley, Mike (2004), Mike Kelley: minor histories– statements, conversations, proposals, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p210
- Quoted from an interview with Waters in “Big Think Interview with John Waters,” (2010) http://bigthink.com/videos/big-think-interview-with-john-waters