Guest Contributor Jonathan Stevenson / In the watching, video artist Shannon Plumb’s debut feature Towheads, which MoMA screened last week and has wisely purchased for its permanent collection, comes across as Chaplin meets Cassavetes. Seemingly just for the sake of her two blonde boys, Penelope, a downcast blonde woman with an oblivious dark-haired husband whose face we never see, fecklessly tries to navigate the outside world from a well-appointed brownstone. Her inept and listless attempts at acting, pole-dancing, stripping, and other extroverted endeavors imply that she could live without it, as do her halting, childlike speech and preference for muteness. As in a Chaplin film, the convergence of physical humor and emotional anger and despair demonstrates the close proximity of comedy and tragedy.
At the proverbial end of the middle, however, the film, verging on absurd, takes a darker turn towards O’Neill or Albee territory. Penny’s disaffection transmogrifies into full-blown melancholia. She imagines letting the household descend into filth and disarray, and sequesters herself in the playroom--donning self-made costumes, making short film loops, and refusing to emerge for days. Her cold husband (as well as many reviewers) writes her off as a wackjob, but artists who have kids will recognize immediately that she's not nuts--she just needed to get back in the studio.
In a telling Q & A following the screening, Ms. Plumb made it clear that the film was autobiographical, and itself was a way of managing the challenges she faced in maintaining a career as an artist while raising her two real-life sons, who play the boys. Only a woman could make such a film, she said, suggesting that the women’s movement, for all the talk of a post-feminist epoch, is a work in progress. Beyond that sociological note, the post-viewing intelligence imparted an upbeat art-practice dimension to Towheads. [Spoiler alert!] When Penelope finally opens the playroom door and reveals herself to her sons, she looks like a character from a Dr. Seuss book, a female superhero she dubs “Everythingman." As she invites the kids into the playroom, we understand that Penelope has realized she needs to wed her parenting to her art practice to survive. Winking conspiratorially at the audience, she and the boys begin a conversation about making a film together--clearly, this film. Dedicated to her mother, and her mother and her mother and her mother and so on, Towheads seems to be saying that parenting is flat-out hard, but a dedicated artist can also be a good mother--maybe even a great one.
Image at top: Plumb as Penelope flanked by her two kids.
DISCUSSION: Owning motherhood (2012)
Neo-Maternalism: Contemporary artists' approach to motherhood (2008)