Watching some of Tessa’s hallucinatory classics like Instinct: Bitches Side is my idea of cinematic pleasure: a bizarre mix of Bette Davis, Mae West, a spider, and a sexy seductress, all driven by a score echoing film history. Tessa has been at it since the early 80s, making films for no money…films clearly stamped with her obsessions: women kicking against being used and abused, seduction, frustration, transcendence, and a bit of torture.
After Tessa arrived in New York from London in 1981, she was broke and desperate to see films, and discovered 42nd Street like a big box of chocolates—all those lurid marquees for $2 admission at any hour. Tessa was drawn to B horror flicks like Basket Case and The Blob. She was excited by the dark stew of sex and danger, being on the crowded strip and all those spots that offered 25-cent peeps and sold cheap Super 8 films to play on your projector at home…the same ones that were suddenly gone from the shelves! Everyone wanted the new thing—videocassette. Super 8 was dead. Tessa asked a clerk if he still had any of the old Super 8 reels; he shrugged “not for sale,” proceeding to offer a box of old reels they were putting out to the curb that night. The blank box contained not just old porno clips but amateur movies and cheap knockoffs of forgotten films like The Mummy’s Ghost and The Unsinkable Bette Davis.
Tessa attempted cutting and pasting the tiny pieces of her Super 8 finds together with her own stuff and found it very tough going. Doing live multiple film projections in clubs opened Tessa to how fun and fluid filmmaking could be. Layering whole reels of Super 8 with non-synchronous music tracks led her to the live rephotographed multiple exposures seen in her early classic Play Boy (1984), which began as a gallery installation. She wanted to present it in a Super 8 peep machine like the ones on 42nd Street, but instead found a “traveling salesman suitcase” that held a looping 8mm cassette of the film. Play Boy opens with a couple peeping through a hole in the closet to view a woman writhing in S&M gear—in a ship’s hold? Triple exposures of three nuns sexually molesting a man ensue, followed by some deep throat action, and a boxer cast in green followed by a gladiator wrestling a lion. The music holds the suspense without linear coherence or buildup.
Tessa’s use of “found” footage connects her to ancient forbearers like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death, as well as contemporary work like DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation film performance.
One of the most powerful elements in Tessa’s films is her use of music. For over a decade since Instinct, Tessa has collaborated with Mark Abramson, who has contributed intoxicating tracks that combine rare recordings. The sound floats behind the images, allowing the viewer to make associations.
Tessa’s 1985 collaboration Rat Trap, made with the infamous Tommy Turner, thrusts us into a kind of docu-horror film. If the retinal flashing in Tony Conrad’s The Flicker left us with a headache, Rat Trap might induce vomiting with its searing, pounding warning against intravenous drug use. The film works to alienate and torture the viewer.
Nymphomania, Tessa’s 1994 classic narrative with writer and performer Holly Adams, is a kind of fairytale for adults. A lovely forest sprite is dancing gaily among the ferns, spied upon by a gnarly Pan played by Bob Mook, who strokes his long shaft with malevolent intent. Tessa plays this scenario as a farce—a childlike femininity against aggressive horniness, until the dance becomes a brutal rape scene I won’t describe. I highly recommend it.
Tessa’s newest film, Hiraeth (2019), is another kind of adult fairy tale, inspired by a childhood Christmas cake her mom made. The film obsesses on themes of motherly loss and sacrifice…the central old-crone character waving long gold fingernails menacingly at her child in the beginning. The theme is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The character Sibyl, shunned by her lover Apollo, is banished to live for eternity as a slowly shrinking old woman, until she leaves us—the size of a grasshopper—being washed out to sea in a glass bottle.