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The Life of Phillis

1977

Dir. Tony Oursler, Video B/W Sound 00:55:00

Page Contents

Description

Oursler’s second tape, The Life of Phillis (1977), is his other satire on pop-cultural violence, and his other direct critique of mass media exploitation. Poor protagonist Phillis is the quintessential victim (as well as the avenging perpetrator) of unspeakable acts, a hyperbolic archetype for a plethora of unfortunates who populate the fantasy worlds of the television soap opera and supermarket tabloid.
A comic bloodbath with sociological overtones, The Life of Phillis includes among its tawdry themes child prostitution, necrophilia, hideous mutilations, religious visions and attempts to create a secret Aryan master race by artificial insemination. Despite their numerous flaws – especially their erratic pacing and overlength – both 'Joe…' and 'Phillis' evidence Oursler’s fresh imaginative vision and his natural penchant for spinning outrageous yarns.
Phillis is also important for its employment of evocative hand-painted sets as storytelling devices. Much of the charm of Oursler’s tapes can be traced to these original tableaux, each of which attempts to reduce complex actions and emotions to their simplest means of visual representation. A clenched hand in descent, followed by a splatter of black paint, more than adequately conjures up the image of a violent murder, even as it mocks the conventions of suspenseful cinematic montage. Moreover, this “honing down of symbolism,” in the artist’s own words, imparts a comic element to the representation of otherwise horrific, forbidden events.
Yet despite his oftentimes sophisticated methods of depiction and the salaciousness of his subject matter, Oursler’s crude but highly-emotive expressionist renderings evoke the primitive style and energy of children’s art. Like a naïf engaged in the fundamentally playful act of storytelling, and quick to find imaginative solutions to problems of visualization that might otherwise impede the progress of an improvised narrative, Oursler calls upon his own and other viewers’ abilities to willingly suspend disbelief. The juxtaposition of overstated violence, as characterized by the lurid topics mentioned, against understated representational modes common to childlike play, is, of course, at the heart of Oursler’s comic vision. In the best traditions of black comedy and social satire, he creates a world parallel to our own in which the horrific is heightened yet made palatable by an advanced level of visual abstraction and an infusion of fierce humor and an infusion of fierce humor.
[Source: "THE VIDEOTAPES OF TONY OURSLER" by John Minkowsky]