LOS ANGELES — Laura Parnes’s four-disk video series Blood and Guts in Hollywood exposes the idealized teenage dream for what it is: A boring, vapid fantasy of “love” that is marketed and sold to an audience of young dreamers searching for their soulmate in the illusions of silver screens and false idols. Leading up to the part where idyllic bubbles burst, Parnes’s work functions as part experimental film, part video art, and part surreal re-enactment of Kathy Acker’s groundbreaking book Blood and Guts in High School (1984), which influenced a generation of feminist writers, thinkers, and makers.
Where the thrill of Acker’s gory text and the emotional manipulation of teen-focused films pull out the threads on every heart patch sewn to a young girl’s backpack, Parnes’s videos come off as boring, staged, painfully acted shorts — they are not meant to entertain. They are meant to bludgeon the teenage dream to its untimely death. The four works of Parnes’ series act as an epic deconstruction of horror genre
films, capitalist underpinnings of the entertainment industry, and cliché
star-fucking fantasies, while probing the ways that “teenage rebellion” is crafted to a mass media audience. The videos are dense, non-episodic, non-linear juxtapositions of fictionalized realities.
The first video is a short, three-channel piece, entitled which strips down film noir and mafia films (think The Godfather meets Maltese Falcon) to expose particular shots and character trope recyclables. Two men discuss the killing of their brother, only to eventually kill each other; rather than draw this out into a feature-length film, the main cruxes of action happen in under seven minutes, leaving one to wonder why they ever took the time to watch films with these same recycled plot lines and twists.
Next, Parnes launches into the true blood and guts of her work through a re-enactment of key points from Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School. In this punk feminist classic, the story begins with a young girl named Janie Smith who is involved in an incestuous and sick relationship with her father, a person whose role in her life is that of father, brother, sister, boyfriend, and others. After moving to New York, Janie’s (Stephanie Vella) relationship to her body becomes increasingly hazy; she finds herself sleeping with many and getting pregnant in a variety of dangerous situations before eventually becoming property of a Persian slave trader. As a teenager I indulged in both Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School and Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal, which are intertwined in Acker’s text. In fact, in Acker’s story Janie eventually ends up in France with Genet; is it fantasy or reality and, as Parnes’s re-telling suggests, does it really matter?
Parnes’s video version of Blood and Guts in High School is about as un-Hollywood and low-budget quality as it gets. Janie’s character is a unique, not-recycled “victim” girl trope, or any type of manic pixie dream girl or Katy Perry flavored teenage dream-infused “rebellion” or hypersexualized teen girl created to fulfill the fantasies of boys and men. Janie is a girl beaten out of girlhood before her untimely death from cancer.
The last two videos of this compilation, Hollywood Inferno (Episode One) and No Is Yes, follow similarly dark paths into the belly of the cinematic beast. In the former, a parallel into the Hollywood version of Dante’s Inferno, a teenager named Sandy (Alissa Bennett) wishes to become a famous movie star. She happens to meet a maniacal screenwriter named Virgil — he describes himself as “a writer, mostly screenplays” — while at her candy shop job where she stands for hours on end, seductively sucking a red lollipop. Sandy sells drugs on the side to only certain customers; a surveillance camera watches her every move, and she’s well aware of its presence. Bored and looking for something or someone to look at her, she performs for the camera sometimes. She plays with the conventions of surveillance, welcoming its big brother gaze upon her. It’s not a webcam she controls, however, it’s a security camera that is supposedly in place to prevent her from stealing or doing anything illegal. Instead, it offers an audience, another opportunity for performance, and a commentary on American surveillance culture.
Virgil strolls into the store, and they quickly connect because they can mutually use each other for career gain; of course, he is inspired by her and at one point watches another film with a character in it that reminds him of her. Will his next screenplay feature her? That’s a question left to the viewer. In the meantime, with references to films such as American Pie and A Clockwork Orange, Hollywood Inferno (Episode One) follows Sandy through her eventual landing in a horror film genre role. This is the one cinematic genre she doesn’t want to partake in, something that she’s already explained. In the making of this film, her good Christian sister is fakely though brutally murdered, bringing the fantasy of performance into the reality of the familial. At times referential cinematic lines like this alone make the video worth watching: “At the end of the day, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know who’s gonna pick you up and suck you.”
The last short in this compilation, No is Yes (1998), fulfills the teenage dream in a post-punk-trauma sorta way. In short, the main character of this film is an 18-year-old girl named Torrie (Erica Daking) whose best friend Tess (Jen Daking) fucks a rock star — Jimmy Junk (Joey Fraioll). He “accidentally” dies, and then both the girls do some meth to feel better, and try to bury his body, but first there are a few things to accomplish. Like, dress up his corpse in teenage girl clothing and carve NO FUTURE with a knife across his stomach so that the text bleeds true. But before all that even happened, it was important to do some blow that they spelled out into the word ETERNITY because fuck, this teenage dream was supposed to last forever.
With a big FU to capitalism’s commodification of teenage “rebellion” culture, it’s readily apparent that any one of these “rebellious” teenage moments could look just as normal in an Urban Outfitters advertisement. Laura Parnes’s final video of this rich compilation set relinquishes the emotional candy-covered adolescent-tinged cinema, replacing that sweetness with a sordid, molding, morbid taste of rotting death that never departs.
Blood and Guts in Hollywood: Four Works by Laura Parnes is available through the Video Data Bank.