Some of today's strongest intellectual work countering commercial representations of women comes from a filmmaker unknown to most Americans: Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez.
Miami-based, Cuban-born and bilingual, Rodriguez works in multiple modes: avant-garde film, installation, video art, and public intervention. In her filmmaking, Rodriguez manipulates and re-animates both found materials and her own original 16mm footage through re-cutting, painting or scratching the film surface one tiny frame at a time. As a result, Rodriguez's new film, the pre-existing film, and her artisanal process are visible simultaneously, layered one on top of the other. Rodriguez literally covers the original content with her critique so the viewer has to see it through her perspective. In this way, she appropriates media like old shampoo commercials and remakes them into new works.
To craft her best-known film Do Blondes Have More Fun? (2005) Rodriguez scratched and painted on the actual surface of a 90-second-long 16mm film print of a vintage Clairol Hair Dye commercial from the 1960s. The ad's blonde, carefree female characters are instantly recognizable rom-com urban types; in this fantasy world, the city belongs to young white women with thick, straight and long yellow hair—fun is for blondes. Rodriguez's film thus creates a dilemma for the spectator in that it necessarily relies upon and recirculates the very same pop culture clichés it defaces. Part of the pleasure of the film is precisely the familiar spectacle of young white women having fun, finding romance and feeling pretty in the city. Who doesn't want to feel that way? You just need to color your hair and join us!
Using humor and her hands, Rodriguez disrupts Clairol's invitation both visually and aurally. She painstakingly embellished frames full of polka dots and blocks of yellow scratches, arranged at times like fireworks or stars, exaggerating the blonde's supposed fun. Rodriguez recolored the model's blonde hair yellow and orange so it would be extra-blonde, and she even scratched out her teeth, making them seem to sparkle but in a grotesque way. The filmmaker attacked the commercial's sound too by repurposing a film projector's low hum to unsettle the commercial's jingle, "When you're blonde you wake up happy. Feel the good times all around you, everywhere you go." This layered soundscape represents the mental clutter to which our consumer-oriented and media-saturated culture relentlessly subjects us all.
Rodriguez's reworking of the Clairol commercial's physical surface demonstrates that its content is utterly artificial, false, and as thin as a filmstrip. Just plastic.
The artist's direct filmmaking technique is extremely labor-intensive, requiring hundreds of insomniac hours to fashion nearly molecular-size scratches on tiny 16mm-wide film frames. Unsurprisingly, her hand-painted graffiti films tend to be quite short—usually around three minutes—yet a few works such as her abstract trance film Miami Remix (2011) stretch to 11 minutes long. Rodriguez's carefully wrought ideas flutter before the spectator in a matter of seconds, often undetected, and that is okay.
Rodriguez's work is a gateway to a radically different filmmaking practice that challenges how we expect film to be produced and consumed. On her website, Rodriguez writes, "I believe there is tremendous power in the unseen, and I exploit that through the hidden mechanisms in moving images by directing the power of image, light and sound. I also love creating a spontaneous artistic experience in public places, but where people will stumble upon the art in the course of their daily lives." Her abstract animations cultivate an independent and active viewer.
Whether in a screening room or on a city street audiences may absorb Rodriguez's highly kinetic films as if in a dream or simply glimpse them in passing. The gift of Rodriguez's films is the freedom to see both the past and present anew; her direct experimental films welcome the skeptical spectator.
Writer Terri Francis is visiting Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This article was made possible through the OpEd Project.