Haunted Intimacies, Flickering Melancholy and the Black Queer Imaginary in the Films of Edward Owens

Exploring the tender, boldly experimental films and the short career of an exceptional American artist.
Yasmina Price

The series Edward Owens: Promise and Remembrance is showing on MUBI starting February 7, 2022.

Remembrance: A Portrait Study

The films of Edward Owens are visual recordings of haunted intimacies. Between ephemeral appearances and accumulative recurrences, his images conjure a tangle of frustrated desires and pensive longings. The uncanny expressivity of his cinema courts disintegration, offering up faces and bodies in pieces, and multiplied across the screen. Through an intricate interplay of photographic stillness and the mobilities of film, Owens charted out a unique visual grammar by claiming an inheritance of sources ranging between the experimental stylings of New American Cinema, fragments of Black sociality, 19th century European paintings, and 1960s pop songs.

His four works—Autre fois j’ai aimé une femme (1966), Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1966), Tomorrow’s Promise (1967) and Remembrance: A Portrait Study (1967)—were all made when the Black queer artist was only in his late teens. Owens was born in Chicago in 1949 and began his studies at SAIC (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) in 1966, where the talent which had begun to unfurl during his even younger experimentation with 8mm film was spotted by experimental filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos. This mentorship catalyzed a move to New York, where Owens was ushered into the avant-garde art circuit which brought him to filmmaker Charles Boultenhouse, his lover for a time, and the latter’s partner, cultural critic Parker Tyler. After his close sequence of four extraordinary works, Owens’s filmmaking career ended when he was twenty years old and moved back to Chicago. Correspondences with Boultenhouse reveal that this was neither an entirely willed nor easy return. Increasingly desperate and annoyed letters imploring him to mail Owens’s camera lens and tripod, left behind in New York, indicate a continued interest in being a filmmaker. In November 1974 he wrote to Boultenhouse about his “second and most substantial creative activity in 1974,”1 when he participated in a college production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Owens managed the lighting and was also taking a class in theatre directing, as well as making money as a figure drawing model. The next year he worked props and had a small role in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals. In 1979 he told Boultenhouse about a film he was working on and seemed optimistic about it.

Neither that film nor any others ever materialized, and before Owens died in 2009, his cinematic contributions had broadly fallen out of remembrance. The prints of his films were held by the New York-based artist group and distributor of avant-garde cinema, The New American Cinema Group/Film-Makers' Cooperative and re-surfaced in 2015 by programmer Ed Halter at the Brooklyn independent screening space, Light Industry. The available biographical information on Owens, taken at a remove, follows a tragically familiar arc of youthful promise unfulfilled and an ending in obscurity. In his touchstone text Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999), the queer of color theorist José Esteban Muñoz identified a “certain quality of melancholia […] intrinsic to the African-American male cultural worker, a quality […] absolutely necessary to navigate his way through a racist and genocidal landscape.”2 Even acknowledging the demoralizing frequency with which Black filmmakers have had their artistic trajectories cut short is almost itself an exhausted platitude. Particularly for those multiply marginalized and producing complex, poetic, oppositional moving images, material sustenance has never been readily available. Without reductively condemning him to cinematic sorrow songs, it can be said that the melancholy tonalities of the films and life of Edward Owens suggest how he fits within one dimension of Black queer cultural production.

Autre fois j’ai aimé une femme

In a poignant meditation on Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989), Muñoz noted that “[g]rief is a precondition to this film.” Across two chapters, he wrote about melancholia in Julien’s film, the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and photographs of James Augustus Van Der Zee, known for his Black portraiture of the Harlem Renaissance. While Owens was inspired by his mentor Markopoulos (most notably the 1963 Twice a Man) and he made films within the context of the very white New York experimental filmmaking scene, neither of these factors unmoor him from having a place in a cosmology of Black queer artmaking. In reference to Looking for Langston, Muñoz describes how the “concept of time and space that is generated occupies overlapping temporal and geographic coordinates that we can understand as a queer black cultural imaginary.” Owens’s cinema, caught in overlayed spatialities and dreamily byzantine structures of time, is part of this imaginary.

Owens’s first film, Autre fois j’ai aimé une femme, maps out the stylistic markers that carried over into all his following films: sculptural physiognomies, fluctuating lights, long sequences of darkness, heady superimpositions, and re-sited photographs. It opens with an image of a young white boy with a bowl cut staring evenly and directly at the camera, which has the effect of a startling address to the spectator. Except for one other photograph showing a group of four white men, the opening minutes of the film are taken up by a dark, static screen punctuated with small roving lights. This is one of the many instances in which Owens’s films demand a form of patience which cedes to their nonnormative visual tempo. The spectator must submit to being without the assurance or comfort that there will be an image at all. Accepting a degree of opacity also dictates the terms of his characters in Autre fois j’ai aimé une femme and Tomorrow’s Promise, who offer little in the way of interiority and coherent narrative participation, but rather appear as ambivalent mannequins.

Robert Bresson famously referred to his actors as “models,” seeing them as templates for mechanized movements, which resonates with the arrested and artificial bodies which populate this half of Owens’s oeuvre. There are three identifiable figures in Autre fois j’ai aimé une femme: a blonde, blue-eyed masculine presence who enters in a teary close-up, a hirsute man who first appears kissing and caressing the first, and a woman, whose introduction is wearing white lingerie and almost luminescent face makeup. She is filmed in a super-imposed collage, alternating between standing still and undulating slightly, occasionally looking at the camera, and is later seen in an amorous embrace with the second man. Queer desires lingers in the protean compositions of the film, channeled through the vague structure of a disconnected love triangle and unsatisfied love story. Considering Bresson might prove illuminating in another way. The elliptical movements and fragmented mosaic of Owens’s work anticipated some of the French filmmaker’s musing on cinema cataloged in his brief text Notes on Cinematographer (1975): “Don't run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses)” seems like an articulation of Owens’s method, while “A sign, a silence, a word, a sentence, a din, a hand, the whole of your model, his face, in repose, in movement, in profile, full face, an immense view, a restricted space… Each thing exactly in its place,” could function as an ekphrastic description of his films.

Tomorrow’s Promise

The opening credits of Tomorrow’s Promise are another exercise of Owen’s stilled, sculptural portraits.  The film begins by establishing an uncanny, horror-like ambience: a disquieting score accompanies a shot of an upside down woman-mannequin blinking and shaking her head as the image stutters. The superimposed closeup shows her face covered in splotchy white makeup which only adds to the unease. A tension between stillness and animation, here rendered as the indistinguishability between living being and lifeless doll, operates throughout the film. Tomorrow’s Promise is also a poetically erratic collage of visual reference points. Many are photographs, but they also include newspaper clippings, the cover of Jacqueline Susann’s novel Valley of the Dolls (1966) and two 19th century paintings: Jupiter and Thetis, a 1811 painting by the French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Vierge Consolatrice or The Virgin of Consolation (1875/1877) by the Academic Classical painter William Adolphe Bouguereau. These latter two insertions carry a degree of gravitas, infusing the film with a sacral quality and the sense of its belonging to a long pictorial history. Owens had written to Boultenhouse in 1981, “There is a fetish I have to reproduce the old art, on film. I have hidden behind the masters […].” Despite his last comment, the films themselves suggest less that he was hiding behind old forms and more adapting them to a new context with exquisite and imaginative agility.

The unrelenting hypnotics of Tomorrow’s Promise and its potentially claustrophobic superimpositions are tempered by stretches of darkness, which function as visual breathing room. In one such pause, nocturnal shots of the city seen from a moving vehicle create a persistent dark canvas, showing only the faintest dispersal of blue, white, yellow and red lights. About halfway through the film, it again goes black, leaving the viewer in a state of uncertain expectation which lingers until the blankness is relieved by a sudden, phantasmic white flash across the middle of the screen. The hazy narrative construction of the film concerns a couple, shifting between silenced tense conversations, spectral intimacies, and their wedding outfits. While the film’s unhinged poetry resists a conventional narrative arc, there is a perceptible threat of growing violence. The groom lying on the ground and sobbing bride in the last minutes of the film hint at a tragic end. Autre fois j’ai aimé une femme and Tomorrow’s Promise are both full of desire—staccato, elongated, sublimated, exposed. Yet it is always seemingly unresolved, reflected in the formal alienation that leaves the characters communing more via the false proximity of superimpositions than in shared spatial coordinates. Most strikingly, alongside his fixation on facial architecture—profiles in particular—are the numerous shots of hands. This haptic element also accents Owens’s rich use of various textures within the film, as well as the form of touch which materializes in the layered images of the films’ formal construction.

Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts

Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts (1966) is a visual composition of regal banality. With his mother as the star, Owens initially titled the short after her and in a letter to Boultenhouse on September 25, 1970, hesitantly stated: “Mildred Owens is my best work (I guess).” The film cycles through a set of images all cast in bold gradients of reds, blues and the purples in between. These vivid colors, slightly hushed by the overall darkness of the film, establish an air of quiet luxury. Silent throughout, the film begins with a close-up of the bottom half of his mother’s face, with a silky patterned fabric on the other side of the screen. True to his recurring visual techniques, Private Imaginings is filled with luscious close-ups, multiplied through lyrical superimpositions. A shot of meat being moved around on a stovetop, the image layered over with a brocaded print, is followed by a flash of a lavishly baroque dining room which mirrors an earlier insert of a similarly opulent sitting room. What the title might suggest as opposite registers—the luxurious possibilities of “private imaginings” and the mundane reality of “narrative facts”—are intermingled in the film itself. One way to think of Owens’s visual language could  be as a Black queer optic in which any substantive divisions between imaginative meanderings and factual documentations melt away. There is one fascinating politicized pinpoint in Private Imaginings and Narrative Facts, when Black man who appears briefly in one of the opening shots reappears a minute from the end, this time his tangle of scarves and necklaces leaving visible a Black Power button pinned to his sleeve—the briefest but still striking acknowledgement of the 1960s Black cultural and political context.

Remembrance: A Portrait Study (1967) is another example of the remarkable compositional porosity and phantasmic superimpositions which define the cinematic stylings of Edward Owens. In the second half of the short, he sets the sonic and visual registers into an expressively playful dissonance. A portrait of his mother, sitting in a pose of regal composure, bringing a pensive cigarette to her lips, shows her seated in a green wicker chair, draped with what Owens described as “an ostrich feather boa, a grey worsted wool skirt, a silk belt.” She is accompanied by Dusty Springfield’s lovelorn but still jaunty ballad, “All Cried Out,” with the wavering images of her face, torso, and outstretched hand edited to the song’s tempo. The saccharine notes in the song sit incongruously, maybe even a little humorously, alongside her stately mise-en-scène in the throne-like chair. In yet another register, the true treasure of the film is how it captures Black sociality, and the laughing warmth between his mother and her friend Nettie Thomas, shot sitting and smoking side-by-side with a smattering of beer cans in front of them.

Remembrance: A Portrait Study

Returning to Muñoz offers a connective tissue between the hallucinatory qualities of these films, their formal refusal of normative temporality and the sense of melancholy which suffuses them. He wrote that seeing “both portrait photography and mourning as performative practices, one understands the unique lineage between the two practices—in the case of portraiture a lost object is captured and (re)produced, and in melancholic mourning the object is resurrected and retained.” Remembrance and Private Imaginings evoke a sense of mournful memory-making, committing Mildred Owens to an enduringly nostalgic record. Considering the melancholy of Autre fois j’ai aimé une femme and Tomorrow’s Promise also suggests how the formal recurrences of Owen’s signature superimpositions make it so that the films seem to haunt themselves, repetitively retracing their own immateriality. There is a fragility to these films which was perhaps written into the material conditions of being a Black queer artist in the 1960s. At the end of a typewritten letter to Boultenhouse dated 5:30pm July 6, 1975, Owens wrote, “I’ve only at least three photographically reproduced works as a claim to genuine talent. My strength and sickness seems to be in solitude. […] I’ve created a rich little nich[e] for myself but I dare not shine.” Although they were long buried, the mesmerizing fluidity of his techniques of fragmentation and petrification are finally taking their incandescent place in the lineage of Black queer filmmaking. Markopoulos had made the premonition that Owens “will leave us breathless with anticipation for his next works.” That suspended state of anticipation is where the films of Edward Owens will leave us.

1. Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

2. Owens, Edwards. Letters to Charles Boultenhouse. 1974-1979. Charles Boultenhouse and Parker Tyler Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

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