Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell has been in process since 1981; it still goes on, and will for a time. Completed to date are four instalments of a serial of indefinite duration and moveable parts, and casually alternating (in production and in display) between 3/4" video and 16mm film. Peggy and Fred is conceived by its maker as a rule-inventing writing of speculative fiction doubly-grounded in ethnographic affinity and in the imagined poetics of a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The key influences, as Thornton has brought them homeward, run just so: the Kathlamet Texts recorded by Franz Boas in the 1890’s, the Bible, any television in a foreign tongue
(untranslated), French director Louis Feuillade’s silent film serial, The Vampire Family, uncut outtakes from Universal newsreels, the minimal narratives in World War II propaganda films, the raw footage of space flights produced by NASA, an account of the 10.000 Buddhist Hells, the Arabic concept of Paradise as interpreted by a 19th century Englishman, CB’s and the shortwave spectrum. And then Thornton adds: There’s no science behind the choices, which, if nothing else, suggest a post-modern minefield. It’s a matter of serendipity. (1)
(1) Leslie Thornton: grant proposal to the Rockefeller Foundation. 1988, pp3-4.
Serendipity. It is, however, hardly just a roll of the dice, this clamorous appeal to inheritance, this built-up debris of cultural artifact and echo. Peggy and Fred in Hell, basically, depends on two basic orders of information, two orders on the visual and two on the aural level: what is made (footage Thornton shoots and sounds she takes of‘Peggy’ and ‘Fred’ - siblings Janis and Donald Reading, ages 8 and 6 respectively when Thornton began working with them); and what, having already been once made, now falls to us as given, as what can (no longer) be made (footage and sounds Thornton has abducted, unearthed, tapped into, purchased - Edison actuality fragments, panoramic renditions of nature and cataclysm, meteorological surveillance, pieties and appeals from American radio, acoustic mayhem from the Spike Jones tradition, entire portions of feature-film soundtracks complete with their decorative music and their expository longueurs).
It’s a modest, inexhaustible narrative conceit Peggy and Peed springs from. Peggy and Fred, two children, are the sole survivors of an apocalyptic horror/plague. They have inherited the earth such as it has become: all splendour, terrain, terror and loot. Peggy and Fred drift from prairie to ocean, through desert and towns. Mostly, they live in what appears to be a bunker or a fall-out shelter, surrounded by detritus (a Dresden doll, disco music, a telephone wired to nowhere - Don’t answer it, it might be some-body looking for you to kill you, improvises Fred, phone-playing). They venture outside, stumble upon dead ducks, return home. And again. The world is theirs to invent. (2)
(2) Vaslav Nijinsky: Children do not forget what happens to them. I saw my father diving into water. 1919 Paris Paul Westerberg: We’ll inherit the earth/But we don’t want it/It’s been ours since birth/Btit don’t tell anybody. The Replacements We’ll Inherit the Earth 1989 Minneapolis.
And they also watch Television. Television is part of the Artificial Intelligence network. Al keeps Television on all of the time and so do Peggy and Fred. And since the only other people they ever see are on TV, they don't know they’re not on as well. They figure that people are watching, and learning from and ignoring them as well. This constitutes their idea of the Social. (3)
(3) Thornton, p2
This is a Social that is entirely transmitted, 100 per cent, all along the line. Proof of human presence is thus argued only through electronically-simulated and photochemically-rendered likeness, a universe of ‘doubles’ bereft of‘originals’. As Thornton imagines the days (but time no longer cares to be measured...) after disaster, the earth strongly flickers with presence: left unattended by their masters, images (and their long- thought-dead ancestral images) have now set themselves free to wander and to become the world in the absence of the world. This is rebirth, a reversion, in effect, to cinema year zero, a Mobius transport to the poignancy of primitivism when it was purest ecstasy to witness the wonder of workers working, of waves lapping rocks, of lines of white against the sullen sea.
Peggy and Fred is sometimes spoken of as ‘science fiction’, accurately to the extent that it’s a speculation of the fate of tomorrow. But the genius of the project aligns it more happily with an essay in natural history, like, for instance, Fabre’s insect census, but minus the template of moral metaphor. Peggy and Fred narrates a natural history of dystopia informed by cinephilia as the master science. But a serial history: the essay form allows Thornton to regard historical moments, manifestations of the objective spirit, ‘culture’, as though they were natural (Adorno), while the seriality lets fly (as in Feuillade, as distinct from his plot-anxious American confrères) the figural and fabular delirium of the everyday and the positive capability of accommodating the visible universe, the universe that has been made visible.
The seriality aspect also, of course, confounds a bit Peggy and Fred’s commodity status. (4) Each of the four instalments thusfar completed (among them The Peggy and Fred in Hell Prologue, Peggy and Fred in Kansas (the anti- Wizard of Oz), and Peggy and Fred and Pete (Pete’s a penguin) can stand on its own, since there is no ‘suspense’ bridge between episodes. Indeed, by conventional standards of narrative, nothing happens, or, rather, the minutiae of childhood play and reverie needs to be viewed and heard closely, and honored. In any case, the origin and the goal is that of history-to-come, not yet recorded. It will be, then, a history of the species’ illusions, the shards of the race’s cultural/genetic memories, and a knowledge of tribulation but not of shame, all carried through in the bodies of wo people approximately adolescent. It is an interesting, patient, aspiration. Here is Borges, from text written just before his death, A Last Note on Babel:
In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne related that in Germany the idea had been conceived of abandoning two children in a forest, so that subsequently the correct pronunciation and syntax of the untrammelled sacred language could be learned from their lips (5)
(4) It’s unwieldy not just as commodity. The gatekeeper of the Chicago ‘experimental’ film/video scene rejected Peggy and Fred in Hell for its, to him, oblique wilfulness, its violation of a certain pedigreed ‘tradition of experiment’ and for a consequent anticipated audience uprising ensuing from its presentation. Well, he’s right that this is not in the tradition of ‘personal filmmaking’, is not principally about its maker. Except in the sense that it is, in the same spirit of ethnographic awareness that could make Thornton insist that when we as a culture tell stories of ‘others’, we in truth are involved in disclosing ourselves.
(5) Jorge Luis Borges A Last Note on Babel, in:
FMR no. 36, p15.