Tio Polo, Paul Anka, and me
by Meghan Moe Beitiks
Untitled (Hinkley) is the re-performance of a single sigh from the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, filmed around the real-life town of Hinkley, California, infused with imagery and audio from the film and local environmental research.
Spoiler alert: the original movie is heroic. Erin Brockovich, a (real-life) working class mother played by Julia Roberts, leads a small firm in a lawsuit against PG&E on behalf of the town of Hinkley, California, seeking compensation for its known pollution of the local ground water with hexavalent chromium. She wins. It’s amazing. Little kids with cancer get tons of money. A woman fights her way through a patriarchal system to protect the average person. And she does it wearing miniskirts and looking gritty and stunning. Rah!
In Untitled (Hinkley), I’m not pretty: the landscape’s not pretty: the aftermath of toxic pollution’s not pretty. The sigh I’m re-performing is from Albert Finney’s depiction of Ed Masry. In Erin Brockovich, the sigh is a mix of things. It comes at a point where Julia Roberts/Erin Brockovich has been yelling at him for quite some time: to stand up and fight for what’s right, be more active, take responsibility, take on the important fights. He sighs. He sighs in exasperation and acceptance. It is a gendered sigh of resignation and surrender. It’s the moment he seems to accept the challenge to his patriarchal programming and move a bit past it.
In the video, I sigh, dressed in a dress shirt and tie, as the viewer hears audio text from a 2012 Environmental Impact Report on Hinkley. The toxic plume of hexavalent chromium has not stopped spreading, even though the bulk of the town got huge payouts and moved on. The Environmental Impact Report details the continued spread of the plume, as well as microbial, physical and chemical efforts to slow or halt it. The heroic movie has ended, the people have mostly left, but the plume is its own epic sequel, a plot point that was never fully resolved, a confirmation that the story was never quite about remediating the land.
In and amidst all of that, the viewer can hear audio clips of dialogue from the movie: mostly emotional/political exchanges between Julia/Erin and Albert/Ed. He accuses her of being too emotional: she fights for her right to be heard and respected. Both the land and their gendered dynamic being hotly contested. In the meantime, I’m sighing.
I filmed the sighs in 2014 and had a tremendous creative block about them, for years. I knew I needed to re-perform the sigh, I knew I needed to juxtapose it with the Environmental Impact Report, I knew this was a question of undoing the heroic narrative of western environmentalism.
But part of the issue was that my own body was tremendously vulnerable in the piece. In the video, I’m not “pretty.” My hair’s messed up, my chin is smashing into my neck, my face reads of exasperation and weirdness. If there were such a thing as “ugly sighing” I am doing it. There was a level of self-sacrifice in the work I wasn’t ready to give away. I needed something else to contextualize and protect me.
The glitch emerged as a tool in an attempt to burn a copy of the movie from an old DVD. Julia Roberts, Albery Finney, all became distorted in the digital attempts to grab data from a disc. The glitch filters me: it distorts the Hollywood material, it shapes my frustrations, it articulates a fractured landscape. It layers Julia Roberts over everything as a distortion of feminine ideals of beauty and feminist heroism. It is its own digital plume. I finished the video in 2018. Sigh.
Thanks to Marissa Lee Benedict, Lindsey French, Elise Cowin and Christine Shallenberg.
Video Link: https://vimeo.com/289005373