By Monica Delgado
In times of political correctness, Henri Plaat’s work displays disturbing. Beyond the search for the perfect shot and frames, the result of the filmmaker’s pictorial provenance, a suggestive transgressive intention is perceived, that at the same time, seeks to confront common senses about the beautiful, the grotesque, with criticism of social hypocrisy. With the passage of time, their eyes look daring, uncomfortable, challenging, to the extent that there is full freedom in their way of conceiving the image and its world, but also because archetypes, paradigms and figures on modernity already surpassed. The controversy arises, also, when identifying the type of gaze that prevails in these works, which shows fascination with the registry of children or pubescent children, and a superior point of view over cultural diversity.
Most of his films, made between the 60s and 70s, transit through the logbook of trips to exotic territories, through strange postcards that simulate the aesthetics of touristic advertising, and from the dramatization of camp or queer passages, where the fetishism and surreal glimpses triumph. Transvestites who carry noodles and orange peels on their heads as a cruel revenge, or girls disguised as eroticized adults who play with the gaze of the one who films them.
Dutch visual artist Henri Plaat (1936) was a stubborn traveler, and the registration of places and their people is a central motivation in his works, but he always does so as a foreigner, observing and questioning the nature of objects and beings that he captures. It is not known for sure if what he sees causes him admiration or rejection, and this thin line is precisely, in its ambivalence, an attractive element. Also, in some short films he shows an almost fanatical devotion to the Hollywood imagination of the stars and glamor of the thirties and forties. A quasi-child nostalgia for fashions and styles of the past is perceived, evident not only in the soundtrack or in the settings or locations, but in replicating that sense of naivety that we could have when looking at productions of yesteryear.
In the 1950s, Henri Plaat studied at the Rietveld Academy, to then work as a topographic designer. Years later, he studied painting and watercolor. And it is from 1966, that he began to make fiction shorts and travel diaries, with a 16mm home camera. He made almost forty films, very even and identifiable.
In this recent edition of the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, in Germany, a focus of his work could be seen, thanks to the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, an institution that worked on the restoration of the pieces.
The program included the film The Strange but Unknown Star (1969), in which Plaat recreates a glamorous atmosphere, made of feathers, tulles and pearls, from the presence of a girl dressed as a 1930s Hollywood diva. The little girl wears a mask, while sitting on a sofa, an attitude that brings a grotesque touch to her movements on camera. Plaat adds to these scenes, shots of magazine covers, plates or other memorabilia from the faces of actresses such as Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, as if to lavish a missing piece on what the girl refers to with her exuberant, watered-down and rough mask.
Plaat’s staging effectively refers to those years of affectation of the famous, in images mediated by the media, the press and the cinema, and how those impressions made for the viewer arrive, simulated, promoting a different reading of the actress in its characters, in its artificiality. Also, there is a kitsch touch in this short film, but it is not free, because although there is a fascination for building an ideal of beauty from the grotesque or rare, between the beautiful, comic and tragic, what the filmmaker seeks is to ironize about this perception and simulation of movie stars produced by large industries, in their desire to relegate reality to this simulation of luxury and fashion.
Similar elements appear in Laughter in the Rosary! (1973), where two girls dress up as ladies of high society, but to caricature them from their innocence. They talk on a bed, and pose for the lens that captures them pretending to be adults. In return, a transvestite walks through a room (in the photo that opens this article), then sits down to read a fragment while food remains are thrown at her. These two scenes, which appear to complete a notion about the role of the spectator, who assist in the first part to strengthen voyeuristic mystification, and in the second to destroy it, in a mockery of absurd edges.
In Absürd, (1973), music by Beethoven accompanies readings in German, while atmospheres of decadence (or what the filmmaker considers to be decadent) are shown indistinctly, where again we see a disguised girl looking directly at the camera and being an opposition to the images of full glamour.
In the same way, Fashion from New York (1980) shows scenes from this city, mixed with passages where characters of transvestites and drags look at the camera, looking for that attraction typical of voyeurism and fetishistic enjoyment to provoke, especially designed for a male viewer. These cross-dressing scenes (which also appear in the previous shorts), are added to nude pubescent scenes to emphasize the focus on the bodies, both in this naturalistic and grotesque dimension at the same time, as well as the artifice of fashions and mimics.
With Spurs of Tango (1980), Plaat marks another path in the style of his works. Here, within the observational in spaces that he exoticizes, far from his idea of ??modernity and progress. In other words, although this short film seeks to investigate some elements of the suburban tango culture and the inspiration that Carlos Gardel achieves, rather what he raises in this short film is a travel diary and impressions after passing through Bogotá, Medellí, Quito, Lima, Titikaka, Buenos Aires or Salta. The registry of these places capture realities that appear strange for the filmmaker, as if he were looking for what he does not find in the spaces that he considers modern or developed. In a previous work, Postcards (1973), Plaat brings together different shots of places in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa, of its people and traditional spaces, so that they dialogue with plans of a woman who looks at postcards and gestures according to what she perceives in them, in statements or satirical negatives. And in both films, this intention appears to show the local color, but associate it with a state of poverty, abandonment or to awaken a paternalistic quota.
In Fragments of Decay (1983), the title already announces a statement. The fragments of this decay show passages from Plaat’s travels, from a cumulative and free improvisation technique, to gather impressions, perfect fixed shots of places, which at the same time insinuate deterioration or loss. With the background music of Robb Van Sintemaartensdijk, these images reveal, as in Postcards or Spurs of Tango, the relationship of people with their environment, in a stable, harmonious dynamism, but where the title itself achieves that these views on these Spaces are sifted by the idea that whether or not this is a sign of decline.
The title could propose an out-of-field division of those high cultures that would demonstrate progress and modernity, compared to these other “peripherals” that appear in their natural state, in their diversity and particularities. It is true that we are facing a look from almost forty years ago, however, this ideology that superimposes cultures on others, remains contemporary and is decorated with beautiful shots and impeccable photography.
After the logbook, with Second War Hats (1986), Plaat returns to the footage, to the camp humor, to make a theatrical performance, through heads wearing various hats in a warlike context. And as in the previous shorts, Plaat proposes a poetics based on atmospheres and transvestism, from the construction of worlds with a technicolor appearance, from atavisms, masks or costumes.
Plaat proposes unique and refined images, from an extraordinary composition, where his need to experiment with Kodachrome is detected, from the lights’ intensity and the rescue of imaginaries that he considers forgotten or about to disappear, avoiding the possibility of adaptation, the mutation or the birth of new forms of life within what he calls “decadent”. A fascinating and provocative filmography.