As one of the many influential visual and performing artists who developed their craft as Wisconsin residents, theater and motion picture director/writer/producer Stuart Gordon has had a most eclectic and fascinating career. Born and raised in Chicago in 1946, Gordon spent the late 1960s as a theater major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the end of his undergraduate career, Gordon founded the Organic Theater, an avant-garde theatrical troupe which moved in 1969 from Madison to Chicago. Gordon served as artistic director of the Organic until 1985. In that 16-year span, he directed 37 original plays and adaptations. As Organic's artistic director, Gordon helped nurture the talents of a number of actors and playwrights who went on to realize successful stage and screen careers, including Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Andre De Shields, and David Mamet.
Today, Gordon is primarily known as a director of inventive low-budget horror films. Yet, a look at the whole of his career reveals an artist with a uniquely wide range of interests, whose work displays mastery of several genres. Still, a few basic aims tie together such seemingly disparate projects. One objective of Gordon's work is to combat the forces of social repression while championing individuality and imagination. Another is to convey this proactive message via popular, crowd pleasing forms. "I have never separated art from having a good time," Gordon told Rolling Stone in 1987. "Roosevelt said the first job of a president is to get elected. The first job of a producer is to get an audience."
While still an undergraduate, Gordon was inspired by an introductory theater course to form the avant-garde Screw Theater troupe. Screw Theater's politicized adaptation of Peter Pan, featuring a simulated acid trip and nude dancers, earned Gordon national notoriety and a trip to jail on an obscenity charge. Charges were eventually dropped, and Gordon moved off campus to form the original Organic Theater. Soon thereafter, Gordon accepted an invitation by Paul Sills, the founder of Chicago's Story Theater, to move the Organic into a Chicago church. Though the company would move several times over the next few years, Organic productions became staples of the thriving Chicago theater scene.
Many Organic productions were good fits for visual media because many were written, staged, and designed as if they were movies. Gordon's credo was "If it can be done on film, it can be done on stage, only better." His predilection for painstaking reproduction of cinematic effects on stage was evident in early productions like Hamlet, performed in Madison in the late 1960s. "Instead of moving the sets, I moved the audience around, on these bleachers that were on rollers ... in for closeups, and back for long shots." Organic productions also utilized film-like special effects. Specific movie genres were evoked by the set design of several productions, from the grandiose futuristic sets for the sci-fi trilogy Warp to the stylized black-and-white decor evoking 1940s film noir in The Little Sister.
Gordon made the leap from stage to movie directing in 1984, five years after an Emmy winning turn directing an adaptation of Bleacher Bums for PBS. In the 1980s, Gordon later recalled, the easiest genre with which to break into filmmaking was horror. " The rule of thumb is that if you can make a [horror] movie for under a million dollars, you will not lose money." Gordon's debut film Re-Animator, based on a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft, was produced for well under that amount. It was distributed by Empire Pictures, an exploitation studio that made most of its profits on presales of low-grade monster movies to foreign markets.
Gordon had previously dabbled with horror in plays, and the genre appealed to him for reasons beyond the minimization of economic risk. He had long appreciated the countercultural aspects of horror. In Gordon's hands, the extreme gore and bloodletting that had become requisite components of the genre by this period fit within a larger critique. "Violence should horrify," Gordon remarked in an interview. "If it doesn't, there's something wrong with it. ... If you're going to show violence, you should show a lot of the stuff that goes along with violence the suffering, the blood, the mess." Gordon brought to Re-Animator the same aesthetic which informed his Organic Theater adaptation of The Forever War, a project that grew out of his dislike of George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy, which he felt reduced war to an ultra-sanitized video game.
Though an extremely violent film, Re-Animator demonstrates Gordon's ideas about the transgressive and cathartic benefits of the horror genre. At the same time, it displays the playful sense of humor and ribald comedy that is a hallmark of Gordon's work. The story concerns a zealous medical student and his ill considered experiments with a mysterious greenish liquid which, when injected, can resuscitate the dead. The escalating outrageousness of West's procedures recalls the over-the-top extravagance of Gordon's stage experiments, a connection noted by Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. "[Re-Animator] carries something intangible from live theater," she writes. "The mockery here is the kind that needs a crowd to complete it... it's out to make you laugh at what other movies have scared you with, and at what they'd have scared you with if they hadn't pulled back."
Re-Animator received glowing reviews from critics nationwide, most of whom had never before deigned to review an Empire production. Re-Animator won a Critic's Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Strong reviews and favorable word-of-mouth helped the film to gross $15 million in theaters and on videocassette, an enormous figure for an Empire release. The film's lack of an MPAA rating most likely prevented it from achieving ever larger financial success. Yet Re-Animator did well enough that Empire bankrolled two more horror films from Gordon in quick succession: From Beyond and Dolls. Also based on a Lovecraft story, From Beyond carries forth the theme of the (literal) return of the repressed. A film's mad scientist invents a contraption called the Resonator. Prolonged exposure to the Resonator stimulates the pineal gland (a sense organ which houses the sixth sense and enables people to see beyond the worldly realm), causing it to burst through its host's forehead. The demented activity that infects the characters in From Beyond allowed Gordon to further plumb a trademark theme, the deadening effect of social and sexual repression. Lovecraft examined the Puritan mentality, which on the surface is very proper and straitlaced and moral, and underneath is possessed by demons. This idea bore particular resonance in the socially conservative 1980s, a period Gordon has likened to colonial-era America.
Dolls, which Gordon has described as a horror movie version of Hansel and Gretel, was Gordon's third foray into the horror field. The coming-of-age theme in Dolls was further explored in Gordon's subsequent screenwriting project, "Teeny Weenies", which eventually metamorphosed into the smash Disney production Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The original story, adapted for the screen by director Joe Johnston, originated from Gordon's desire to make a fantasy adventure film his young children could enjoy, although its child protagonists were clearly in jeopardy. Childlike fantasy was also at the heart of Gordon's next directing project for Empire, Robot Jox, a futuristic science fiction tale in which 120-foot robots settled international disputes.
When Empire dissolved in the late 1980s, Gordon shopped his talents to a variety of organizations. In addition to working at Disney, Gordon directed a vampire telefilm for CBS (Daughter of Darkness) and a free-form adaptation of Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum for Full Moon Entertainment. Gordon's next original film again explored the repression theme within the framework of a new genre, the prison film. Fortress takes place inside a privately run, high-tech penitentiary in the dystopian near future. Gordon modeled the setting upon an actual, corporate-owned institution in Pelican Bay, California. The similarities between the present and Fortress's nightmare future enabled Gordon to comment on current world governmental practices, particularly the de-emphasis on rehabilitating prison populations.
Gordon's recent output reflects the eclecticism of his Organic years even more so than his horror films of the late 80s and early 90s. His latest film, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, is perhaps his most striking cinematic departure to date, a PG-rated fantasy picture set in the barrios of East L.A., based on a Ray Bradbury story. In recent years, Gordon has returned with growing frequency to the university setting, sharing his experiences in theater and motion pictures with a new generation of creative artists.
In Spring Semester 1999-2000, Gordon will teach two interdisciplinary courses at the UW-Madison. Directing the Actor for the Camera will provide acting students in the Theatre & Drama Department with screen experience and help improve performances in student film and video productions. These objectives dovetail with the goals of the second course Gordon will oversee, an Advanced Film Workshop, in which Gordon will supervise work from the script stage to the postproduction stage on three short student produced films. Through these courses, Gordon's work will benefit students from across campus and disciplines, strengthen programatic partnerships among arts departments, and enrich the campus and community arts culture.
- Christopher Sieving