Art for Teachers of Children
But an experimental filmmaker named Jennifer Montgomery --whom the FBI contacted in the surreal setting of a Massachusetts art colony during the Sturges investigation -- had her own "perverse angle" on the case. Montgomery had posed for Sturges as a teen in boarding school -- and she wasn't happy about the particular way in which she'd come of age in front of the camera. She knew Sturges's work was not obscene in the FBI's sense of the word; from this experimental filmmaker's end of the transgressive-art spectrum, his work wasn't good enough to be considered obscene. Art for Teachers of Children -- her drama about an adolescent's sexual relationship with a dorm counselor at a private boarding school -- will not help the FBI thought-crimes unit either. Montgomery calls the film autobiographical, but it's in the conveniently vague form of fiction. And though it dramatizes a sexual relationship that could easily be sensationalized, it actually wants to talk about something much more mundane -- the everyday sexism committed in the name of fine art. Montgomery is not really interested in the difference between erotica and pornography. And in this film she isn't interested in "censorship," art's public-relations plague and ploy of the late '80s, either. The last thing she wants, she said, is to join the talk-show circuit or for the film to be seen as some kind of sober testimonial. This is a film about photography and the murkier side of consent.School daze As a car takes a girl named Jennifer (Caitlin Grace McDonnell) to a barren twilight zone for education, Art for Teachers drives directly into muddy waters. The flowery '70s folk music and leftover sunlight that's winding its way through trees during the ride give way to a scene in a dorm, where an awkward long-haired girl is seeking "counseling" from a slightly unstarched white-bred adult. That man, John Goddard (Duncan Hannah), is a guy who clearly has some boundary problems. He gives away other teens' secrets to her in the name of some psychotherapeutic role he's taken on; she's flattered. It's obvious that John isn't mature enough to be dealing with girls in halter tops, but it's just as painfully obvious that both he and his eager charge are too naive to do anything about it. Jennifer wants to be her groovy dorm counselor's best teen-friend, and by the time she makes surrogate parents of him and his wife, models for his photographs, and finally loses her virginity to him, she will be. She will win the popularity contest she's waging, and she will file the evidence of that conquest -- a bloody napkin -- in an expandable file under the letter v. She doesn't yet realize this isn't exactly the kind of guidance she needs. And though she clearly asks for his friendly help on all kinds of matters, he's already offered his insipid indoctrination into adult head games in the form of his comically transparent seductions. To her request for help with the virginity problem, he says, "Jennifer, you know I can't sleep with you." She replies: "I've been reading that Nabokov book you gave me. They're so young, and it doesn't seem to matter.... I don't see why I'm not entitled." John is phenomenally unaware of the effect he is having on the granola-girl set as he bumbles around with his huge camera, having the "pretty" ones -- some of them partially nude -- pose for him. Jennifer says she poses because thinks she needs a sort of "agent" to present her to the outside world. Actually, it seems as if she wants to make sure she's counted among the campus worthy.Nude and naked "He performed an important service," the narrator states in a morbidly ironic tone. "We needed to know we existed." But as the film photographs John's subjects from another angle, we see them shifting nervously, unnaturally attempting to please the eye behind that huge camera and that black velvet cloth. When Jennifer finally goes out to the open meadow for her photo shoot, she and John look through the lens together. Then she sits and asks if she can take off her shirt like some of the other girls have done. After she does so he walks up and adjusts her arm before he takes the photo. Afterward he comments only: "You were real good. You didn't move at all." She is, at that moment, strangely naked in her nudity: This film takes apart the smug art-world axiom that posed models are nude and everyday folk not under a professional gaze are naked. It reserves its real spite for matters of "taste" -- reducing this artist, who aspires to greatness, to something along the lines of a lurid yearbook-photographer. John considers himself something of an arbiter of taste when it comes to women's and girls' bodies. He and Jennifer page through photo books together, and John provides commentary on the shapes and forms. When Jennifer asks him to apply the same curatorial technique to her classmates, he actually acquiesces -- naming one adolescent as too skinny, another as "made for childbearing," and pointing out that a third will have trouble when her breasts begin to sag. He remembers to add that he thinks Jennifer is beautiful. But it's clear Jennifer needs some new friends when she queries him with the fundamental adolescent girl self-effacement: "Do you think I'm fat?" He kindly tells her she's not -- as far as he's seen. But his aesthetic generosity ends there; John's photographic sensibility matches up well with Vanity Fair's. Jennifer Montgomery's does not. Unlike John's work in this film, which resembles the photos seen in Calvin Klein ads, Montgomery's camerawork is experimental, decentered, and free of voyeurism. Home Avenue, Montgomery's short 1989 film account of a college rape, uses photos of a street -- rather than pictures of the victim -- to recreate the horror. In Art for Teachers, in which Montgomery herself is the subject, object, narrator, director, writer, and cameraperson, there's a similar lack of satisfaction in looking. Female nudes offer no titillation: Her camera studies them with magnifying zooms, as if they're artifacts. In a quick Cliffs Notes version of how Jennifer "watched him watching her" we see a series of photographs of the film's Jennifer looking alternately down with disgust at herself, pensively out the window, and seductively at the camera -- and we see her moving from naivete to showmanship to shame, and finally to an understanding of how she's been looked at and used. Then the film cuts to Jennifer giving John the finger in the dorm hallway. Art for Teachers is an unavoidably angry film.Shifting focus Jennifer Montgomery told me she "had a different rap on events in '90 and '91, when she wrote the treatment [for the film]." In 1989, she said, she was using the "anecdote" about her boarding-school romance as dinner-table conversation -- she would tell it as "a good story to get people's attention." But once she wrote down the events, she began to take them more seriously. "It was a roller-coaster ride," Montgomery says of the process of making Art for Teachers. She remembers laughing a lot, so much so that the camera shook while she was filming. She remembers the FBI investigation as "a joke. But that's been my response to some of the most horrible things in my life -- to laugh." When the FBI contacted her in 1990 she and her peers were in the thick of their own version of a censorship dispute -- they were busy writing letters to the NEA to ask that their art colony be refunded. (The colony has since gone under.) Absurd ironies surrounded her; it's no surprise that they also show up in her film. One irony she's particularly interested in is how censorship -- the supposedly troubling, ego-shattering experience -- made so many artists celebrities in the late '80s. "I don't think there's any one thing as 'censorship,' " Montgomery explained. There are too many other ways -- lack of access, confidence, or financial support -- that people can be silenced. And, Montgomery added, "if silence equals death, how does censorship equal success?" Jock Sturges, who's in France right now, seems to be doing well. In the May 1995 issue of Camera and Darkroom he told his interviewer that the FBI investigation "hyped my career like nothing else possibly could have. Within six months I'd been on 20/20, 48 Hours, even Geraldo.... There was probably not a newspaper in the country that didn't carry one story or another about this." But though the accusations stained his career, and though the FBI seized his materials -- and his ability to produce more photos -- during 1990, it was actually only a 26-year-old assistant who ended up in handcuffs. Sturges was never charged with any crime; charges against his assistant were dropped. Sturges, meanwhile, was defended in the daily press as a man of "blue blood" background. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had no intention of selling the pictures; he only dealt with "good galleries." And that's where Montgomery sees the biggest hypocrisy. "High art wants to say that some sexually explicit art is not pornographic," she explains. Art for Teachers -- which travels from boarding school to the private collections of the aristocratic world of John's relatives -- seems to convey the idea that some explicit art is simply not honest. She thought about contacting Sturges while making the film. The letter she drafted said, "If you return this letter it will give me permission to use these things." But she decided against sending it. She didn't want to have contact with him. She created John instead. The only real Jock Sturges photos she uses in the film are photos he actually gave her in 1978, but those are not the ones she uses to issue her final Art for Teachers insult to the character John. That insult is simply to call John's bluff. In the film, Jennifer's mother (played by Montgomery's own mother), hounded by the FBI for information, finally breaks down and tells Jennifer that she did talk to the FBI. As Jennifer listens from a dark phone booth we hear her mother saying, "I told them he's a liar, a pervert, he raped my daughter, and I hope they nail him." To which a surprised Jennifer responds, "You think he's a pervert?" The mother clarifies: "He's not interesting enough to be a pervert.... There's nothing more dangerous than boring men who make bad art, and I can't believe we didn't protect you from him." But though it's not necessarily the result Montgomery had hoped for, the film has brought out the same slightly off-target protective instincts from some of its audiences. At its San Francisco International Film Festival screening this year one woman stood up and affirmed that she, too, thought Sturges's work was "sleazy." She said she'd showed it to her son and that he'd agreed. But Montgomery had to explain then, as she probably had to explain before, that she wasn't for censorship, or for labeling art as porn, or for talking about whether porn is bad. The pornography label is irrelevant when the FBI is acting as curator. It's the subtler exploitations that actually scar.