Film Review: Narcissister Organ Player

Post-modern performance artist Narcissister explores her artistic self via a revealing documentary portrait of her mother.
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Usually performing with most of her lean, athletic body nude, and her face covered by an unmoving plastic mask, the artist Narcissister might arouse dismay as easily as curiosity and desire, depending on the purpose of the specific performance.

In her self-directed, self-examining documentary Narcissister Organ Player, she first emerges from a giant papier mâché vagina, before unfurling a rubber mask from inside her own genitalia. In that performance, and throughout the film, she makes clear her purpose to relate a biography of the woman who gave birth to her as an explanation of herself and her art.

The film succeeds largely by doing its own thing, in accordance with its maker, who recognizes no restrictions on her prerogative to “traverse taboos.” Narcissister boldly skirts convention personally and artistically, and so does the film, by assembling a cogent narrative from acutely disparate parts, to explore her mother as the primary relationship of her life and inspiration for her art.

Between concisely framed scenes from her stage performances and colorful cutout animation representing the aforementioned internal bodily passages, Narcissister recites narration over shots of her silver-polished fingers searching through old photos and postcards. The images and her storytelling, abetted by a video diary shot years ago by her brother, tell the love story of her parents, poet Sarah, a Moroccan Jew, and professor Oscar, a black American. The couple met at Columbia University in 1963, then in 1972 moved their family from New York to La Jolla, when Oscar was offered tenure at a college in San Diego.

The Pacific coastline is a steady presence in the artist’s life, and in the film, which, for further cultural context, also unspools clips of Narcissister’s many media and television appearances, including as a contestant on “America’s Got Talent,” as a guest on a French talk show, and as herself on “Absolutely Fabulous.” As “AbFab”’s Edina explains with characteristic bluntness, Narcissister “pulls things out of her p—y [while] on a rotating platform.” The description is reductive but not wholly inaccurate. Shredding notions of gender, sex, race and humanness, Narcissister often unpeels characters and masks layer by layer, like a nesting doll opening itself. The film depicts her as a chameleon, not just because of her facility for changing guises but for her abiding desire to be unseen.

In intimate, sometimes tearful audio recordings, she relates how growing up biracial in mostly white San Diego, she was hyper-conscious of her race and ethnic identity, though she obscures them in her work. By her estimation, that consciousness led to her obsession with her mother’s long, straight brown hair. Obsession might apply broadly to Narcissister’s fascination with her mother. From that intense affinity, she produces a loving tribute and straightforward artistic statement that grows repetitive in detailing the family’s bonds.

After having elucidated her mother’s sensuous enjoyment of food and clothes and fragrances, and having probed her own maternal obsession almost to the point of objectification, the film feels ready to broaden its scope to other topics or influences. But instead, it narrows down even further on the artist’s mother, her past, her illnesses.

Scored to piano, synths and strings, sometimes pounding, sometimes plaintive, Organ Player ultimately is more fruitful as a tribute to the artist’s mother than as a document of who lives behind Narcissister’s masks. Little to nothing is revealed, for example, about hers or her team’s methods of props or set construction. As a self-portrait, the film is weird and unstructured, but not inaccessible for the adventurous viewer, a cohort that might include plenty of curiosity seekers who likely would never go see Narcissister live, but might learn a thing or two from watching her play her organ.