Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christina Hornisher: Alone with that Obscene Image of Yourself

Image courtesy of
While it seems every year, watchful figures in the entertainment industry work to draw attention to the disparity between steady and well-paying opportunities for female creatives vs. their male equivalents, 2015 has been a year in which the commentary reached a volume impossible to ignore. Beginning with blogger Marya E. Gates' ambitious "A Year With Women" project, continuing with Destri Martino's creation of The Director List website and database, reaching unprecedented exposure with the "Trailblazing Women" programming series hosted by Illeana Douglas on Turner Classic Movies (the first of a promised multi-year collaboration with Women in Film Los Angeles), and all the while peppered with hard-hitting stories by Manohla Dargis, Rebecca KeeganJessica P..Ogilvie and Maureen Dowd, battlefield dispatches from proud defiant directors like Lexi Alexander and Ava DuVernay, and constant energetic debate from "Film Twitter", if you proclaim yourself a movie lover yet have not had a dialogue, polite or vehement, with anyone about some aspect of this issue, you're doing it wrong.

Besides its primary purpose of advocacy and changing the dominant paradigm, all of this coverage has had the welcome effect of drawing attention to women directors of the past, who had even harder circumstances to navigate in order to get their work made and released, and too often found themselves with only one feature film in their resume. During the TCM broadcasts this past October, viewers were treated to the striking solitary outings of Barbara Loden, Leslie Harris, and Kathleen Collins, and while Harris was able to enjoy this second wind of exposure, and perhaps use it towards new opportunities, new fans of the long-passed Loden and Collins could only wistfully consider what other films could have emerged from them had they not also succumbed to cancer in their late '40's.

Unfortunately, there has been a name absent from practically every discussion of women in film this year; certainly not intentional on anyone's behalf - if anything, to be expected with resignation, since not only did she receive little to no recognition for her work during her life, but her sole feature film has been effectively unavailable for close to three decades. That is why, in these waning days of this ersatz Year of the Female Director, I would like to draw your attention to Christina Hornisher, and her film, HOLLYWOOD 90028.

"People lust for fame. 
Like athletes in a game, 
we break our collarbones and come up swinging
Some of us are downed 
Some of us are crowned
and some are lost and never found
But most have seen it all
They live their lives in sad cafes and music halls
They always have a story"

Telling the story of Christina Hornisher at this time is a difficult task akin to a reverend enlisted to preside over a funeral mass for someone they've never met: we are both left with an extremely thin public record by which to garner their milestones. Thus, for now I can only present a sort of stone soup of her life. Hornisher was born on October 1, 1942 in Watertown, New York, daughter of a military officer. She attended UCLA's film school, where she made three student films in 1966; her classmates included The Doors members Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, filmmaker-turned-technological pioneer Stanton Kaye, LEMORA director Richard Blackburn, THE ROSE screenwriter Bill Kerby, CISCO PIKE writer/director Bill W.L. Norton, cinematographer/documentarian Joan Churchill, CAA agent and Arsenal consulting firm founder John Ptak, and AMERICAN GRAFFITI co-screeenwriter Gloria Katz. Her sole feature, HOLLYWOOD 90028, was initially released in 1974, and later reissued to drive-ins in 1978 retitled as THE HOLLYWOOD HILLSIDE STRANGLER. During her college years, she married her UCLA classmate and 90028 cameraman Jean-Pierre Geuens, with whom she had a son, Sebastian. She later married theatre and television writer/director Robert Lee Collins in 1989; his credits included writing the "POLICE STORY" episode "The Gamble," which spawned the series "POLICE WOMAN" with Angie Dickinson (giving him series creator credit), and TV movies based on real-life events, such as THE LIFE AND ASSASSINATION OF THE KINGFISH with Ed Asner and GIDEON'S TRUMPET with Henry Fonda. While Hornisher did collaborate with husband Collins as associate producer on his 1987 Showtime biopic J. EDGAR HOOVER, she ultimately would not direct another project again. According to this Los Angeles Times obituary below, she died at age 60 on April 29, 2003.

The Times misspelled her son's last name.

Hornisher's 1966 student films are excellent examples of the spirit of experimentation and new ways of storytelling that were permeating the art form, and the techniques she employed are often now commonplace in all media. Her first short, 4x8=16, took advantage of the manufacturing quirks of 8mm and 16mm to create one of the earliest multi-image presentations, creating four frames of action in a single screen, then subsequently layering full-size footage of a cavorting film crew over the four frames, creating a wall of visuals that overwhelm the viewer much like the song that accompanies the images, "Heatwave" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, uses a Spector-like "Wall of Sound" production style to overwhelm the listener. While this layout, often referred to as the "BRADY BUNCH" effect, is generally said to have been perfected by recently deceased Canadian filmmaker Christopher Chapman, Hornisher deserves credit for playing with the formula before him. 4x8=16 was enthusiastically championed by L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas, who described it as "equally rich in textural values and color," and "a whole hymn to the simple pleasures of life." It was also praised by film scholar and LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF creator Thom Anderson, who described it in a letter to his colleague Jonas Mekas, and compared it favorably to shorts by professional avant-garde artists he had been surveying for Mekas' Filmmakers' Cooperative.

image courtesy of Los Angeles Filmforum
Her second UCLA film, AND ON THE SIXTH DAY, makes damning assessments of the humanity which was created on that date in Genesis, through three vignettes blending visuals that on their own would seem uneventful, but become striking with the voiceover attached to them. In the first vignette, running one minute, a jumpy camera P.O.V. moves down and looks about a city street as a woman's voice shrieks for help: while citizens occasionally look into the camera, nobody interacts. In the second vignette, running two minutes, the camera slowly pans around a living room full of religious memorabilia - crosses, candles - stopping on a forlorn woman on a sofa (Bunny Cohen), who is being patronizingly addressed by an unseen priest, cautioning her not to get an abortion which he acknowledges her husband has told her may be necessary to protect her life. As the priest continues to press her, saying "Only God, through the Catholic Church, can be your salvation. And the Church will not allow you to do this," the camera zooms into her pained face. In the final vignette, running three minutes, ordinary random snippets of black people going about work and play are played against the voice of a white man ranting horrible racist calumnies about them. Soon, the voice reverbs into multiple voices, repeating, looping, as the subjects ultimately begin to acknowledge the camera, with the last image a male child looking directly at us with a severe but ambiguous expression as the racist ends his sentence with that most horrifying of epithets.

Her third class project, THE SUN IS LONG, is her most narratively conventional, but still uses a few innovations, and offers a glimpse of the shot style she would later employ in her feature. Opening with stock footage of tanks firing followed by deserted land, a lone soldier (Wayne Sutherlin, who previously provided the male voices in SIXTH DAY), walking in a wide open field to a stark harpischord score, comes across a fallen comrade, and lays his coat over him. Hearing shots, he takes a position, attaches his bayonet to his rifle, and takes aim, only to see the figure in front of him is not an enemy soldier, but something much vaguer in a robe. Putting his gun aside, the soldier rises, and rants to the stranger (Jesus of Nazareth? the Angel of Death?), and in effect, to the audience, about the horror taking place around him. "That could have been a friend of mine...Doesn't it make a difference to you?...Somebody has to care...Can't you stop that? Can't you?", again using echo and staggering the repeated lines as in her previous film to jarring effect. The film climaxes with freeze frames of the anguished soldier and the hooded stranger, cutting between them increasingly faster as war noises get louder and the harpsichord grows more discordant, then plays staccato single notes, like the tolling of a bell. These three films show that Hornisher already had a keen handle on how to use contrasting elements to convey story in unconventional ways.

Hornisher's first feature screenplay, HOME FREE!, submitted as her MFA thesis in 1970, reads as a logical extension of the charged political themes explored in her shorts. The premise concerns the mission of Jeffrey Campbell, a black CIA agent in his 30's, who is groomed to defect to Russia in order to gather data on the KGB, a deep cover operation known only to two other superiors at the agency. The first third of the story depicts the process of Campbell "leaving" Langley and taking an office job where he can convincingly be treated so badly that Russian agents will believe his desire to renounce America. Sure enough, while he never suffers overt racism, he is subject to cavalier treatment and overwork by his boss, often having to pick up the slack for a lazy white colleague, and gets nasty stares when a white female co-worker cozies to him; the latter situation also causing inner conflict between his desire for connection versus his need to be ready to disconnect in seconds when the chance to defect arrives. On his arrival in Russia, he is assigned to an older female handler, Lydia Kotova, with whom there is mutual attraction despite their contrasting agendas of his need to sell his story and her need to probe his sincerity. Their exchanges often feel as if they could be taking place today: when they compare notes about their mutual experience with discrimination in America, Campbell articulates the tension between black power and white feminism - "We're too busy trying to get ourselves equal. It's really of no importance what a a bunch of women want." Just as Campbell seems poised to complete his mission, he learns his CIA handlers have been killed, and realizes he must flee lest he never be able to return to America. The climax features an intriguing sequence that as scripted suggests elements from the previous THE IPCRESS FILE torture scene and the not-yet-written THE PARALLAX VIEW "exam", again demonstrating Hornisher's innovative ideas for presenting visual information. The script is fully annotated with camera and shot directions, indicating she was primed to shoot it, and while there are requisite exotic exteriors and foot chases, most of the film takes place in ordinary interiors, so it likely could have been done for less money than the average spy drama. However, it was determined early that it was still too large a project to undertake herself, and so her debut would ultimately take place in an entirely different milleu.

On November 22, 2005, at the New Beverly Cinema, the ongoing Grindhouse Film Festival presented a double feature of THE HOLLYWOOD HILLSIDE STRANGLER and DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE. At the time, almost nothing was known about STRANGLER - the IMDb page that revealed it as HOLLYWOOD 90028 was review-less, there was no readily available VHS or DVD to refer to, and only a select few people in attendance, including DEADBEAT AT DAWN director Jim Van Bebber, had ever seen or heard of it before. Naturally, the crowd, including myself, were excited at the prospect of rediscovering a mystery film. Three of the four reviews that now populate its IMDb listing were written in the wake of that screening, including my own somewhat harsh assessment of the time, but to summarize, the mostly male crowd, who were intrigued by the pre-credits murder sequence but were then subjected to a more thoughtful and artistic drama about spiritual disconnection with a strong feminist bent, grew increasingly impatient and loudly made it known, until its shocking finale, after which many began to reassess what they saw and muster grudging respect. As for me, even without the benefit of recently rewatching it in preparation for this article (thanks to a friend with a reference-quality source), my appreciation of its strengths only increased over the last decade, and the continued void of information on its making and its creator made me more determined to learn the truth.

"Some women have a body men will want to see 
so they put it on display
Some people play a fine guitar 
I could listen to them play all day
Some ladies really move across a stage
and gee, they sure can dance
I guess I could learn how, if I gave it half a chance
But I always feel so funny when my body tries to soar
And I always seem to worry about missing the next chord
I guess there isn't anything to put out on display
except the tunes, and whatever else I say
And anyway, that isn't really what I meant to say...
I meant to tell a story I live from day to day"

Serving as a spiritual bridge between Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM and Steven Soderbergh's sex lies and videotape, HOLLYWOOD 90028 focuses on Mark (Christopher Augustine), a would-be photographer/cameraman who has only been able to make a living by shooting peep show film loops, and Michelle (Jeanette Dilger), a sweet-natured model he meets during one of the shoots. Mark's history is marred by a childhood spent with domineering older sisters and the death of his younger brother, his culpability in that tragedy left open-ended, while Michelle, a small-town girl already bereft of illusions about the promise of showbiz, works in adult modeling to earn her own income while subsisting as a girlfriend of convenience to an affluent and often-absent musician. (In an unrelated but serendipitous turn, Dilger herself later wed musician Pete Sears of Jefferson Starship) The screenplay, written by Hornisher under the pseudonym Craig Hansen, may take a dim view of pornography, but does not completely blame it for the downward spiral of its protagonists: references to the classic homes of Bunker Hill being razed for unaffordable new luxury housing, and the illusion of hundreds of industry jobs being available but only after proving someone else already gave you one, send the message that the dirty pictures racket is only a specific instance of a larger climate of devaluation the modern city commits against fragile beings on a regular basis. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the movie opens with a murder, and every ad campaign created to sell the film promised mayhem, so the revelation that Mark ultimately snaps and becomes a killer is bereft of surprise; it is a testament to the story and the acting, however, that for a little while, we entertain the idea that maybe Mark has a chance to escape, despite a tradition that encompasses SUNSET BLVD., CARLITO'S WAY, and MAY, that reminds us we should have known this character was doomed from frame one.

HOLLYWOOD 90028, a movie that Hornisher and Geuens conceived for the purpose of getting mainstream distribution, had the unique distinction of getting two chances in theatres, but also the misfortune of being handled by parties with less-than-hearty support. American Films Ltd., a Beverly Hills-based distributor whose other film releases included ersatz-Yeti-horror SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED and the counterculture drama NO PLACE TO HIDE featuring a young Sylvester Stallone, first acquired the film and started playing it in theatres in March 1974. However, preliminary research shows it was never submitted to any trade magazines (Variety, Boxoffice) for review, nor was it covered by any critics in the few cities it played in. In fact, it did not play in Los Angeles until August 26, 1976, when it ran for four days at the Cameo Theatre on Broadway Ave. downtown, when it was still a thriving street of battered but operating cinemas. In 1978, a smaller firm called Parker National based in Boston, picked up the rights. Parker National was a sub-imprint of Judson Parker's better known Hallmark Releasing company, responsible for exploitation successes like MARK OF THE DEVIL (and its infamous barf bag and "Rated 'V' for Violence campaign) and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Hallmark, along with yet another imprint, Newport, frequently picked up older films and retitled them for packaging on the grindhouse and drive-in circuit: Jerzy Skolimowski's DEEP END with Jane Asher was sublicensed from Paramount and reissued as STEAM ROOM GIRLS, Sam Fuller's SHARK with Burt Reynolds was retitled MAN-EATER to cash in on JAWS and shark mania, and plenty of Italian-made giallos often got multiple titles as they were shoved into dusk-to-dawn marathons. Parker first retitled the movie THE HOLLYWOOD HILLSIDE STRANGLER, and even took out a front-cover ad in Boxoffice in May 1978 to promote it, then made one more attempt under the title TWISTED THROATS (which was on the print screened at New Beverly) before giving up. Aside from a UK VHS release from Go Video under yet another title, INSANITY, it has never received any home video or television exposure. 

Film editor Bob Murawski obtained a battered print of TWISTED THROATS from Detroit-based subdistributor Mason Releasing Corp., whom he had worked for in the mid-80s before moving to LA. Murawski in turn showed the film to his Grindhouse Releasing partner Sage Stallone, and David Szulkin, who set up the screening with Caidin and New Beverly programmer Brian Quinn to expose it to a fresh audience. Bob, Sage, and David long sought to do a full-bodied release on physical media, talking to as many surviving participants as possible, but sadly, unaware to them all, its director had quietly passed away two years before that screening, and the otherwise determined friends were unable to make that revival happen before the untimely death of Sage in 2012.

For all purposes, Hornisher's film has been relegated to a status much like the product integral to its plot - to quote from another film about sex images, Paul Schrader's HARDCORE: "Nobody makes it. Nobody shows it. Nobody sees it. It's like it doesn't even exist."

The unproduced HOME FREE! and the finished HOLLYWOOD 90028, while taking place in two different worlds, share a fair amount of common ground. Both stories involve a protagonist who from childhood has never had a feeling of belonging anywhere (and each features a flashback to help illustrate that isolation), and as an adult being thrust into an environment where they are seen as a useful idiot at best. HOME's Campbell, raised in racism and hazed for his pacifist nature, has only been able to prove his worth as some sort of liason to the establishment, usually by spying on other black people, and even as he's sent on his big mission, his doomed handlers already anticipate he won't survive. 90028's Mark, spending his formative years being bullied by older women, only achieves equality with them in porn because by the producers' calculus, he is every bit as expendable and replaceable as the actresses he films. Both males are also denied a chance at companionship due to class and economic differences, contributing to their marginalization. And each of them, while pleading for understanding, are ultimately culpable for violent deaths, though Campbell still emerges as a more sympathetic protagonist than Mark, and meets with a more positive, if not completely happy, finish to his odyssey.

The confidence and invention that Hornisher brought to her college shorts drive her direction of HOLLYWOOD 90028, aided by a small but tight crew of artists. The shot compositions created by cameraman Jean-Pierre Geuens with cinematographer John H. Pratt tell stories without need for dialogue: the porn studio boss situated above Mark and the model he films, observing them through binoculars, showing his sense of superiority over them both, and his contrast of wanting the closeness of nudity but at a safe distance; Mark's face being framed by peep show viewing slots and reel-to-reel tape speaker grilles, putting him in the same box as he views naked women in his movie camera - the abyss gazing back at him; a walk among giant painted murals that heighten the disconnect between the aspiration of art and the reality of the street. The standout sequence of the film is a monologue by Michelle detailing the emotional toll of her time in the flesh trade, told through intercutting of otherwise romantic looking shots of her with Mark against flash clips of small town streets, L.A. skyscrapers, banks, adult business marquees, and nude bodies, skillfully assembled by "24" and "LAW AND ORDER: SVU" editor Leoncio Ortiz-Gil. A terrific early score by world-acclaimed composer Basil Poledouris (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, ROBOCOP) adds to the emotional build. The talent on display in 90028 is bold, and as such, everyone on board deserved to look forward to greater opportunities onward. Indeed, as already indicated, Poledouris and Ortiz-Gil went on to long entertainment careers; Geuens, though leaving the creative end of movies, became a respected film professor and critical theorist; and while not continuing acting careers, Christopher Augustine became a sought-after media technician, and Jeanette Dilger became a published author, songwriter, and environmental activist; all of these people and their credits easily discovered through elementary internet searching.

Why then is Christina Hornisher, the woman who brought them all together to realize her vision, a virtual enigma?

"Some make it when they're young, 
before the world has done its dirty job
And later on, someone will say - 
'You've had your day. You must make way'
But they'll never know the pain 
in living with a name you never owned, 
or the many years forgetting 
what you know too well
That the ones who gave the crown 
have been let down"

I picked the title of this essay from the remarkable Jeanette Dilger monologue in 90028, as it seems to be the strongest takeaway from the collected works of Hornisher available to view. In the dramatic presentations she made on film (and one intended thus), there are always people who are shown what little regard the outside possesses for them. The unaided runner, the objects of irrational hatred, the woman seen as potential murderer instead of potential casualty in AND ON THE SIXTH DAY; the soldier confronting the world's indifference to death, and maybe his own role in it, in THE SUN IS LONG; the black professional who is eternally someone else's snoop or exotic infatuation in HOME FREE!; the model as furniture and the photographer as machine in HOLLYWOOD 90028. In her short but potent creative period, Christina Hornisher made her characters, and ourselves, see what we sensed all along but really did not want to have confirmed. And to zoom out from her story into the multiple stories of creative women in Hollywood, we are constantly having our most upsetting sensations confirmed: in an industry even more than ever dominated by, as comedian Dana Gould once wrote, "Men in their 60's telling men in their 50's to hire men in their 40's to get men in their 30's to entertain men in their 20's," the image that far too many of these men carry of women in general, and women artists in particular, may not be obscene, but is often unrealistic, or worse, non-existent. Hornisher's statement in effect becomes prophecy, and soothsayers are rarely heeded in their own time.

Christina Hornisher, married to a respected working director whose three sons from a previous marriage all went into some aspect of film production as well, was certainly still able to immerse herself in an movie-centric environment and provide her wisdom to a receptive if smaller audience. Perhaps, on rare occasion, she still engaged in some aspect of the art form that she and so many other talented members of that 1966 UCLA class aspired to in their youth. Everyone whom I have had contact with about her, on and off the record, have spoken in grounded but glowing terms about her presence in their lives. Most likely, she was perfectly content in pursuits beyond show business. However, like the aforementioned Barbara Loden or Kathleen Collins, it is difficult to view this turn of events as being not so much a choice than a resignation. There is no reason why she could not have enjoyed all the comforts of family and other pursuits, and still been a valued artistic contributor, especially since almost all male directors and the luckier female ones are able to have both.

And in the years since that fateful New Beverly screening, attention is finally being paid to HOLLYWOOD 90028. Fresh appraisals from Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers programmer Chris Poggiali and fellow film historian Samuel B. Prime have been at the forefront. Thus I am here, adding to the advocacy, hoping this article helps put momentum into retrieving her film from the limbo it has sat in too long, or spurs UCLA and other organizations to showcase her work in the same manner by which they have honored other singular artists. Yet even on this small scale, it is sad that she could not be present to see fortune begin turning in her favor.

"Stars, they come and go
They come fast or slow
They go like the last light of the sun, 
all in a blaze, 
and all you see is glory
But those who've seen it all
live out their lives in sad cafes and music halls
We always have a story
So if you don't lose patience
with my fumbling around
I'll come up singing for you
even when I'm down"
-- Janis Ian

Photo from Find-a-Grave taken by James R. Mason of West Hollywood
Deep appreciation and thanks to the Collins family, Jean-Pierre and Sebastian Geuens, Christopher Augustine, Bob Murawski, David Szulkin, and Samuel B. Prime, for their ongoing assistance and support.


  1. Thanks for this fine essay. I saw this film as third on a three film bill at a drive in in Dayton Ohio as a teen. I expected fun trash, but was surprised at the deep art I found through a tired, slightly drunken haze (usual drive in atmosphere). I kept hunting for this film, but did not know its original title and only found it recently. It lived up to my distorted memory even more than I ever expected. It is a shame it is not better known.