Curtain call: Nao Bustamante's latest work, the second to be featured at Sundance, tracks Jack Smith s movie queen muse, the 1940s movie star Maria Montez.

Nao Bustamante's 'Silver and Gold' in Park City

Glen Helfand January 19, 2010

The late, great underground filmmaker Jack Smith was all about the strange sway classic Hollywood movies, particularly obscure stars and low-budget but still opulent art direction, have had on our psyches. By extension, his works, like the horrifying, amazing 1963 Flaming Creatures, have had their own way of bewitching all manner of artists by crossing lines of gender, fantasy, and decorum and d‚cor–a recipe that recently has fueled numerous academic conferences and performance festivals. You can see aspects of Smith in Warhol, and Cindy Sherman, David Lynch, Nan Goldin, George Kuchar, and Matthew Barney have all admitted their aesthetic debt to Smith.

But none quite as directly, or with as many rhinestones, as performance-based San Joaquin Valley-raised artist long familiar to San Franciscans, Nao Bustamante. Her latest work (to be performed live in New Frontiers), the second to be featured at Sundance, tracks Smith’s movie queen muse, the 1940’s Latin seductress Maria Montez. In Silver and Gold, Bustamante ponders a provocative question: What if Smith had actually directed Montez?

The result fuses performance art and a lush, colorful video (with the help of director of photography Ava Berkofsky) into a form Bustamante dubs "filmformance." One medium informs the other. Bustamante looked at old Montez films like"Arabian Nights, the 1942 film that provided the music and dramatic trajectory for a "shadow dance" sequence in the performance. The cinematic source also fueled the performer’s own movie dreams. “I think it gave me permission to work on this crazy accent and emboldened me to act out my own fantasies of being the queen, in charge of my realm,” she says.

It is quite a landscape, filled with abundant lilac boughs, jeweled penises, and an overall sense of peculiar enchantment. Genders morph, things time shifts, and attempted suicide is oddly comical. All of which seems to be under the influence of the movies. “When I perform, I see myself in a movie, and so I think the actual movie, adds to setting up the character,” Bustamante says. “When I watch the film on the screen and give a live voiceover, in that moment I’m on stage, entering an ecstatic state.” And so are we.