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Dominic Clarke

I Must Confess: Curt McDowell and the Essay-Film

Dominic Clarke


The essay-film places the I in front of the eye. A filmmaker driven to understand something previously ungraspable about their own inner-workings chooses to put some part of their being on display. Whether through a question (or questions) posed to others or a previous internal pondering being worked out, the filmmaker is reflecting on their own problem or desire to understand something. Curt McDowell was an underground filmmaker and two of his films, Confessions (1971) and Loads (1980), are exemplary of his experimentation, and call on the form of the essay-film in the guise of pornographic depictions and experimental cinema. While many critics tend to label the films, especially Loads, as pornography, the films are focused on McDowell’s own internal workings and his desire to understand himself, his attractions, his relationship with his friends and family and his queer identity, all of which suggest an essayistic impulse to these works. In this way, Confessions and Loads are different from McDowell’s other films. In them, McDowell becomes the focus and these are his own inquisitions of himself. McDowell’s work is consistently original, but with Confessions and Loads he made starkly personal films, stepping away from the gross-out humor and camp he sometimes utilized.

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