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Close-up video still of a performer in a burgundy bobbed wig
Close-up video still of a performer in a burgundy bobbed wig

A still from Charles Atlas, "Son of Sam and Delilah" (1991), video, 26:59 min, color, sound. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

“I hate faggots.”

A white male face fills the frame. He’s wearing a button-up shirt, and begins a homophobic rant that quickly veers into Islamophobia. The rage and intensity of his speech build until a shot rings out and blood erupts from the man’s mouth, splattering the camera lens. Another shot: a woman, framed from behind, gazing upon a theater backdrop that’s been crudely painted with a statue of a jovial deity. A note from a piano sounds, and she pivots to reveal herself to be a drag queen. We cut back to the dead man: more gore flows from his mouth, pooling in rivulets on the table in front of him. A rottweiler barks.

This abrasive mélange of scenes makes up the first two minutes of Son of Sam and Delilah (1991), a pivotal title in the five decade-plus career of Charles Atlas, which began with 16mm and video compositions produced within the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (the two-screen Torse (1977), green-screen Blue Studio: Five Segments (1976) and monitor-based Fractions I I (1978), etc.). He would later collaborate with Yvonne Rainer, Marina Abromovic, Douglas Dunn, Karole Armitage, and—importantly for the evolution that would beget Son of Sam and Delilah—Michael Clark. Son of Sam marked a key departure from Atlas’s earlier, more documentation-centered works, however. Where prior titles emerged from creative dialogues with a central performer or choreographer, this piece didn’t grow from a one-on-one collaboration. And the dancing we see on screen tends towards casual club-style movement, rather than elevated choreography.

Son of Sam and Delilah is a narrative woven together from a series of scenes improvised with a trusted community of creative club performers. As the title suggests, some sequences feature them playing New York serial killer Son of Sam (David Berkowitz), who was indicted for eight shootings in the summer of 1977 and claimed demonic communion with his neighbor’s dog. Others riff on the biblical tale of Samson, the chosen man of God, whose love, the Philistine temptress Delilah, strips him of his power by shearing off his long mane of hair. These images pulse across other scenes in the 27 minutes of videotape that might first appear wholly inchoate, gratuitous, or senseless. Yet they dialectically build, creating a piqued space of celebratory release and loss through emotive association: a leather-clad biker (Son of Sam) roughhousing with his dog; a drag queen (Delilah) singing opera; two avant-garde dancers in slips hacking violently at life-sized dummies with cleavers; another drag queen burning toast. It’s a classic cut-up. Meaning arrives in the interstices, as we piece together all of this discord.

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