‘The Girl with Black Balloons’ at Stranger Than Fiction

Corinne van der Borch: What do you want to be famous for?

Bettina: My work.

“Those are details from my different projects, each one represents an entire project,” says Bettina, the single and singular subject of The Girl with Black Balloons. The camera shows a wall full of photos and art, and Bettina too, as she sits inside the narrow confines of her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, small amid the many pieces of the project that is her life, cardboard boxes and lampshades and scarves and hats and mirrors and a travel clock. “I tried to get the same consciousness throughout the whole thing,” Bettina goes on, “because you’re looking for an umbilical cord. I tried to find all the parts and hang them up and see them together, so that I could show how one relates to another.”

As she speaks, the close frame helps you to glean the immensity of her art, or maybe the immensity of the art of her life. And you wonder how she’s come to see it, her art as her life, her life as art, ongoing. This question hangs over Corinne van der Borch’s documentary, more or less unanswered, and it figures as in Jeffrey Wengrofsky’s short, The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen. Both films screen 31 January at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with van der Borch and Bettina, as well as Wengrofsky and Taylor Mead. It’s easy to imagine their live conversations as next steps in the films they’ve made. This because both films present public personas as well as private-seeming reflections, performances and recollections.

Recorded in Mead’s Lower East Side tenement apartment, The Party in Taylor Mead’ Kitchen focuses for eight minutes or so on his face, while he drinks a bit and recalls his life as beat poet, troublemaker, and friend to Jack Kerouac and Andy Warhol, not to mention the star of Ron Rice’s underground film, The Flower Thief (1960) and Warhol’s Taylor Mead’s Ass (1964).

“I’m sitting on Jack’s lap,” he begins one story, “Jack Kerouac: I’m a namedropper.” When Kerouac tells Mead that they were “a husband and wife together in London in the 17th century,” Mead recalls how they spun out the story, imagining who played which role, specifically, that Kerouac was the husband. “He was so protective of his masculinity, even though he fucked everything,” says Mead. “So Jack and I were husband and wife. We never consummated it, we were consommé, pre-dinner, pre-orgy.”

This is, you see, the way Mead speaks. Every phrase and sentence points in another direction while also circling back to its start. Surrounded by cassette tapes, prescription pill bottles, and a photo of young Queen Elizabeth, Mead remembers yelling his “wildest poetry” over bikers in San Francisco bars: “I shouted down their obscenities, so I was in, totally in.” As Mead recalls it, he was celebrated by Tennessee Williams, who said, “‘All art is a scandal, life tries to be. Taylor Mead succeeds, I come close.’ Beautiful. It may go on my epigraph on my grave.”

But that’s not to say Mead dwells on his grave. Rather than focusing on endings, his memories open out into questions, like, What is the relationship between scandal and art? How is scandal or breakdown, isolation or rejection, an inevitable cost of art? Or is art, by definition, a means to refuse the status quo? Is mainstream acceptance or commodification always the end of art or might it be a beginning of something else?

The Party in Taylor Mead’s Kitchen

The Girl with the Black Balloons looks at similar questions. As van der Borch documents her evolving friendship with Bettina, locked away in her apartment for some 40 years, she sees her subject’s past and also her own possible future. “She seems so sure of her work,” the filmmaker narrates, “but it’s never seen the light of day. I’m drawn to her because of her devotion to her work, at the same time, I guess I’m afraid to end up like her, with boxes of films that no one’s ever seen.'”

Bettina’s boxes are filled with photos of herself as a young woman, photos she’s taken from her window looking down on passersby, as well as some images taken face to face, on sidewalks and in evocative interiors. She keeps dresses and shoes and a blue wig, makeup and papers, all scraps of the person she once was or might have been.

As Bettina recalls her decision to have an abortion years ago, not to get married, she observes, “I live in a totally different world, I feel badly, but my work should not have superseded family relations and then it became such a mess in that studio. Alone, it’s difficult.” When Bettina ends up in the hospital with a fractured leg, van der Borch films in handheld close-ups and a glance at the unrecognizable food delivered on a tray to her room. “I love my work,” Bettina says, prompting van der Borch’s projection: “I don’t believe that that’s the only thing you have ever loved and will love.” Bettina smiles, “I don’t know about ‘will love,’ but ‘loved.'”

And so the film becomes its own sort of work, as the women collaborate, Bettina granting van der Borch access and also gently instructing her. The film asks whether art needs to be public, needs an audience, to have meaning, and also how art affects individuals, artists and consumers, communities who find mirrors in culture, in the striking structures of the Chelsea Hotel, the busyness of city streets, the framed space offered by mirrors and lenses. As Bettina looks into van der Borch’s camera, she offers her own reading of the process and potential ends. “Let’s find out if you’re going to be true to yourself,” she says, “You will either develop a conscience, a soul and a conscience, that’s all you need. Until that time, just collect material and store it.” She laughs, barely.

RATING 8 / 10