Leslie Thornton (filmmaker)

Leslie Thornton (born 1951) is an American avant-garde filmmaker and artist.


Leslie Thornton was born in 1951 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Schenectady, New York.[1] Both her father and grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project, but due to the project's high level of secrecy, neither knew of the other's involvement until many years later. Thornton learned as an adult, and as a result the atomic bomb and themes of apocalypse appear in some of her works (most notably, Peggy and Fred in Hell and Let Me Count the Ways, Minus 10, 9, 8, and 7...).[2][3] She first developed an interest in film as a teenager when she frequented experimental cinema screenings at her local Unitarian Church in Schenectady.[1] Attending Tufts University as an undergraduate from 1969 until 1971, Thornton then transferred to the State University of New York at Buffalo where she studied painting under Seymour Drumlevitch and film under Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Stan Brakhage, and Peter Kubelka.[4] After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting at SUNY-Buffalo in 1973, she continued on to graduate work. Thornton earned a Master of Fine Arts in Painting from The Hartford Art School in 1976, and then studied film at the graduate level at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975 under Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus.[1][5] Currently she works as a professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University and teaches at the European Graduate School. She lives in both Providence, Rhode Island, and New York City with her partner, artist and scholar Thomas Zummer.[4][6]

Art practiceEdit

Thornton began painting as a teenager, during "a period of Minimalism moving into Conceptualism." She recalls that lineage as a prominent part of her own work, where visually, "The paintings were moving towards white but there was some kind of grid that kept being laid down and re-established."[7] Scholar Thomas Zummer characterizes those early paintings through their grids: "Thornton's paintings organized a sensual, expressionist hand into strict formal geometric mappings. These works begin with a painterly sensuality set within and against a series of structural grids, so that there is a constant between expressivity and the ineffable."[8] But as her practice developed, he notes, "Painting was a vessel incapable of the containment of the sensate. Language, gesture, emotion the random and inexplicable things and occurrences of the world were among her subjects; painting seemed insufficient. It was a matter of finding an appropriate instrument for her investigations".[2] Painting's insufficiency led Thornton to her first venture in filmmaking, X-TRACTS, in 1975 while studying painting at the Hartford School of Art (though she was familiar with film theory from her undergraduate coursework at SUNY-Buffalo).[7] After graduating, she abandoned painting in favor of filmmaking, which felt to her, despite Zummer's claims, entirely unrelated to her previous practice: "I dropped thinking of what I had been doing with painting once I started the process of making film. I didn't draw comparisons though I probably could now, if I thought about it." Filmmaking has dominated her work since this transition, though she recently began painting again as a hobby.[7]

Thornton's filmography includes 16mm, video, HD video, HDV, digital video and 2K video. Employing archival materials, text, found footage and soundtrack, the body of work as a whole explores themes of language, childhood, nuclear war, technology, ethnography, seriality and narrative structure.[9] These themes have been collectively described as "an investigation in the production of meaning through media."[10] In her words, "I see myself as writing with media, and I position the viewer as an active reader, not a consumer. The goal is not a product, but shared thought."[11] Throughout her career, Thornton has received significant critical acclaim for her work—particularly for her serial Peggy and Fred in Hell, and was the only woman experimental filmmaker included in Cahiers du cinema's "60 Most Important American Directors" issue.[12][13] In addition to acclaim from critics, Thornton has received many awards and her work is included in the collections of many museums.

Peggy and Fred in HellEdit

Thornton's first widely-recognized and perhaps still best-known work is the epic serial Peggy and Fred in Hell.[14] The project began as she was moving into a new apartment in San Francisco and the two children who lived upstairs, Janis and Donald Reading, came to offer help. While carrying her things, they saw the film equipment and wanted to be recorded (the resulting material would eventually become part of the serial's first episode, Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue).[4] Thornton immediately fell in love with their performance and chose them as the protagonists for her then-upcoming Peggy and Fred in Hell. In a 1990 essay that acts as a descriptive companion to the serial, "We Ground Things, Now, On a Moving Earth", Thornton describes the premise where a camera tracks two children "raised by television" who live in a "post-apocalyptic splendor," "adrift in the detritus of prior cultures."[15] These children, Peggy and Fred, wander through Hell (filmed primarily in California, but also across the United States) and fill their time learning "how to make avocado dip, getting lost in their own house, receiving imaginary phone calls and death threats, deciding what things are for," and monitoring the television sets that fill their homes.[15] Though the Readings' performances before the camera are unscripted, Thornton provides them with "a fictional construct…having been told only their names, that they are adults, that this is their house, that they are hungry.”[15] The conditions result in improvisations that Thornton calls "a true interaction in a fictionalized environment."[15] Recorded between 1981 and 1988, the footage of the children was then taken to the editing room where Thornton spliced their improvisations with archival materials, including but not limited to creation myths recorded by Franz Boas, excerpts from the Bible, outtakes from Universal newsreels, B-roll of factories from the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Edison’s archive, raw footage from the moon landing, and weather radar tapes.[15]

The resulting works were released between 1984 and 2013 in a series of 17 episodes, which range in time from two to 20 minutes each, in format from 16 mm film to analog video to digital video, and are almost entirely in black and white with the exception of a short clip in from the 1996 episode Whirling.[16] Later episodes introduced a variety of digital effects, including text crawls, graphic overlays, and rippling images.[17] Thornton emphasizes the serial's "modular format," and encourages that the episodes be played in any order or simultaneously.[17] The themes in the serial as a whole include science fiction, ethnography, language acquisition, narrative form, the convergence of technology and the human consciousness, and the history of American cinema.[17][18] She referred to the project as "ongoing and open-ended" until the release of The Fold in 2013.[19]

Critics have praised Peggy and Fred in Hell since its beginning in 1984. Both The Village Voice and Cahiers du Cinema placed the serial on their "Best Films of the Year: 1989" lists, and Senses of Cinema included it on their "50 Best films of 2004" (for the version Peggy and Fred in Hell: Beginning, Middle, End). The Pacific Film Archive began a restoration of a final-cut iteration of the serial in 2008.[20] Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has praised Thornton's work elsewhere, called Peggy and Fred in Hell both "highly idiosyncratic and deeply creepy," and "the most exciting recent work in the American avant-garde, a saga that raises questions about everything while making everything seem very strange."[16]


Legend Part of Peggy and Fred in Hell
Year Title Format Length
1974 Face S-8mm 10 minutes Color; silent
1975 X-TRACTS 16mm 9 minutes Black-and-white
1976 All Right You Guys 16mm 16 minutes Black-and-white
1977 Howard 16mm 30 minutes Black-and-white
1977 Fiddlers in May 16mm 28 minutes Color; produced for CPTV
1979 Minutiae 16mm 55 minutes Color
1981 noexitkiddo 16mm 30 minutes Color
1981 Jennifer, Where Are You? 16mm 10 minutes Color
1983 Oh, China, Oh 16mm 3 minutes Black-and-white
1984 Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue 16mm 21 minutes Black-and-White
1987 1,001 Eyes Multimedia Installation
1987 She Had He So He Do He To Her 16mm 5 minutes Color
1987 Peggy and Fred in Kansas 16mm; video 11 minutes Black-and-white
1988 There Was An Unseen Cloud Moving Video 60 minutes Color
1988 Peggy and Fred and Pete Video 23 minutes Sepia; black-and-white
1989 [Dung Smoke Enters The Palace] 16mm; video 16 minutes Black-and-white
1993 Introduction to the So-Called Duck Factory 16mm; video 7 minutes Black-and-white
1993 Strange Space Video 4 minutes Color; co-produced with Ron Vawter
1994 The Last Time I Saw Ron Video 12 minutes Color
1996 Whirling 16mm 2 minutes Black-and-white
1996 The Problem So Far 16mm; video 7 minutes Black-and-white
1996 Old Worldy Video 30 minutes Black-and-White
1997 ...or lost 16mm 7 minutes Color
1998 The Haunted Swing Video 16 minutes Color
1999 Another Worldy 16mm 24 minutes Color
1999 Chimp For Normal Short 16mm 7 minutes Sepia
2000 Bedtime Video 4 minutes Black-and-White
2000 Quickly, Yet Too Slowly' Multimedia Installation Installation (in Presumés Innocent, Musée d'art contemporain de Bordeaux, France, June 8-October 1, 2000)
2001 Have a Nice Day Alone 16mm; video 7 minutes Black-and-White
2001 The Splendor Video 2 minutes Black-and-White
2002 Document of an Installation Video 6 minutes Black-and-White; color
2002 Bedtime v.2 Video 7 minutes Black-and-White
2002 Peggy and Fred on Television Video Single channel variant; 105 minutes Black-and-White; color; sepia
2002 The 10,000 Hills of Language Multimedia Installation Installation
2003 Paradise Crushed Video 7 minutes Black-and-White
2003 Origin Video 4 minutes Color
2003 Temporary Modern Video 4 minutes Color
2004 Let Me Count the Ways, Minus 10, 9, 8, and 7... Video 20 minutes Color
2005 End in A New World HDV 3 minutes Color
2005 Photography is Easy Video 5 minutes Color
2006 Sahara Mojave HDV 11 minutes Color
2006 Let Me Count the Ways: Minus 6 HDV 1 minutes Black-and-white
2006 Data Tent Multimedia Installation Multimedia
2007 As the World Turns HDV 3 minutes Color
2007 Sahara Mojave (version 2) HDV 12 minutes Color
2007 Minus 9 Multimedia Installation Multimedia
2006 The Expiration Video 2 minutes Color
2008 Novel City Video 7 minutes Color
2009 BOB-BOB Video Installation Color
2009 ((((( ))))) HD Video 9 minutes Color
2010 Photography is Easy (version 2) Video 6 minutes Color
2010 Binocular Video installation Installation Color
2010 Golden Eyes HD Video 3 minutes Color
2010 Migrating Forms Trailer HD video loop 1 minutes Color
2011 Twice Removed HD video 11 minutes Color
2012 SONGS One Two Three HD video 14 minutes Color
2013 SNAPS: Elephant Pair HD video 2 minutes Color
2013 SNAPS: Oil/Air 2K video 2 minutes Color
2013 LUNA 1905 HD video 5 minutes Black-and-white
2013 LUNA Snow HD video 2 minutes Color
2013 LUNA Heaven HD video 8 minutes Color
2013 Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Fold Digital projection; stacks of CRT monitors 95 minutes Color; sepia; black-and-white
2013 The Fold Digital video 2 minutes Color; black-and-white
2013 LUNA Trance Video triptych with installation environment 12 minute loop Color
2013 The Animates: Oil/Air/Water 2K video 7 minutes Color
2013 Philosophers Walk on the Sublime Digital video 16 minutes Color
Ongoing The Great Invisible 16mm; HD video 90 minutes Color; production began in 2002
Ongoing What I Learned of China From The Sky Multi-screen digital video installation Installation Color


Thornton has received many awards for her film and video work throughout her career, including:[21]

Collections and representationEdit

Thorton is represented by the Winkleman Gallery in New York, New York and Unit 17 in Vancouver, Canada and distributed by Elisabeth de Brabant, the DIA Foundation, Video Data Bank, Electronic Arts Intermix, Women Make Movies, New York Film Makers Co-op, Light Cone, and LUX. In addition to numerous private collections, Thornton's pieces are in the collections of the following institutions:[21]

Further readingEdit

  • Adams, Sitney P., "The End of the 20th Century”, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, 3rd edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002
  • Arthur, Paul, "Lost and Found: American Avant-Garde Film in the Eighties", A Passage Illuminated: the American Avant-garde Film, 1980-1990, Amsterdam: Stichting Mecano, 1991
  • Doane, Mary Anne, "In the Ruins of the Image: The Works of Leslie Thornton", Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks, ed. Robin Blaetz, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007
  • Doane, Mary Anne, “The Retreat of Signs and the Failure of Words: Leslie Thornton’s Adynata”, Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, New York: Routledge, 1991
  • Halter, Ed. "Hell is for Children", Artforum, September 2012
  • Russell, Catherine, “Archival Apocalypse: Found Footage as Ethnography”, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video, Durham: Duke University Press, 1999
  • Russell, Catherine, “The Ethnographic Impulse in the Films of Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, and Leslie Thornton", The New American Cinema, ed. Jon Lewis. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998
  • Thornton, Leslie, "We Ground Things, Now, On a Moving Earth", "Motion Picture", Volume 3, No. 1, 1990
  • Thornton, Leslie, “The Extent of My Ignorance So Far”, Outsider: Films on India 1950-1990, ed. Shanay Jhaveri, Mumbai: The Shoestring Publisher, 2009
  • Voorhuis, Nelly, "The Works of Leslie Thornton", Andere Sinema, 1992
  • Wees, William C., "Carrying On: Leslie Thornton, Su Friedrich, Abigail Child and American Avant-Garde Film in the Eighties”, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Volume 10, No. 1, 2002
  • Wees, William C., "No More Giants", Women & Experimental Filmmaking, ed. Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wright Wexman, Chicago: University of Illinois, 2005

External linksEdit


  1. ^ a b c "Leslie Thornton". Women Make Movies. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  2. ^ a b Senses of Cinema – Leslie Thornton
  3. ^ Halter, Ed (September 2012). "Hell Is for Children" (PDF). ArtForum: 516–521. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c Molina, Feliz Lucia. "Interview with Leslie Thornton". Bomb Magazine. Bomb Magazine. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  5. ^ "Leslie Thornton's curriculum vitae" (PDF). Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  6. ^ Leslie Thornton Biography, European Graduate School
  7. ^ a b c http://bombmagazine.org/article/6853/ Interview with Leslie Thornton by Feliz Lucia Molina in Bomb Magazine
  8. ^ Doane, Mary Ann. "In the Ruins of Image: The Works of Leslie Thornton", Women’s Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks, ed. Robin Blaetz: 245
  9. ^ "Leslie Thornton Biography". Brown University. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  10. ^ http://www.eai.org/artistBio.htm?id=418 Leslie Thornton biography, Electronic Arts Intermix
  11. ^ "Leslie Thornton". Electronic Arts Intermix. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  12. ^ WOMEN MAKE MOVIES | Leslie Thornton
  13. ^ LESLIE THORNTON: 'Binocular' – The New York Times
  14. ^ Silas, Susan. "The Kaleidoscopic Visions of Leslie Thornton". Hyperallergic. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  15. ^ a b c d e Thornton, Leslie (1990). "We Ground Things, Now, On a Moving Earth". Motion Pictures. 3 (1): 13–15.
  16. ^ a b Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Complete Cycle". Jonathan Rosenbaum. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  17. ^ a b c Halter, Ed (September 2012). "Hell Is for Children" (PDF). Artforum: 514–521.
  18. ^ "Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue". Electronic Arts Intermix. Retrieved April 27, 2015.
  19. ^ "Peggy and Fred in Hell: The Prologue". Electronic Arts Intermix. Retrieved April 28, 2015.
  20. ^ "Leslie Thornton's curriculum vitae" (PDF).
  21. ^ a b http://assets-p.artcat.com/file_uploads/file_asset/asset/12e3530ef4520da325d281a4d985f598e1ec1c98/a68e28e384dec3dad459a569c329613b.pdf Leslie Thornton's curriculum vitae