High Art, With Lowbrow Appeal

Celebrated experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh is an anomaly even by the strict standards of the avant-garde, and "Peggy's Playhouse: A Peggy Ahwesh Retrospective," comprising six of her works spanning the past decade -- is a cultural space that's equally playful and provocative. Her subjects range from slacker subcultures -- a group of too-real Florida crackheads in Strange Weather (1993) -- to women telling jokes about sex (The Vision Machine, 1997) to Pixelvision horror narratives that combine footage from Mario Bava movies with text by the Marquis de Sade (Nocturne, 1998).

In her search for the essence of everyday life, Ahwesh mines both high art and the ragged aesthetic of exploitation. The Deadman (1990), for example, is based on a Georges Bataille short story but has the trashy, random look of a Doris Wishman film, with its heroine wandering mindlessly through a world of sex and murder. (Legendary '60s soft-core auteur Wishman is an acknowledged influence; 1990's The Color of Love is dedicated to her.) Films like The Color of Love, a dazzling 10-minute "rescued" hard-core loop that decoratively disintegrates before our eyes, seem calculated to provoke the bluenoses who obsess over such matters. But even when the material is inflammatory -- as in The Deadman, with its extensive nudity strip-bar orgy -- Ahwesh's cutting humor provides welcome leavening. The series begins Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is $3-6; call 978-2787.

-- Gary Morris

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