Sofia Vergara, Doll Parts + Dirty Looks: A Conversation with Film Curator Bradford Nordeen

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There’s articulate, and then there’s Bradford Nordeen. The independent film curator’s ability to fluently riff on cinema– whether it be short-form experimental works or mainstream blockbusters—is next level.

Nordeen is the independent curator behind lauded experimental queer cinema platform Dirty Looks and Dirty Looks: On Location, recent Outfest programming, and the Broad museum’s Doll Parts, created in conjunction with the Cindy Sherman exhibition, Cindy Sherman: Imitation of Life.

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Bradford Nordeen via Indiewire

Of the Doll Parts film series, he tosses off that the title, in reference to Sherman’s artistic practice, “works on so many levels,” including “the pejorative assignation of women’s roles.” I’ve barely had time to savor the linguistic precision of “pejorative assignation” as dropped into everyday speech before we’ve moved on to discussing cinema at large, when Nordeen, in a characteristic turn of thought-provoking curatorial expertise and endearing self-awareness says, “I see cinematic objects as organic entities… Wait, that sounds cheesy. I just moved to California, excuse me.”

Nordeen, however, may not totally ascribe to the idea of expertise — or rather, he may have a more nuanced definition of what it encompasses or the process by which it’s achieved.

“I see cinematic objects as organic entities… Wait, that sounds cheesy. I just moved to California, excuse me.”

We spoke over the phone on a recent morning, and one of the most inspiring themes to emerge from that conversation was Nordeen’s esteem for the concept of “novice viewing.” Nordeen “learned to love cinema from an experimental standpoint,” and yet for those of us who might be intimidated by the mere notion of experimental film, his curatorial practice is reassuringly approachable. Nordeen’s reference points run the gamut from seminal experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger to Nashville. (“I watch two or three episodes a night.”) As a curator, he “create(s) context,” cultural containers for film – experimental or otherwise – to be experienced by any viewer.

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #512

“I’m always trying to tear down people’s idea of hierarchy,” he says. As such Dirty Looks: On Location has screened in institutions such as museums and the NYPL, as well as galleries and bars.

In that vein, Nordeen appears to have channeled his inner novice through Doll Parts by working “associatively around the aesthetics and the politics” of Sherman’s work.

“I was really inspired by Cindy Sherman when I was kid growing up in Missouri, “ he says. “I really took to Sherman’s practice in a youthful way. I couldn’t quite suss out the details or politics until much later, but that’s one of the great things about Sherman’s practice. It’s visually striking and alluring, but there’s so much content therein. (Doll Parts) is a kind of accumulation of the interest and love of cinema…that I’ve been harboring most of my life.”

“…(Doll Parts) is a kind of accumulation of the interest and love of cinema…that I’ve been harboring most of my life.”

That love of cinema is engaged, reflective, and wide-ranging: Nordeen may be the independent curator behind some seriously high-art programming, but that doesn’t preclude him from finding the value in viewing mainstream movies with a critical (or purely pleasurable) lens. “People are always shocked by this,” he tells me, “but I watch every Hollywood movie that comes out. I ask Nordeen what he thinks of the concept of guilty pleasures. “I don’t have that for myself,” he says.

Case-in-point: Nordeen and I devote a decent portion of our phone call to discussing the universally panned comedy Hot Pursuit starring Reese Witherspoon and Sophia Vergara. (Not familiar? It racked up a cool seven percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I watched it on a plane.)

But while I’m smacking my chops at the prospect of tearing Hot Pursuit apart, Nordeen presents a lens through which to view what is ostensibly an appalling, “regressive film,” as a part of the discourse that we might engender around cinema. Nordeen ventures the perceptive idea that “mistakes are sometimes the best way to get at what’s driving a cultural moment.”

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #47

“You don’t know where you’re going to find the ideological kernel. It could come from a really privately crafted experimental film, or it could be a really startling, offensive, tacky, larger production that somehow catches glimpse of what’s happening in a cultural moment. Failure can be the most direct fount to a cultural sensibility… That can be really interesting…. I don’t believe in a good film or a bad film. Are there films I hate? Absolutely… (But) I think it’s disingenuous to hold one thing up and pull another one down.”

Just as I’m having my mind completely blown, and my entire understanding of the work of a critical viewer challenged, Nordeen inadvertently reminds me to take it all a little less seriously. “I love that we’re talking about this Sophia Vergara movie,” he blurts out.

Nordeen has particularly enjoyed the opportunity to offer melodrama within the Doll Parts programming. “It’s essentially not different at all from avant-garde film,” he says, palpably excited. He cites Doll Parts’ final installment, the 1959 Douglas Sirk film “Imitation of Life” starring Sandra Dee and Lana Turner, which screens on September 29th, as a fine example. “Overtness can literally grant physical shape to complex emotional or social ideas…it materializes abstract feelings.” Each previous screening has attracted a unique audience, he says; there are still tickets left as of this posting for the final event.

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92

His next exhibition, “Things: A Queer Legacy of Graphic Art and Play” opens September 17th at Plummer Park in West Hollywood, and features “object-making by non-object based artists,” ranging from Curt McDowell to Seth Bogart. A show of artists working outside of their medium strikes me as a fascinating entry point: it takes the concept of the “novice” and raises it up a notch. As for prospective attendees: “Meaning is made by the viewer,” Nordeen says, “It’s what we each bring to it.”

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