22 February 2001

Knowing Dick--Plaster Caster, the documentary

The man who tends Cynthia Plaster Caster's mouth has the keenest insight into her art.

While Cynthia concedes that her lifelong "oral fixation" has a lot to do with her three-decade journey from groupie to honored "life cast" artist, her "accidental art form" has taken the shape of capturing-in casted form-the most masculine feature of rock musicians, including most notoriously, Jimi Hendrix. While Jessica Villines' keen, sidelong portrait of Cynthia is chockfull of diverse interviews with the likes of artist Ed Paschke and Camille Paglia defending Cynthia's pursuits, her dentist, Dr. Michael Feinberg, shares the keenest insight. Artists have fixated on features of the human form throughout history; Rodin liked hands, Cynthia Plaster Caster admires rocker's cocks.

As Plaster Caster premieres February 22 in a Chicago Underground Film Festival-sponsored showing, with its first of no doubt many festival screenings on March 8 as part of the New York Underground Film Festival, I sat down with Cynthia and Jessica this week to gauge their mood before the premiere.

A year's shooting elongated into two, with Jessica investing her own money and time to accumulate more than 200 hours of footage, working with producer and director of photography Jeff Economy, additional DP Ken Heinemann and producer and editor Brian Johnson. Both Cynthia and Jessica are pleased, as the two years of shooting offered a range of crises and mini-crises in Cynthia's life, leading up to the first gallery showing of "my sweet babies" at New York's Thread Waxing Space last summer. "Some of the best stuff we shot was at the end of the filming," Jessica says, including an interview with fellow rock-lover Pamela Des Barres and a priceless conversation with Eric Burdon. "All the major castings [in the film] took place in the last six months" as well. On their return to New York with the finished feature, Jessica has high hopes of getting meetings for a cable deal with HBO or Cinemax.

Part of Cynthia's charm, captured in Jessica's 102 minutes, is her genial deadpan, where statements like "I took classes in fistfucking" are as matter-of-fact as "Pass the sugar." Of one scene that will be among the film's more notorious, Cynthia's process of casting is shown with Demolition Doll Rods guitarist Dan Kroha, Cynthia says, "I had to stimulate him"--a job usually taken up by a "plater"--"I didn't know him, we did it partly in front of a camera, and that was cause of concern for a while."

Jessica adds, "We were shooting from across the room, and yeah, I was praying they would both forget we were there. It seemed to go pretty well."

Cynthia thinks for a moment and adds, "it's always pretty weird, having sex with a stranger." The interview process over the two years was simpler. Cynthia says she simply had to think, "I'm having a conversation with Jessica and Jeff today with a mike strapped to my butt. Sitting down and learning to not notice the bulge on my butt, that was the only problem."

As in the film, Cynthia's memories sometimes differ from the interviewees. I asked how they had met, how the film project had begun. "You remember it differently," Cynthia says. "My friend asked Jessica if she would give me a ride home from a show, and she very kindly did."

"I didn't have a car, then, so it was impossible," Jessica shrugs. What she remembers is that Cynthia had, in her amusing parlance, "popped the question" to Jessica's then-boyfriend, Duane Denison from the Jesus Lizard. "He didn't want to do it, I wanted him to do it," Jessica says, "but as a consequence of that, we would say hi to each other more often at parties and so on. We went to dinner and talked about it, and then we did the movie."

While rock stars and their penises have a certain built-in fascination, the greatest accomplishment of Plaster Caster is how it captures the daily life of someone practicing a singular art form. Cynthia, who has been working on-and-off on her autobiography for several years, says, "Oh, I wanted a documentary to be done on myself. The time is right. My life has come to a turning point. All these interesting weird things have been happening. My life is more interesting than I am, I think. It's gotten damn colorful recently. Two of the craziest years of my life, I'm glad she was around with a camera."

What has she gotten from it? "There's some self-discovery there, discovering things about myself I have to improve upon." She deadpans, of the material, used for dental molds but also for her castings, "I'm learning to mix alginates better."

Jessica says she was fascinated by how someone so apparently shy could get up the nerve to ask the near-seventy subjects of her collection to pose for her. (An opening scene captures Cynthia in her blushing glory, stammering as she tries to offer her tribute to Five Style guitarist Bill Dolan with camera crew in tow.) "I don't think I'm so much shy than retiring," Cynthia differs.

"Yeah," Jessica counters, "but you were scared pretty much all the way until we were editing that the film would have some kind of sensationalistic bullshit, some kind of ambush on somebody. I think once you saw the rough cut you were feeling better."

"I wasn't calling every day," Cynthia agrees. "But there was some footage, there was a certain person who I didn't think was that big a part of my life, who gratefully is not going to be in my fucking film. My... ex-thing..."

Jessica says, "I felt the movie was more about the artist. It's about demystifying the process, the creation. I especially think [this film] says something about the way a lot of men view female artists, 'Why isn't this woman married if she's in her fifties?' Why can't she be an independent strong woman who doesn't rely on a man. You're very independent. That's one of the things I admire about Cynthia."

Cynthia turns to Jessica, nodding toward the floor. "I love those pants, by the way. I told you that, didn't I?"

While Jessica has worked as a copywriter and written screenplays, I wondered how she had the confidence and perseverance to proceed with the film. How'd you have the balls?

"The tits," Cynthia offers. "The tits, exactly," Jessica says. "I understand story and structure. I just knew I could do it." She pauses. "Really, the main thing, it was my own money. I was in debt so much, well, let's bet the farm. Just shoot everything and hope the top half a percent makes a good film."

One thing that comes through loud and clear is that Cynthia wants to be the pursuer, for her own reason: it's less sexual than a tribute to someone's artistry. "I simply don't feature someone offering their penis to me. It tends to be someone whose penis I don't feel worthy of being captured. Those are always the type."

"That's what put you off about Gene Simmons," Jessica observes.

"You read my mind. I believe that Gene"--who tried repeatedly to get himself invited to the party -- "was giving me a gentle hint. You can't commission me to do it, you can't pay me to do it, you can't ask me. I'll ask."

Jessica says, "It's not a performance like a trained seal. Someone on the radio wanted her to cast him on the air. They just don't get it; it's not a shtick or a gag. A person into rock history should know about it being your taste and your vision."

"They should. Maybe they just gloss over that section of what they were reading," Cynthia says.

"As a woman, I see her work as very important," Jessica says. Some men see her work as "a competition, rather than artistic."

"I can kind of see those dicks through the pants," Cynthia laughs. "I sense smallness."

"I thought you said shyness, shyness is what you sense."

"Maybe. I haven't always had the opportunity to find out if I'm right or not!" She reflects, "it was all accidental art. Doing it to get laid [thirty years ago], coming around all the way to this. I ironically didn't get laid that much in the process, only lately. Very strange."

[Newcity, 22 February 2001]