The Marina Experiment: reclaiming images of child abuse

Marina Lutz turned the lens in on her voyeur photographer father, but what did it achieve?

In 1996 Marina Lutz, a reformed heroin user, was tasked with cleaning out her dead parents' garage. She stumbled upon a vast archive of photographs, thousands of images taken by her photographer father Abbot Lutz which chronicled the first 16 years of her life. Some were sexually suggestive, while others hinted at an unsavoury obsession with his child. Lutz spent the following ten years sifting through the archive to compile a short film called The Marina Experiment "chronicling his view of me through my own digital video microphone," she told the Observer last weekend.

The 18-minute film has won nine awards worldwide -- everything from best documentary to best taboo film -- but it has divided opinion. Some see The Marina Experiment as compelling insight into her long-suffered abuse, others as a perversion of her father's art -- that in reversing the lens, Lutz portrays only the most controversial of images and without their context. But surely that there are so many photos is protest to Lutz's suffering.
Brutally cut, she lays bare the secrets of her abuse, denouncing her father through her own mortification. There are pictures of Lutz as child in her pants, on the toilet, and one where she's innocently touching her genitals.

The images are vulnerable, uncomfortably raw and captivating. By contrast, Lutz's edit and voiceover is brash, bordering on crude. The trailer for The Marina Experiment II -- the second installment of her film -- opens with Hollywood action movie music. "When it came to leaving behind 16 years of evidence you picked the wrong gal," Lutz intones, as though she's moments from unveiling a lethal dose of retribution -- which, of course, is her intention.

She lists a string of charges for which she believes her father is guilty: from "routine spanking" to "latent paedophilia". Lutz narrates the images with a quiet, restrained fury that makes her voice seem lethargic: Marina in the bathroom, in a bikini by the pool -- her bottom jiggling and played on a loop as she prepares to leap off a diving board. There were 10,000 photos to choose from, buried in the "rats' nest" of her parents' garage. So why does Lutz pick only a handful and show them over and over? Does she revisit the worst of her ordeal out of catharsis? Or is she trying to make the most of the archive's suggestive nature, pulling together those stray shots, captured in the indiscriminate flutter of the lens?

Lutz told the Observer she wanted to evoke the sensation of returning to the pain she felt when she began to sift through the vast archive. "I used the repetition because that's how it felt going through the archive. I kept finding the same thing and it kept hurting and hurting me. It felt right." It's a disturbing collection. It's not the images' content that build a case against a predatory father, it's the sheer number of them, sexually suggestive or otherwise. It's "the way you feel when someone's standing too close to you" as Lutz puts it: Abbot invading her space, her privacy and chalking his own daughter up to an art installation.

Lutz has been applauded for her debut film making efforts, and yet I wonder if it's enough. The work of art might be held together by her words and edit but the evidence is of his making and it comes highly acclaimed. We're not enthralled by the music or the PowerPoint fonts: it's the awful voyeurism, the concept that someone might have violated his daughter's privacy so fervently. Is it her father's cruel ambition realised?

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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear