During one of my incognito Sacred Heart Catholic Church field trips with my Aunt Greta, visiting from the Arizona desert, I received a mild scolding—albeit not from immediate family, who would have flipped out had they known my father’s sister had smuggled me into one of those Catholic churches. Rather, it was from Greta herself, who corrected my venial sin: in being transfixed by the statues of the Infant of Prague (a toddler Jesus in drag), Our Lady of Sorrows (Mother Mary with seven knives jabbed into her chest), and Teresa of Avila (she of Lorenzo Bernini’s orgasmic ecstasy), I made the mistake of saying: “It’s cool that your church has such weird imagery, worships women, and you don’t have to worship Jesus.” Greta very quickly and sternly pointed out to me: “We do worship Jesus, and we don’t worship Mary or Teresa. We venerate them.” In hindsight, and putting aside that I was in my teens that was probably the first time I became vaguely conscious of a latent (although denied by some) connection between feminism and blue-collar Catholic Surrealism.
The films of Daina Krumins have these qualities, and more. As with most Krumins followers, I was introduced to her via The Divine Miracle (1972). I can’t recall where I first saw it, but it was in the late seventies, and Aunt Greta’s parish icons immediately called to mind Krumins’s film. Another weird image that I had cemented at the time, mixing my mythologies, was from a TV documentary about the suicide of George “Adventures of Superman” Reeves, in which the narrator described the late actor’s devoutly Catholic mother going to the crime scene and placing holy cards of saints on all the blood stains and bullet holes in the room (the narration was accompanied by eccentric flashing images of devotional postcards). The reason I reference the latter is that there’s something of a holy cards-on-bloodstains texture to Krumins’ work.
Krumins was born in 1947 in a Munich refugee camp. Her family immigrated to the U.S.A. Like her mother, Krumins suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Fortunately, her father, who was an accomplished photographer, and her uncle, a Latvian painter, encouraged her early creative eccentricities, which included collecting metal shavings, wax teeth, snakes in formaldehyde, jellyfish, and crabs. Ignoring her teachers’ advice to be more social and pursue a normal life, Krumins received her BFA at the NYU Film School, followed by an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and found employment as a rotoscoper with Lookout Mountain Films. Images from her art and film can be viewed on the filmmaker’s website).
Krumins is a New Jersey resident and has been described as a “homegrown Surrealist.” That description suggests something coming from the earth, which is apt. Krumins refers to her film, photographs, woodwork, and sculpture as preoccupations with textures. To date, she has completed a total of four films,spending anywhere from nine to seventeen years working on each.
The Divine Miracle, which runs approximately six minutes, was the film that made her reputation, winning a total of thirteen awards including first place at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and the Silver Hugo Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. The Divine Miraclewas shown on PBS and frequently made the rounds of art museums.
In some quarters, The Divine Miracle, with its embrace of surreal kitsch, was erroneously assessed as a parody of Christianity. Krumins, raised Lutheran, disagrees, saying that she believed in all the fantasy world miracles from Sunday school.
For those accustomed to youthful portrayals of Christ (i.e. Jeffrey “I was a teenage Jesus” Hunter in 1961’s King of Kings) John Tyler’s stiff, gray-bearded Christ might prove disconcerting, but the portrayal is in step with 1927’s silent King of Kings, which featured H.B. Warner in his mid-fifties, with the charisma of a cardboard-cutout messiah. It’s also in step with the late, overtly religious work of Salvador Dali, which many critics dismiss as kitsch. Actually, apart from his work in the medium of film and still photography, Dalí’s late, semi-orthodox work is his best, its kitsch quality rendering it even more authentically surreal. Krumins, being a more substantial Surrealist than Dali, takes that surreal quality further, crowning her middle-aged savior with a Gustav Klimt-like golden halo and literally outlining him with bold, thick, opaque lines, as if he just stepped out of a hole-in-the-wall Catholic shop coloring book.
Tyler’s Jesus has the most bizarre sycophant disciples ever committed to celluloid: mop-topped bodiless cherubs (just a head and wings, all played by Scott Martin) who encircle their master like horseflies buzzing round a field cow (which, come to think of it, is sacrificially befitting). Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross is followed by an ascension, which looks like a Georges Melies’ Trip To The Moon (1902). In roughly six minutes, Krumins says, and gets right, what other filmmakers have failed to accomplish in three-plus hours. Her film is honest about the idiosyncratic tenets of Christian mythology and, ironically enough, this most Catholic of all films was made by an American Protestant.