The actress/singer/performance artist Ann Magnuson has been involved in more aesthetic movements than just about anyone alive. She was part of the East Village art scene of the early ‘80s (running Club 57), acted in the Madonna film “Desperately Seeking Susan,” showed up in the indie-rock heyday of the ‘90s (with her band Bongwater), made numerous appearances on television, and has been on the edge of various visual-art and musical subcultures during her years in Los Angeles.
Her new album, “Dream Girl,” combines at least two of her specialties: Psychedelic-influenced punk rock and outlandish spoken word. She has a show scheduled at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles on September 17 and is part of a Club 57 exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art next year.
We spoke to Magnuson from her home in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You’ve been on the edge of the movie business for a long time, and one of the tracks on your album is about being trapped inside “a Judd Apatow-style bromance” in the Hollywood Hills, surrounded by Doritos and bad jokes. This is about a lot of things, but am I right that you think American movies are getting worse?
Oh yeah, isn’t that obvious to everybody? Isn’t that a no-brainer?
What’s gone wrong? What’s the worst of it?
I don’t really watch them — I see the trailer, and see the poster and I get it. Those stories just don’t speak to me. It’s like superhero movies — there are too many of them and they push out the possibility of a balance. I don’t ever go out to see commercial movies — they’re just not interesting to me. Very infrequently. We watch a lot of documentaries and — what do right-wingers call us, liberal-tards? — headier stuff. Sometimes I sneak in some more mindless entertainment.
My husband didn’t grow up with a television, and never went to see movies. He's very bookish. He has no tolerance for violence and stupidity. He’s been a really good influence on me.
I liked monster movies when they weren’t as sadistic. I remember trying to watch “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and got really turned off by where horror was going. I’d read too many books about Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. My friend in high school and I got obsessed with a book about the most horrific serial killers. I just read a couple of pages and said, I can’t read this. The guy “Psycho” was based on — Ed Gein — was another one.
You know, people really do this to other people. ISIS is another good example. This is not entertainment to me. Though I do understand there’s a need to work that out psychologically — through archetypes, monster movies, horror movies. That’s necessary. I’m not gonna condemn anyone. It just annoys me that certain genres have eclipsed the chance for anything else to emerge in commercial filmmaking.
And as someone who occasionally works as an actress, I have no interest in the female roles. I’m at the point now where I wouldn’t be cast as anything but the old hag, or the mother the men hate.
Do you still go after roles and get handed condescending ones?
I don’t know that I go after them… But I’ve kept a file of all the auditions I’ve gone on over the last 20 years, and made a monologue out of all the descriptions of the women. It’s horrific.
You’ve complained in the past about violence in movies. I think we’ve always had it, but violence used to be presented mostly as something that was unpleasant; now it’s played for fun, for laughs.
But violence has been part of literature and mythology from day one. If it’s put in its proper context… There was a documentary [about Indonesian death squads], “The Act of Killing.” I’m a big history buff so I read a lot about violence, particularly during World War II. So I don’t see it as something entertaining.
There are actually three incredible films about wars I think everyone should see. The first two are Russian — “Come and See” and “The Ascent,” made by the wife of the director of "Come and See.” And a Japanese film called “Fires on the Plain.” Those movies are intense. They’re difficult to watch. They’re realistic. And they don’t have a rock ’n’ roll soundtrack on them.
Let’s talk about rock ’n’ roll for a second, then. Your record is, among other things, a rock album. And you’ve sung David Bowie’s music live in the past. A lot of us are still reeling from his sudden disappearance. What did he and his music mean to you?
He was very much a hermit in the last several years. He was ill, obviously.
I think he represented the kind of artist who took chances. He went after fame with “Ziggy Stardust”; it took him a long time to get there. He wasn’t afraid to experiment with different styles, and when he got comfortable with one, he would change it. He was an artist who artists love — he was very inspiring and charted his own territory. He was also working with an archetype called The Cosmic Man, with archetype and personas. And funneling his own demons into his work.
I’m reading a book right now — I’m about two-thirds through it, called “Upping Your Ziggy.” It’s subtitled “How David Bowie Faced His Childhood Demons and How You Can Face Yours,” by the therapist Oliver James. It’s kind of a cheesy title, but it’s really a good book. It gets into the whole Jungian idea of the hero’s journey, the use of persona.
All theater artists, and the Greeks, used them, as a way to work through confusion about life. And your own childhood abuses or problems and all the cultural conditioning. We’re all working this out, in theater or painting or video. Or even bromances. Everything is a story we need to tell. We’re here playing it out. Why? Who knows? But Bowie was the personification of that, the way he wove so many stories out of his own interest and angst.