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[whitespace] Casting Call

New documentary looks at the odd rock totems of Cynthia Plastercaster

By Gina Arnold

CYNTHIA PLASTERCASTER is a Chicago-based part-time office worker who likes to describe herself as an artist. But unlike most of us plebes, she happens to have had a very interesting past. In her youth, she lightheartedly began a project to cast the erect penises of her favorite rock stars in bronze and plaster--a process that incloudes packing the (temporarily) hardened organ in cold dental alginates in order to make a mold and then carefully picking the pubic hairs of said organ out of the mixture.

Now, you might think that Cynthia, who was 18 when she began this goofy endeavor, wouldn't have gotten a whole lot of volunteers for models, but you'd be wrong. She enlisted masses--and still does.

Some of her older replicas include the privates of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Burdon, Jeff Beck and members of the MC5, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Newer ones come from slightly less exalted musicians, including Momus, Jon Langford of the Mekons, Ronnie Barrett of the Muffs, Jello Biafra and members of Ministry and the Revolting Cocks.

Cynthia lost possession of her sculptures for many years (they were being "cared for" by Frank Zappa's manager) but won them back in a lawsuit in 1993. Since then, she has become something of a public figure and feminist icon around Chicago.

Now there is a documentary, simply titled Plastercaster, about her remarkable 30-year-project. It premiered last week at the San Francisco Independent Documentary Film Festival to great acclaim, and no wonder. Few films capture so effortlessly such an odd dimension of rock culture. It's a keeper and will doubtless be shown in repertoire theaters for the next 20 years at least.

Plastercaster follows Cynthia around as she prepares for her first public exhibit of her work, at the Threadwaxing Space in New York City last June. It also lets us watch her approach, interview and, finally, cast various local Chicago rockers, including Bill Dolan of the band 5Style and a guy from a more obscure outfit called the Demolition Doll Rods.

Unfortunately, casting penises is a process that goes wrong more often than not--either the organ loses its shape or the alginates go funky. Many of Cynthia's attempts have to be aborted, but that doesn't make the movie any less amusing. Quite the contrary.

The Plastercaster Project has evolved a lot over the years. In the '60s, the whole idea must have seemed kookier, but more natural, at least to the subjects, who weren't averse to having their penises fondled and revered by two 18-year-old girls (Cynthia and her assistant, Diane, who did most of the "plating," or arousal, via mouth, of the object in question).

TODAY'S SUBJECTS clearly have a different take on the situation. They consider Cynthia's interest in this aspect of them in a more historic light, as if having a sculpture of their male member in a collection alongside Jimi Hendrix's somehow makes their music as good as Hendrix's--or something like that.

Indeed, Plastercaster shows a bottomless well of male penile pride that is amazing to observe. As one young girl visiting the exhibit at the Threadwaxing gallery says to the camera, "There's all these guys in there standing by statues of their own wieners really proud and stuff." What are we to make of that?

According to art critic Ed Paschke, what we are to think is that Cynthia Plastercaster's art is "a filtration system in which you are processing the raw ingredients of your life and your time and making something of it--imposing permanence on something transitory."

Feminist thinker and critic Camille Paglia has an even heavier take: "[In] the overtly totemistic way that she treated the erect penis and the ritualistic approach that she made to the rock stars ... there was a rebirth of tribal thinking and pagan practice."

These learned comments don't sound quite so dopey upon viewing a bunch of guys proudly thrusting their manhood into a coffee can full of goo--or handling the resulting cast with ill-kept pride and interest. She might not be a genius, but Cynthia Plastercaster certainly got men's numbers when she thought of a way for them to fetishize their own penises.

As for being an artist? As long as she is serious enough about her project not to mass-produce millions of images of Hendrix's penis to be sold in head shops all over the country, she has earned that title in my book.

And therein lies the rub. Although it's easy to see the value of a statue of Jimi Hendrix's erect penis--think what it would garner on eBay!--it's difficult to understand how that of Jon Langford (much as I like his music) or the Demolition guy has any value whatsoever.

Plus, what started out as a really funny, slightly pragmatic and unintentionally arty '60s prank is now just kind of sad: at age 50-plus, Cynthia seems to cast fewer and fewer "important" penises, and more and more random ones, merely to stay active in the music scene. But maybe that's the underlying point. After all, what is an "important" penis? Aren't they all equally important, in terms of what they symbolize in the rock biz?

Sex, Drugs and Credit

PLASTERCASTER is a must-see for anyone with an interest in rock culture, because it exposes so many truths about celebrity, music, ego, even life. It shows us one more aspect of the soft, white underbelly of rock--and so did many of the entries in this year's documentary festival, including An Incredible Simulation (about tribute bands), The Nihilist Spasm Band (about a band of geriatric noisemakers) and El Rey De Rock & Roll (about Hispanic Elvis impersonator El Vez).

Together, these types of documentaries are building a wonderfully well-rounded picture of the nooks and crannies of rock & roll's place in American culture. The importance of such a project was brought home to me the other day when I opened my mail.

You know those credit card proposals for new cards that one receives every few days or so? They used to tout tempting lines of credit--2.9 percent or something like that--but now they're on a different tack altogether. Last week, I got one offering a card that "celebrates puppies and kittens," by depicting them in all their fluffy glory on the card itself. This week, I got one that evoked "classic rock," whatever that is.

There were five styles of cards. One showed a keyboard with some fingers on it, one showed a guitar fretboard (sans fingers), two showed anonymous male singers with their heads thrown back and their mouths agape, and one just showed a shadowy scene of arms thrown upward in an arena, presumably cheering on a superstar or other.

They were all anonymous. Apparently, except for Elvis (for which there is a separate line of credit card designs), not even Sting has the nerve to customize himself in that particular way, although he might be considering it even as we speak.

One can only assume that these cards are like those ads for Ginzu knives and 20 greatest hits from the '70s for $19.99 that you see on TV--someone must be buying them, or they wouldn't still be in business. But it really makes me wonder. What set of values and emotions are these soft-lit pictures of balladeers and flick lighters held aloft supposed to be appealing to?

The ad advises, "Choose a card as individual as you are." But judging by the anonymity of the photos, classic rock is so generic now it doesn't even need a face.

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From the June 7-13, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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