MCA Screen: Needle Through Thumb


Named after a classic sleight-of-hand trick involving a hidden carrot (the red silk handkerchief in the magician’s left hand draws attention away from the right hand’s careful work of hiding the carrot), Needle Through Thumb takes the idea of magic as its starting place, and focuses on the strategies of misdirection and distraction as thematic motifs.

The visual tricks in this all–16 mm program range from the casual to the sophisticated. Diversions of attention are employed; slapstick abounds; illusions are created and then broken. Amid the polish and patter, certain moments also offer glimpses into the humanity, introspection, and anxiety of the filmmakers, which lie just below the surface of the action on-screen.

Needle Through Thumb includes avant-garde classics as well as lesser-known works. John Smith’s Gargantuan presents a pun so airtight that the film can barely withstand the contradiction. Leighton Pierce’s subtle Glass pulls viewers through a series of optical effects that reveal themselves through shifts in focus. Though it’s easy to see through the illusion in Gary Beydler’s Glass Face, the pleasure of its effect escalates anyway. Reflexfilm/Familyfilm, an overlooked masterpiece from Chicago filmmaker Dana Hodgdon, uses ingenious camera tricks to pun on canonical experimental films by Robert Nelson and Michael Snow as it offers a portrait of Hodgdon’s domestic life. While not particularly concerned with illusion, Nelson’s own film Oh Dem Watermelons uses goofball antics and hypnotic music by Steve Reich as diversions for an extended riff on a potentially loaded racial trope. Capping it all off is Chicago legend Tom Palazzolo’s Love It/Leave It, whose overwhelming, near-psychedelic crescendo of patriotism and nudity distracts viewers as the moral weight of the juxtaposition slowly sinks in.

This program is curated and introduced by Chicago-based artist and curator Alexander Stewart.

Robert Nelson, Oh Dem Watermelons, 1965, 16 mm film

Courtesy of the artist and Canyon Cinema


  • John Smith

Gargantuan, 1981; 1 minute

  • Mark Toscano

Rating Dogs on a Scale of 1 to 10, 2011; 2 minutes, 30 seconds

  • Robert Nelson

Oh Dem Watermelons, 1965; 10 minutes, 45 seconds

  • Standish Lawder

Necrology, 1970; 12 minutes

  • Gary Beydler

Glass Face, 1975; 3 minutes

  • Leighton Pierce

Glass, 1998; 7 minutes

  • Dana Hodgdon

Reflexfilm/Familyfilm, 1978; 22 minutes

  • Owen Land

New Improved Institutional Quality, 1976; 10 minutes

  • Tom Palazzolo

Love it / Leave it, 1973; 15 minutes