It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re watching the films of Samara Halperin. Take, for example, the minute-long Plastic Fantastic #1 (2006). Jaunty bleeps keep the beat as a pair of ketchup-and-mustard-bedecked hot dogs are shredded into meaty octopuses. Freed from their buns, they frolic across a checkered tablecloth and embrace atop layers of sauerkraut and relish.
All of Halperin’s works especially the ones that use her trademark technique, stop-motion with plastic toys convey the filmmaker’s ability to find gleeful joy in unexpected places, be it a construction site (as in 2006’s Hard Hat Required), the Wild West (1999’s Tumbleweed Town), or the homoerotic subtext of Beverly Hills, 90210 (2001’s Sorry, Brenda). Her films also reflect her love of bright colors and, especially, pop culture.
"I grew up a few blocks from where they would shoot Sesame Street," the New York Cityborn, now Oakland-based Halperin explains. "I’ve always had this disconnect where I didn’t really understand that television wasn’t real. I saw Snuffleupagus on the street! So from a very early age, I was deep into [pop culture]."
As a child, Halperin dreamed of becoming a cartoonist and later worked in ceramics. After she entered the Rhode Island School of Design, she realized filmmaking was her calling.
"I’ve always made shorts, and [in 1989] I started making films that I wanted to see that I didn’t see, like queer youth represented or really queer people represented at all," she says. "I got a lot of shit for [my queer subject matter] in the beginning. It just wasn’t fashionable yet."
Now, of course, there’s an entire TV network devoted to queer programming. Logo screened Tumbleweed Town Halperin’s eight-minute graduate thesis project for California College of the Arts when programming in response to the Brokeback Mountain renaissance. A marvel of mise-en-scène in miniature, with expressive plastic characters and a score by Corner Tour that perfectly complements the action (another characteristic of Halperin’s films: pitch-perfect musical choices), Tumbleweed Town had a genesis that was equal parts imagination and inspiration.
"I had never done animation before," Halperin recalls. "I’m not really an animation person, but I am a toy person. [The cowboy toy looked] so gay, I thought I’d find a boyfriend for him and build a world where they could be gay together. I’d just moved from Texas, where there were real, handlebar-mustachioed gay cowboys shining boots in the bars. I’m a New York Jew, and I’d never seen anything like this."
Tumbleweed Town is Halperin’s best-known work besides Sorry, Brenda, a black-and-white marvel of suggestive reediting that’s a must-see for anyone who was ever addicted to "BH Niner."
"I really loved the show," she says, inching up her pant leg to reveal a 90210 tattoo on her calf. "I always thought, ‘[Brandon and Dylan] are so gay’ I just wanted to bring out their relationship and show people what I saw." The piece made its way into the hands of Conan O’Brien, who discussed it on the air with the Brandon Walsh.
"Jason Priestly loved it," Halperin says. "He stole the tape to show to Luke Perry, so that was the crowning glory for a fanatic such as myself."
When she’s not tuning in to new pop-culture craziness like MTV’s "revolutionary" celebration of bisexuality, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila Halperin teaches at Mills College and works on an array of new films: a sequel to Tumbleweed Town set in early 1980s New York City; a live-action, nonnarrative homage to her beloved Coney Island, Astroland; and a video project that pays tribute to Richard Simmons and "loving yourself, no matter what you are."
On that note, Halperin’s final thought is especially fitting: "I encourage people to make movies. It’s my personal view that the world can be changed through art."