Cynthia on Celluloid

Veteran groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster has been a minor celebrity since at least 1969, when Rolling Stone ran a colorful feature on her distinguishing gimmick: persuading rock stars to drop trou by promising to immortalize their erect penises in plaster. But over the last few years, in a strange twist, Plaster Caster has become more famous than some of her models–she’s been interviewed on VH1 and the BBC, and written up everywhere from Bust to TV Guide. “It’s bizarre and I’m kind of going through this existential crisis of having this role reversal, of being a fan with fans,” she says. “I never expected to be in this position for the reason I am, and I’m not fully comfortable with it all of the time. I think it must be Catholic guilt. Why are people revering me when all I’ve done is what I couldn’t help but do?”

Despite her reluctance to have greater significance attached to her work (she told Salon last summer that all she was trying to “say” was “Look at this chorus line of gorgeous penises, left and right and swirling around. Aren’t they pretty?”), she’s also achieved the status of bona fide artist. In 1997 she was invited to lecture on portraiture at the School of the Art Institute, and last summer she mounted an exhibit of her collection at New York’s Thread Waxing Space gallery. And now she’s about to become a movie star: On Thursday, February 22, Plaster Caster, a feature-length documentary by local filmmaker Jessica Villines, will get its world premiere in two screenings at the Landmark Century Centre.

Plaster Caster includes interviews with an impressive–and impressively diverse–slate of talking heads, including Pamela Des Barres, Camille Paglia, Noel Redding, Jello Biafra, Momus, and Ed Paschke, but its focus is on Plaster Caster’s current activities, which include writing her autobiography as well as making the occasional new addition to her collection. The film demystifies the legend as it records the process: approaching the subjects, arousing them, and, finally, casting them. Five Style guitarist Bill Dolan is reluctant at first, but ultimately accepts her offer; Demolition Doll Rods guitarist Dan Kroha fairly leaps at the opportunity. Dolan is sheepish throughout his session, much of which occurs behind closed doors, but Kroha’s a ham, flouncing around in the buff even after Plaster Caster finishes taking the mold. “It was kind of my own private porn film,” she jokes. Last year Plaster Caster also started casting the breasts of female musicians she admired, but footage from her first “tit-casting” session, with L7’s Suzi Gardner, was left on the cutting room floor.

None of these contemporary rockers seem to have much in common with Plaster Caster’s more mythical subjects, like Jimi Hendrix or the MC5 or even the Lovin’ Spoonful. “Some people say that the collection has dwindled down to a bunch of indie-rock losers and that the collection started with Hendrix, but they forget that Hendrix was like an indie-rock guy back in 1968,” says Villines. Plaster Caster says she operates now the same way she always has: she chooses musicians whose work she respects and enjoys–and she refuses solicitations. “I’ve been getting a lot of E-mail from fledgling Chicago musicians that want me to come give them an audition,” she says. “I need to find a stock answer for that one. I don’t like it when people approach me.”

Villines, a sometime recording engineer who’s worked with acts like KMFDM, Pigface, and Chris Connelly, had penned several screenplays, but Plaster Caster is her first film. She met Plaster Caster when the artist approached her boyfriend at the time, former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison. Although Denison declined the request, the women struck up a casual friendship. Villines spent a year thinking about the project and finally brought it up to Plaster Caster in 1998. A financial agreement was reached–neither party would reveal numbers, but Plaster Caster says that in exchange for the exclusive rights to her story “they’ve given me an extremely generous advance that’s enabled me to explore other avenues of plaster castdom”–and shooting began the next year.

“The plan was to get investors, initially,” says Villines, who kept her full-time job as copywriter at a suburban advertising agency until the film was nearly completed. “But people didn’t really want to invest in a penis movie, so it was my savings, my credit card, my mother’s savings, and her credit card that basically paid for the movie.” Her mother, Melanie, a successful playwright and TV writer, is the film’s executive producer. Although they did eventually attract some outside investors, the additional money mostly just covered legal fees and licensing for the music used on the film’s sound track–including tracks by Redding, Frank Zappa, Jeff Tweedy, the Aluminum Group, and Beachwood Sparks. “I’m on the verge of bankruptcy,” Villines admits lightheartedly. “I’ve got a deck of credit cards and they’re all maxed out.”

Plaster Caster will be shown in March at the New York Underground Film Festival, and Villines was recently approached by the Northwest Film Forum about screening it at Seattle’s Experience Music Project this spring. The exposure should help Villines with the unenviable task of tracking down a distributor.

The filmmaker and her crew, led by coproducer and director of photography Jeff Economy, shot more than 200 hours of footage, most of it in Chicago but some in Los Angeles, Detroit, Ireland, and New York. Scenes that didn’t make the final cut–including the L7 bit–will eventually turn up as bonus material on a DVD. Villines says she was surprised by which interviews turned out to be the most fun; one of the best is with Plaster Caster’s dentist of the last 25 years, Michael Feinberg, who supplies her with the alginates she uses in her work. In one scene the enthusiastic doctor discusses the latest advances in casting technology with Plaster Caster as he cleans her teeth.

Plaster Caster says she’s thrilled with the film, and will attend both the local premiere and the New York screening. “I’m looking forward to just walking there on my own, the way I normally do to the health club that’s in the same building,” she says. Meanwhile, she’s been casting new subjects, most of whom are female, including the two women in the Doll Rods and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier. She also cast her first couple: Bobby Conn and violinist Julie Pomerleau. “I’ve got his hanging on the wall between her lovely two breasts,” she says, “kind of like a Groucho Marx mask.”

Both screenings of Plaster Caster, at 7 and 9 PM, are expected to sell out in advance. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at The price includes admission to a postscreening party at the Elbo Room with live music by Connelly, Marydee Reynolds, and Chris Ligon.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Susan Anderson.