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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

"Oklahoma Too" - A Rare Video Gem by Rochelle Owens: Humor, Disruptions of Language, and a Question of What Is Real

The short film, Oklahoma Too, written and directed by Rochelle Owens in 1987, is filled with wry humor and social commentary. In addition, it is an exploration of the capacity of language to classify, represent truth, human desire and behavior, and ultimately to contain the seeds of its own disruption of meaning(s). 

In the gift store, Voila, in Oklahoma Too


How Much Paint Does the Painting Need 


Filmed in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1987 during the depths of the oil bust, Oklahoma Too takes place in a gift store across the street from Norman Public Library on Gray St. and also in the nicely appointed living room in a private home. 

(Personal note: There was a used bookstore in the same shopping center. I used to ride my bicycle to it after visiting the library in the mid 1970s, when the library was very new. I think it is possible that the used bookstore is still there. I used to buy and sell Regency romances as well as Jane Austen novels. The first Jane Austen novel I read or attempted to read was Sense and Sensibility, purchased in paperback form in Vermont).

The name of the store is Voila and it features jewelry in locked glass cases, plus gifts and lovely collectible decorative pieces for the home including cloisonné and China figurines such as a whimsical ornamental rabbit dressed in a jacket, reminiscent of the rabbit in Alice In Wonderland.

Gold nugget jewelry, fashionable in the 1980s, plays a prominent role in the film. Contrary to what one might think, based on the appearance of the nuggets, they were not mined by bearded prospectors panning for gold in streams in Nevada or California.  Instead, the chunks of gold were 14 karat confections fashioned to look like nuggets and worked into pendants, rings, and earrings, and often considered investment pieces. Such an investment was a good one in the 1980s when gold and silver skyrocketed in price. In the video, the inauthenticity of the “gold nuggets” introduces a tension between appearance and reality, and the way that language convinces one of “the real.”


The video has several key characters. They include three upper middle class professional women eager to purchase something novel to reinforce their social status. Next is Mr. Markup, the owner of a line of nugget jewelry. He recruits a graduate student from Greece to sell the nugget jewelry to pay tuition. Finally, there is a local man who sits behind a jewelry case and reads excerpts from a poem by Owens, “Anthropologist at a Dinner Party” that later appeared in the collection, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need. 


The poem, “Anthropologists at a Dinner Party” was inspired by an actual dinner party with professors from the University of Oklahoma which included George Economou, chair of the English department, and professors from the anthropology department. 

Although one of the anthropology professors ostensibly specializes in Native American culture, he brings the history of the peoples of northern Europe to the conversation. Despite his specialty, he himself is of European origin, and not Native American. He talks about Picts in Northern Europe and then mentions Aryans and intermarriage. The professor’s narrative is subverted by subtexts of eugenics, a theme that underscores a later work by Owens, “Black Chalk.” The history of Oklahoma informs Oklahoma Too, which includes the removal of Native Americans, the Trail of Tears, and a history of cultural destruction and the many attempts to subjugate, exploit, and potentially eradicate Native American peoples.


The film commences as three women dressed as the elite of a small college town appear in the opening scene. The cast of men consists of the entrepreneur and an impecunious graduate student along with a diffident potential customer of gold nuggets or other trinkets. 

Owens has said that she typecasts to facilitate and energize improvisation.  In Oklahoma Too improvisations occur in the jewelry store and then later in the scene when the graduate student is attempting to sell the gold nugget jewelry. He's in the living room of a home of one of two women and the more insistent he becomes the more they resist. They even counter his sales pitch with one of their own: Why not contribute funds to save the Arctic seals being clubbed to death by hunters? There is an element of the absurd in not only the lively and humorous dialogue, but also in the exaggerated Western wear that the foreign student from Greece wears. He is a Greek cowboy wholeheartedly embracing the accoutrements of local culture, and thus potentially equipping himself to be more convincing in the heart of Oklahoma. 

Whether the Greek graduate student’s pitch succeeds, or if the women succeed in convincing him to donate to their cause, is part of the negotiation of text and textual space that marks Oklahoma Too. In fact, one could consider the improvisations as ultimate language play.  One can further suggest the dialogue, with its many levels of ambiguity, and the three voices speaking over each other, are, by their very indeterminacy, a part of the world of art.  Reality is a series of complex negotiations. Signification is just one of those negotiations. Another language negotiation is the right to deconstruct, which embodies the right to collapse and implode language itself the ultimate liberation from oneself and impositions of identity and thus fate.


“Foreign” vs. “Local:” The film toys with the notion of “foreign,” and suggests that all are constructed identities. In fact, when the “foreigner” (the Greek graduate student) dons the apparel of the Western cowboy, he reinforces the notion that appearances always deceive. 

“Faux” vs. “Authentic” nature:  The “gold nuggets” are shaped to look like they came straight from a prospector’s gold-panning operations, with his donkey observing from the edge of the stream. In reality, they are simply lumps of 14K gold (or even just coated with a veneer of gold to be “gold filled”). At any rate, gold is melted and fashioned into a shape that mimics authentic nuggets. 

Con the Con: Mr. Markup is telling the graduate student that he can sell nuggets and earn enough for tuition. In a flash, the Greek graduate student becomes an accomplished sales rep, with a stunning repertoire of sales pitches.  The bourgeois women are likewise cons – except what they “sell” is participation in a high-status philanthropical “cause.” They try to convince the graduate student to contribute to their fund to “save the seals.”


The poem by Owens satirizes university faculty and the conversations they have at dinner parties, which are almost always remembered in retrospect as a platform for one or two dominating, bloviating know-it-alls, who, despite their seeming commitment to liberal perspectives (human rights, civil rights, etc.), reveal their internalization and unconscious espousal of normative forces.  In this case, there is a subtext of eugenics. 

Owens’s vision and direction create an energetic scene In the living room as all three actors speak over each other, creating “noise” rather than clear dialogue. Their attempts to con the others into giving money to their own cause or self-interest explore the way that the audience tries to make sense – which voice dominates? Which one can you follow? The fact that all three voices are of equal valence is critical:  at the end of the day, cacophony prevails. Art is what happens when clarity comes from the cacophony. The artist provides the clarity.

It is also worth noting that the Voila gift store was a charming oasis. The University was likewise an intellectual and spiritual oasis, which fostered creativity and self-expression during the mid to late 1980s, when Oklahoma suffered through the devastating “Oil Bust” and farm crisis. 

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

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