He had a square jaw and tousled brown hair, and he sported his own custom-made haz-mat suit. He was 12 inches tall. So when filmmaker T. Foley met him at a party, she knew he had a story to tell. And not just because the box he came in read, "There has been a hazardous materials spill! No problem for Rick Ranger. He is fully equipped to handle any toxic task."
"My first thought was, 'This is a post-9/11 doll," says Foley. Rick Ranger inspired her as immediately as did the blow-up sex doll named Rich Bitch who starred in Foley's widely screened 2000 video Licence. So after researching haz-mat workers and bioterrorism, Foley took her leading man out for some location shoots.
The result is Hazardous Materials, one of the new videos Foley will screen at the March 9 Film Kitchen, as well as premiering What You Don't Know (About Cockfighting), featuring footage shot during her 2001 trip to Bali (a trip that previously resulted in her wry Monkey Forest Tourist). Foley will also screen two other documentary shorts about people and animals: Slammy the Cat (2003), about a cat with a prosthetic tail, and Helen and Alf (1994), about a woman's unusual relationship with her feline companion. Rounding out Film Kitchen are Blithe Riley's The Diner, a short experimental narrative inspired by stories of Hollywood Lolitas, and Greg Rempel's polically satirical music-video spoof My Condi.
Foley created Hazardous Materials as an installation piece for the current Science Fiction As Social Commentary exhibit at the new SPACE gallery, Downtown. But the video (which will screen at Film Kitchen in a revised theatrical version) reflects her ongoing fascination with the concept of "serious play." Many of Foley's works feature either toys or else people relating to animals. "There is an undercurrent of 'This looks funny' -- or cute or attractive or charming -- but one can make some profound or interesting associations with these icons," says Foley.
Hazardous Materials is composed of a slideshow-style series of still images of Rick Ranger in a variety of apropos settings, from the post office to a lakeside. Foley's voiceover is drawn from an Indiana state Web site for people interested in pursuing a career in the rapidly growing field of haz-mat handling and remediation ("Hazardous-materials workers have a low level of interaction with others ...").
Playing seriously with Rick Ranger, Foley -- a media-literacy educator at Pittsburgh Filmmakers -- asked what need the toy filled, beyond the obvious. She placed haz-mat man in the lineup of other macho action figures: "Unlike the fireman, or unlike G.I. Joe, who's memorialized in the media, this guy's anonymous." Society's newest icon doesn't even get to rescue people per se; he's restricted to rather solitarily protecting us from equally anonymous sludges, spores and powders.
But these days, Rick Ranger and his colleagues are also unnervingly necessary, leading Foley to more disturbing speculations. "I wondered if he served some utilitarian job-recruitment [function]," she says. "I wouldn't be surprised if in some way we didn't see these jobs as heroic because we know we're going to need so many of them."