Plaza series puts artistic inspiration in deep focus

R. Land’s gone fishin’ with Zaat-themed work for Art Opening and Movie’s current installment

A mutated catfish man has been swimming through R. Land’s psyche since he was 8 years old.

The popular Atlanta painter grew up in Jacksonville, where he was tantalized by trailers for a movie with the inexplicable title Zaat. Director Don Barton filmed Zaat in neighboring locales such as Marineland, Silver Springs and Switzerland, Fla., so young Land had already picked up on the film. “The trailers made it seem so real, almost like it was a newscast. The Legend of Boggy Creek came out around that same time, but that was even more of a pseudo-documentary. I remember thinking that Zaat had the potential to be the next Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Land says.Released in the South in 1971, Zaat depicts a German scientist who, in a well-thought-out plan, decides to prove his outlandish theories and seek revenge on his naysayers by turning himself into a bipedal catfish monster — with, admittedly, little actual resemblance to a catfish. Zaat’s combination of amphibious stalkers, bathing beauties and local landmarks seized young Land’s imagination. To this day, he’s still fascinated by the film’s “fever dream” quality, with long scenes of no dialogue, just ambient electronic music and many shots of a guy in a monster suit who carries a spray bottle and spins a zodiac wheel to make his sinister decisions. Few people saw Zaat in theaters. It’s probably best remembered as fodder for “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” which heckled the film under the name Blood Waters of Dr. Z in 1999. Atlantans will get a rare chance to see a surviving print of Zaat on the big screen when the Plaza Theatre shows the aquatic monster flick on July 11. Part of the 70-year-old cinema’s monthly Art Opening and a Movie series, the evening will launch a monthlong exhibit of Land’s Florida-themed art, as well as accompanying features such as live, Zaat-themed music, a meet-and-greet with the filmmaker, and a catfish special at next door’s Righteous Room restaurant. For more than a year, Plaza Theatre co-owner Jonathan Rej has used the Art Opening and Movie series to make going to the movies less passive. “So many times with films, you go, you see the movie and you leave,” he says. “With something like this, it’s more of a shared experience, whether the films are cult classics or classic classics. It’s a way of taking a movie and making more of an event out of it, something more interactive and community-oriented.”Part of Rej’s inspiration for the series comes from the Plaza lobby’s open space near the concession stand. “It occurred to me that it would be great to hang art there, and have another alternate art space in the city, like you might find at a coffee shop or a restaurant.”Rej has various approaches to pairing artists with movies. Sometimes he gets an idea for a movie he wants to show and asks artists if they want to contribute. For a screening of The Goonies last year, Land, Shane Morton and Jim Stacy provided pirate-themed artwork. For October’s showing of Big Trouble in Little China, Rej plans a Kurt Russell-themed show. Other times, Rej finds inspiration from an artist’s work. “I wanted to have Lael Pastore here,” he says. “Her artwork’s very glittery and looks like candy, so I suggested we do Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. But she didn’t make new art for the movie, they just went together well.”And sometimes the artist suggests films for Rej. “Shane Morton approached me with the idea to do Conan the Barbarian, so he could do all Viking art,” Rej says. Given that previous films in the series have included Repo Man, Sid & Nancy and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and that Purple Rain’s coming up, you may wonder if the preponderance of ’80s cult flicks reflects cultural touchstones from the artists’ formative years, but Rej believes that’s simply a coincidence. Zaat offers an example of an artist-driven show, one that’s been in the works for a while. For most of his life, Land has screened Zaat to his friends. He recalls that when the Plaza Theatre reopened, Rej told the artist that he particularly wanted to do two things: “I want to have Shane Morton do the Silver Scream Spook Show, and have you do Zaat.”Land’s probably best known for pieces involving strangely huggable monsters, and grotesque critters that would otherwise be considered cute, such as the surly-looking Bunny Foo Foo. He acknowledges that his work has had a dark streak. “I’ve long been drawn to things that were both adorable and disgusting at the same time. But I do like straightforward cute things that don’t have an ugly undercurrent. In the past 10 years, I’ve gotten comfortable without my work having the grotesque level. Sometimes people will see a piece and say, ‘Wait a minute — there’s nothing wrong with it.”He grew up catching and eating catfish and bottom feeders, but suspects that he uses imagery of them in his work even more than he would, had he never seen the film. “I’ve incorporated Zaat into a lot of things. When I do three-dimensional Florida maps with little pieces stuck to them, I always put a little Zaat in the upper-right-hand corner.” For the exhibit, Land will display both Florida-inspired artwork and longstanding Zaat-themed pieces. Some place the monstrous bottom feeder in contemporary street-art contexts, such as “RE/ZAAT,” a parody of a RE/MAX real estate agent sign. For Land, Zaat is one piece of his greater attachment to the character of west Florida: “It has its own subculture within the Southern culture: fish camps, toadfish gigging, airboats, gator farms, the Orange Blossom Trail, cracker architecture, marsh island parties, ghost lights, skunk apes, Native American oyster shell mounds, buildings and roads made of coquina shells, fried catfish and mustard-based barbecue sauce available virtually every square mile, the Suwannee Ribber and a host of other fanciful features that flavor the state.”Land cites Now, Voyager as another of his favorite movies, but no other film has the kind of hold on him that spurs him to check eBay for Zaat paraphernalia every two weeks. For fun viewing as well as a fishy, freaky sort of muse, Zaat’s where it’s at, at least for one movie-goer.