Thursday, February 23, 2012

Art documentaries for creative obsessives

Here are four art documentaries you may have missed about creative obsessions and their cathartic outcomes: Bill Cunningham New York, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Marwencol, and Herb & Dorothy. Even if you're not an artistic type, I'm sure you've run across someone in your life with unfathomable drive to create something out of nothing. You and that person will probably find some inspiration here. Let's explore the wonders of the obsessive task-driven mind and what happens when that obsession is carried out to the fullest.

Bill Cunningham New York (2010) - Bill Cunningham is a blue-jacketed, bike-riding New York fashion photographer who glides through the streets of the city, snapping anyone who dresses in an interesting, thoughtful way. He still uses 35mm film, which is odd, but he also lives in a tiny kitchen-less studio apartment where he sleeps on a narrow palette among dozens of file cabinets full of negatives (the bathroom is down the hall); so he is odd. He is odd in the best possible way.

A workaholic of good heart who lives to document street fashion. His weekly collages appear in the New York Sunday Times where you can see people sporting an abundance of anything that has caught his eye--be it tartan, trench coats, capes, black tights, whatever's happening in the moment. He also photographs high society and attends fashion week in Paris every year to educate his eye and stay fresh. He's up, he's down, he's an all-around octogenarian.

Director and cinematographer Richard Press takes a mostly fly-on-the-wall approach to explore Cunningham's quest to document every trend in the "armor [we wear] to survive the reality of everyday life." Formerly a successful milliner, there's much archival footage of Cunningham's work, his interviews, and his interactions with eccentric, artistic friends. One sequence of his 90+ photographer friend, Editta Sherman, dancing ballet in her youth, was shot by Andy Warhol.

Cunningham doesn't care about money, prestige, buyouts or fame--he's driven by his pure artist's eye. This is a thorough and far-reaching documentary about one man's obsession with clothing and how that touches and enriches so many people. Bill's drive and commitment might come off as a lonely, possibly stifling life, given that none of his long-time friends seem to know anything personal about him. But for him, the work is everything and the almost sacred joy he derives from documenting his fellow citizens is life-affirming.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) - This is a prank pulled by British street artist, Bansky. Or is it? I'm not sure you could make this story up, no matter how creative you are. It starts off as a documentary about Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who runs a used-clothing store in Los Angeles where he sells hipster-wear at huge markup. His obsession is to videotape every waking moment of his family and work life, which eventually and accidentally lands him in the European street-art movement by way of his cousin, Space Invader. Finding focus as a "documentary maker" of the growing but clandestine scene, Guetta proceeds to tail every major artist in the field, who agree to let him archive their subversive nighttime hit-and-runs. He then manages to meet up with the ultimate anonymous artist, Bansky, and their big adventure begins.

After thousands of hours of footage, the artists demand that he make the film about them, as artists will do, but Guetta's resulting masterpiece is decreed by Bansky to be unwatchable rubbish. At this point, Bansky claims to take over the footage and we get a narrative of how Guetta, on Banksy's flippant advice, turns himself into an artist with a penchant for selling derivative, crappy pop art at huge markup. Is it real? Is it a biting satire on art, media fame, a gullible public, and financial success? It's all of this and more! A great primer on street art and its successes. No one is truly "likable" in this film, but satire (or is it satire?) tends to be that way. And there's even a painted elephant.

Marwencol (2010) - More than a decade ago Mark Hogancamp nearly died from a beating he took from five men outside a bar in his small, New York town. The resulting brain damage forced him to relearn how to walk, talk. and deal with subsequent post-traumatic stress. An avid illustrator before the crime, Hoegancamp found he could no longer hold his drawing hand steady. So after his therapy is cut off from lack of funds, he begins building a fictional 1/6th scale Belgium town that exists during World War II, named Marwencol. His personal storyline grows as he builds each scene and photographs it. There's a bar, a store and a church populated by dolls representing himself and his friends. SS soldiers periodically show up and have to be dealt with, violently.

Thus Hogancamp (his name sounds like a WWII character name, doesn't it?) finds his way to self-therapy. His miniature buildings, vehicles, dolls and costumes are composed and lit in ways that are masterful. His photo work combines the look of movie stills, historical archives, and human interactions fraught with genuine emotion. There's realness and strangeness here, as Hogancamp reveals more of his personal life to director Jeff Malmberg's camera. Time travel, a blue-haired witch doll, bloody fights to the death (and women catfighting for entertainment), coexist with scenes of love and redemption.

Eventually Hogancamp is discovered by the art press and the gallery world. He must deal with his fears of the broader world, as well as anonymous, critical opinions. This film explores the emotional and physical benefits of being an artist and how frightening it can be to reveal a singular imagination. You can see Hogancamp's art on the Marwencol site.

Herb & Dorothy (2009) - Herb and Dorothy Vogel are hoarders in the best possible sense. Their focus and drive has amassed one of the finest and most extensive collections of modern art in the world. Most amazingly, Herb was a postal clerk and Dorothy a librarian for their entire working lives. They live in a tiny apartment in New York City and have dedicated themselves to the weirdest, most minimal, most conceptual art imaginable. Unlikely art heroes, both.

For the pure love of the medium, it's enjoyable to watch the Vogels during their travels around New York, visiting their artist friends, their favorite galleries, and their collection, which they treat with reverence and joy. Herb in particular looks at art with an intensity that is riveting. He is the "eye" of the couple. Dorothy is the drive. After giving up on their own youthful artistic dreams, they decided to become early supporters and collectors of then-unknown artists. Pop and abstract art were too expensive even in the early 60s, so they focused on minimalist work, which no one was interested in--yet. The concepts and ideas behind this difficult art-form fascinated them. And truly, they love the work, stuffing their apartment with it over several decades until there's barely a place to sit and eat.

Director Megumi Saski includes lots of interviews with the Vogels and their famous friends, including Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Pat Steir, Chuck Close, Lynda Benglis, Christo and Jeanne-Claude (who traded a piece of art to the Vogels for cat-sitting when the Vogels couldn't afford their work). The artists are bemused and articulate, relating stories of how they met this unassuming couple at the beginning of their careers. The importance of supporting starving young artists, who then reciprocated by giving the Vogels "deals" after they started to gain fame, led to an archive of artist development pretty much unprecedented. What the Vogels decide to do with their collection of nearly 5,000 works, is a very touching story of generosity. Not everyone will "get" their obsession with modern art, but the Vogels are a lesson of what good can come from diligence and honorable intent. A sequel is now in the works.

No comments: