The art joke

24/09/2011

I really hope Matthew Barney is kidding. It’s a dream of mine that one day, having made many hugely expensive, long and lavish films about testicles with other people’s money, he will make a public statement that his career was all a big prank on the art world. I think the world would be a more interesting place if that kind of thing happened, and I would finally understand what Bjork sees in him.

He is undoubtedly an important artist – not many people are making feature-length video art on 35mm, or staging huge elaborate scenes in spaces not accessible without impressive connections, like the Chrylser Building and Guggenheim Museum. His films depict mysterious masculine intitation rituals inspired by masonic tradition, and his artist persona seems to have emerged fully formed from a background in football and catalogue modelling.

But despite the beautiful and grandiose surface of the work, when you look for deeper meaning, all you find is viscous white liquid and obvious visual metaphors for testicles, presented entirely without humour. In Cremaster 4, which I caught at GoMA recently (one of the only films I didn’t see when the series – named after the muscle which holds the balls – screened at Dendy some years ago), pearly spheres are dropped into satin pouches during an obscure tap-dancing ceremony, and straight-faced actors attach pink tyres with scrotums to colour-coded racing cars. It’s pretty giggle-inducing.

This is what I wrote in my journal in 2005 when I saw De Lama Lamina:

“Modern Art: Bukkake meets Copraphilia

I just saw (crackpot artist and Bjork-impregnator) Matthew Barney’s latest film De Lama Lamina. I would like to propose it be re-titled to Semen: The Musical!. Don’t believe me? Here’s what happens: a tree-shaped float moves through South American streets in a parade of some sort. On top of it, a woman climbs around on the branches and extracts long white poles from inside white phallic posts that sit atop every branch. Below her thousands of dancing and chanting people trailing white tassels from their hair and bodies swarm all over the street. Underneath the truck, a naked man covered in lichen, with a turnip up his bottom and a flower blooming out of his mouth, rubs his erect penis against the rotating drive-shaft and ejaculates all over himself. Then all of a sudden he has a little monkey baby, who shits all over him and then disappears. He rubs the poo on the (already semen-coated) driveshaft, then he starts masturbating again. The end!”

(I was disappointed to see that his piece in Destricted, named Hoist, is just a short uncredited excerpt from this earlier work.)

Maybe there aren’t many artistic representations of specifically male sexual discovery and transition into adulthood, which might be why it seems questionable for Barney to make almost seven hours of deadly serious art about his genitals. But I think it’s a pity that someone with so much visual imagination and such extensive resources doesn’t have more to say. It would be ten times more interesting if he was having a huge joke at everyone’s expense.

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Review: Andy X

15/09/2011

I had two major problems with Andy X, Jim “Rocky Horror” Sharman’s 40-minute musical on Warhol, screening at Brisbane Festival. The first was that I felt like it missed the point of who Andy was. Usually on seeing a film about a real person (I hesitate to say biopic, it isn’t trying to be one) you learn something new about them, even a tiny detail, you didn’t know before. Having read about half of the (sizeable) Andy Warhol Diaries during university, I’m hardly an expert, but I got the impression I knew him better than the people who had so lovingly put this tribute together. For example, everybody in the film mispronounces “Basquiat” as (forgive my attempt at French phonetics) “Bascroix”, which is a bit ridiculous when he is a character and dialogue is directed at him. There were even a few moments that seemed (to me, anyway) to allude to Andy as heterosexual, which jarred, and the overall story just felt empty of research.

The film’s other big flaw is that, while the song lyrics are awkwardly literal, the narration, by a “Street Poet” who is confusingly never really introduced as a character, is abstract to the point of meaninglessness. I have no problem with this indirect approach to storytelling – it’s a little like Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine in its treatment of its subject, and I will never stop loving that film – but here the free verse narration feels like a cringeworthy affectation with nothing to do with either Andy Warhol or the story being told.

Visually the film is much more interesting, although that’s easy to come by these days, and the performers, especially the actress playing Valerie Solanas, are pretty good. I might be being too harsh, although that wasn’t my intention, but the film is being released online in November, so you can make up your own mind. I wanted to like it though, and I just couldn’t.

I found Bad Teacher enjoyable and funny, but also suprisingly personally inspiring, which was unexpected. I think the title character sets a refreshingly good example, in her attitude, if not so much her actions themselves. In trying to get a rich husband and a comfortable life for herself, she is driven to steal, cheat, get plastic surgery, poison her rival, and even try old-fashioned hard work. She also drinks, smokes weed, and sleeps on the job just because she can. She literally does whatever she wants, legal or otherwise. Without actively setting out to hurt anyone, she recognises that looking after her own needs should be her top priority, since it’s no one else’s. Unremorseful self-interest is not traditionally a quality celebrated or rewarded in women. But sometimes that attitude can be very helpful. The film’s tagline is “She Doesn’t Give an F”, and learning to not give a fuck can be advice a lot of us need to hear.

Weeds‘ Nancy Botwin is, on the surface, a bad role model. This is not because she provides for her family with crime (if you look at Breaking Bad, that can be thought of as kind of noble), but the consistent trait that’s emerging as the show goes on is her using sex to solve every problem she has. To survive and keep her business running she’s slept with a DEA agent, a Mexican crime lord, a lesbian pyromaniac, and multiple crooked bosses, fellow dealers, and other people’s husbands. She never does this as a tragic necessity or desperate last resort, she enjoys it, gleefully revelling in her badness. She often initiates these encounters by being as irritating and inconvenient as possible for the men, daring them to discipline her: “I’m bad, punish me”. She’s resourceful, her commitment to her children is never in question, and she even gets to have a good time.

In defense of Morvern Callar: Working at a cinema where this was screening to virtually empty sessions, I would recommend it to everyone who came in, as it remains one of my favourite films (and books) of all time. On coming out of the film, male customers would then approach me, furious about the main character’s actions in the movie – probably people the film wasn’t intended for and in restrospect I shouldn’t have advised to see it (I’m not sorry). In the film Morvern, a supermarket worker in a small Scottish town, finds her boyfriend dead on Christmas morning. She opens her presents, chops up his body, changes the name on his unpublished novel to her own, and uses the money he’s left for his funeral to take her best friend to Ibiza for a holiday. This may seem immoral, but her nameless partner is the only person she ever betrays – a man who, despite the couple not even being able to afford a phone, had thousands of pounds in the bank in preparation for his death by his own hand. Suicide being the most selfish action possible, ending the person’s pain by transferring it onto those who loved them the most, it’s possible to argue that he had no right to the proper burial and posthumous fame as an author that he expected her to deliver in his absense. Morvern is emotionless and pragmatic, and she uses the situation to free herself from stifling small-town poverty, experience the world and enrich the lives of those around her.

If looking up to these woman is unhealthy or wrong, I don’t want to be right. There’s an argument that strong female characters are bad for women, since they lead to unrealistic expectations of perfection which are no fun for anyone. It’s easy to relate to and cheer on someone whose flaws you recognise in yourself, and who succeeds, at least some of the time, despite them. And morally bankrupt ladies are definitely more fun to watch (and be) than well-behaved ones, at least in my opinion.

Bad Teacher (Unrated)

Morvern Callar

I recently watched controversial banned-cut-unbanned-then-banned-in-South-Australia movie A Serbian Film. Having read an extensive description of the film’s content, months ago when I thought I might never see it legally, I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I like to stay informed. I was hesitant about watching it alone and it took a long time to find anyone with the ovaries to watch it with me – news articles about retailers refusing to stock it (I am now boycotting JB) means that its reputation precedes it.

With those reservations, the film itself comes off as rather silly. It’s a cartoonish exploitation movie that aims to push things as far as it can, but that’s a legitimate goal. Adults wanting to see it shouldn’t need to cite lofty allegorical messages to justify its content, and I find it odd that A Serbian Film‘s defenders are doing this. I didn’t find it shocking or particularly good, because it resorts to explicitly enacting things which would have more impact if they were implied or imagined by the audience, and it does so with fake-looking prosthetics which distance the viewer from the action and sometimes make it laughable. I wonder whether the cuts that have been made to the film already actually make it a better, more powerful film than the full version was. Nevertheless, it made me wonder if something was wrong with me, because I was disappointed it wasn’t more transgressive.

The screening of Snowtown I attended in June had around 20 walkouts, but I thought the film was excellent. Discussions I had afterwards, even among film professionals, was that the audience exodus was understandable. I was left feeling surprised that while the film has a strong emotional impact, I wasn’t particularly affected by the scenes that had others running for the door, and I must have been in the minority. The reason this was such a revelation was that I was sure I’d experienced similar feelings of nausea and visceral horror at films in the past. Why not this time?

Thinking back, it’s usually ideas in films that have horrified me rather than representations of gore. Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone, Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart, Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, Tim Roth’s The War Zone, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, and Patty Considine’s Tyrannosaur all contain ideas of hatred, cruelty and hopelessness that have chilled me to the bone. Even in The Killer Inside Me, it wasn’t the graphic violence that devastated me, it was the sadness of a woman telling the man who is caving her face in with his fists that she loves him, over and over again. I understand that most of the people walking out of Snowtown probably haven’t seen these films. But I’m really glad I have, and can. All the films named above are excellent, precisely because they do stay with you. If a film can make you laugh and cry, why not make you vomit or pass out? If cinema can reach out of the screen and do something to an audience physically, it has tremendous power. When a colleague recommended Sion Sono’s Cold Fish to me by saying “it made me want to throw up”, I was excited to see it. Maybe the ability to stomach violence on screen allows me to experience beautiful films like Von Trier’s Antichrist. That might make me a monster, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Edit: A Serbian Film just got banned again!

A Serbian Film (Uncut)