Monthly Archives: September 2010

Special Guest Post: The Julian Schnabel Paradox – Fine Filmmaker, Wretched Artist

by Sholem Krishtalka


Photo by Ian Lefebvre.

It’s not merely that Julian Schnabel is a bad artist; he’s the worst artist. In fact, if you were to ask me to create some kind of stereotype of bad artist, I couldn’t do better than Julian Schnabel. He’s the kind of awful you just can’t fake – an inept painter whose every deficiency, every technical lack, every conceptual gap stands in inverse proportion to his own ego and self-satisfaction.

As if his paintings weren’t evidence of his towering horridness, consider his unique contribution to the field of premature self-congratulation: an insufferable, ruminating autobiography written at the ripe old age of 35.

All this is on eminent display whenever and wherever a painting of his is exhibited, and it’s some small wonder that the 5th floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario hasn’t collapsed in on itself under the groaning strain of the pendulous load of Schnabel’s output. It’s difficult to describe the experience of walking through his new show there, simply because anything I can muster sounds too fun. The closest approximation I can venture is that it feels like being clobbered about the head by a pair of giant testicles. See? Too fun.

Perhaps another strand of metaphor is required. The overwhelming atmosphere of the show is bulimic: Walking through it, you are assaulted on all sides by vastness and enormity – almost all of the paintings clock in at the 20-foot mark; gargantuan things that ram their hyper-inflated claims to genius down your throat like someone force-feeding a duck for foie gras. I staggered towards the elevator desperate to somehow puke it all out of me, to wash myself clean of Schnabel’s oily presence.

Let’s be clear (because I was being coy up until now): Schnabel can’t paint. The two most difficult scales for a painter to tackle are the extremely small and the extremely large. Both highlight the importance of touch and of gesture.

In an extremely small painting, there is literally no room for clumsiness – everything has to be graceful and efficient; a weak passage in that tight an environment is disastrous. In an extremely large painting, the painter has to fill the canvas with their gesture, the entire body becoming an extension of the paintbrush. On a 20-foot scale, everything is amplified, everything is immediately available for scrutiny. And Schnabel’s gracelessness, his inability to do anything more than to stab and drag paint around in the most perfunctory way, is on full display. His marks merely and only fill space.

His conceptual capabilities are exactly on par with his technical abilities. This is a man who famously said of his plate paintings that the surfaces are meant to recall the destruction and trauma of Kristallnacht– which is why, I presume, they make an excellent support for portraits of pop stars and Beverly Hills socialites (one of his plate paintings is at the AGO: it’s garishly busy to the point of cluttered illegibility; it looks like sharp, shiny vomit).

The same staggering thematic blindness shouts at you from almost every wall in the AGO. Of a canvas stretched in the shape of a sail with nothing but the name “Jane Birkin” painted across its bottom, the didactic panel would have us believe that Jane Birkin not only evokes but summarizes Egypt. I’m sure Egyptians think so, too.

His homages to Bertolucci involve blown-up photo-transfers of surfers with a great splooge of white paint leaking down one side. I’d say this bit of oleaginous ejaculate is a recurring motif with Schnabel, but motif is too coherent a word, as this puddle appears almost everywhere, and is made to mean anything. The same 10-foot dribble appears on a painting made in immediate and heartfelt homage to his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat upon learning of his death. How much can this puddle of paint be made to signify? In the space of two rooms, it is reiterated to the point of irrelevance, celebrating the glory of Italian manhood and mourning the drug-overdose of his closest friend.

It doesn’t signify anything, of course, just as the plates don’t really mean anything. They’re bullshit nothings, lurching stabs at shorthand expressiveness from a man whose visual vocabulary is infantile at best.

Of his ego, this too is on eminent and laughable display. Painting after painting is choked with poorly disguised references to painters whom he imagines to be his peers: Goya, Bacon. Only Schnabel doesn’t actually have the wit to quote either appropriately or properly, and so it all comes off as cack-handed mimicry.

The show was mounted in cross-marketing with the premiere of Schnabel’s latest film at TIFF. And here’s the curious thing: Schnabel makes good movies. This has been owned up to by people whose critical natures and opinions I respect (one of my most impossibly demanding friends said that his movies “redeemed [Schnabel]”). I own up to it myself: I’ve enjoyed every movie of his I’ve seen.  How is this? How can he be such a horrible artist, but a good filmmaker?

I refer you to Gore Vidal’s 1976 essay, “Who Makes the Movies?” in which Vidal, drawing upon his years of experience as a “hack writer” for the Hollywood Studio system, tries to debunk the application of auteur theory to Golden Age Hollywood movies. In those times, he argues, the producer was king and the director was referred to by all and sundry as “the brother-in-law” – at best, an appendix to the phalanx of talent and business that were responsible for the picture.

The core of his point applies to Schnabel’s film career. Movie-making is not a solitary business. So here’s the question: How much can we really say that Schnabel himself is responsible for the excellence of his films? On each film, he had a cinematographer to actually do the hard craft of constructing his images; writers to draft a cogent script (though, granted, Schnabel is given a tertiary writing credit on his first two films); actors to interpret the script; editors to translate the raw footage into a cohesive film.

Even though his films are independent, Schnabel still operates at a level whereby he has a vast staff of very talented people at his disposal to construct his movies (he had enough lucre to hire Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s DP, to film 2007’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

My loathing of his paintings (and my bafflement at his rise to art-stardom, even in the hysterical art world of the ’80s) makes it tempting to dismiss Schnabel the director as a mere brother-in-law, blustering and ineffectual, who, at the crucial moment, shoves everyone aside to don the mantle of singular genius, and bathe in the critical hosannas.

Still, let’s give Schnabel the benefit of the doubt, and assume that, as a director, he is perpetually present, guiding everyone at all stages, keeping a dictatorial eye over the exercise of his vision; his movies are his own. Still and all, there is a very basic fact that underscores all of this: a movie is photographed; a painting is built.

A movie involves arranging various elements (actors, locations, etc.), letting them do their thing, and recording it. Not an easy task, by any stretch of the imagination. But a painting involves not only creating those elements out of nothing, but also creating the world in which they interact, and then translating all of that from thought to gesture to image.

Schnabel cannot build paintings, but he can make movies. It’s the assaultive, egomaniacal failure of the former that compels these doubts about the latter. Still, these doubts are nothing more than conjecture (and mostly unproductive conjecture at that). So I’ll leave the question of who makes Schnabel’s movies open. But I know with certainty exactly who makes Schabel’s paintings.

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I’m Still Here (2010) – a movie by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix

by Margaux Williamson

(I saw Joaquin Phoenix’s notorious 2008 Letterman Show appearance when he presented himself as a non-responsive, sunglassed and bearded guest. He was mumbling about becoming a hip hop artist. I thought that he was playing with performance in a reality-situation and I was pretty curious. Contemporary culture is still a bit fuzzy on how and when to assign authenticity to the different types of interaction, perspective and persona creation that continue to be created by new technologies. The general public is becoming as attuned, and as confused, with the concept of persona as actors are. A good actor even in his sleep, Joaquin Phoenix seemed as likely a candidate as any to explore persona in a reality-style work (where there is often much sleeping). So I was excited when I heard about the movie “I’m Still Here” being presented as a documentary. When it was announced, by the creators, as a hoax during the Toronto Film Festival, I felt disappointed. A hoax suggest more of a put on than an experiment. It also suggested a bit of a failure. Unambiguous creative sucess rarely needs to come with such foreceful, and unambitious, explanations. I went to see it anyway with my friend Julia Rosenberg, a movie producer, who had also been following the process. We had popcorn.)

Joaquin Phoenix decides to leave acting. It’s confusing being an actor and also confusing to be a celebrity. I believe this. He looks good, he’s hiding out in a well-worn hoodie, smoking at night on a grassy hill and looking down at the bright lights of Los Angeles. His friend, Casey Affleck is filming him. “I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore” Joaquin Phoenix says. This scene is physically dark, seductive and promising. We don’t care if it’s documentary or staged because we suspect that, as with any good documentary or fiction, something truthful might be happening here. Unfortunately this is the most truthful-feeling part of the movie.

Joaquin Phoneix spends the rest of the movie smoking pot, growing his hair, yelling at his assistants and chasing down Diddy (formerly P. Diddy), the famous music producer. Joaquin Phoenix’s plan is to become a successful hip hop artist by finding Diddy and having Diddy produce his album. When securing Diddy’s help fails, along with Joaquin Phoenix’s meager and wildly unsucessful 4 or 5 public hip hop performances, Joaquin Phoenix collapses, mentally and physically, and then returns to his birth place for some water redemption.

In the last scene Joaquin Phoenix walks down a river. It is shallow at first and then becomes deeper. We follow him from behind. There is some “movie music” overlaid – the kind of music that reminds you to have feelings now. It doesn’t give me feelings, it makes the scene feel clumsy, long and sentimental. A joke or not – I don’t know. But at this point in the movie, I was needing some “real” in my “reality tv”. I wanted the music to stop and to at least, after enduring this movie, be allowed to indulge in the refreshingly natural sound of a quiet river. If Joaquin Phoenix was going back to nature, I wanted to come with him.

It’s hard to know what was intended. Did they set out to make fun of reality tv? Were they interested in mocking the public – hoping to hold up a mirror, showing them embracing Joaquin Phoenix as a hip hop artist because he was famous – but then were derailed by the public’s poor reaction to the idea? Were they hoping to say something about the insanity of celebrity culture but then didn’t quite know what to say? Were they trying for a remarkable performance? Was the absense of any visible sign of hard work (on the part of Joaquin learning to be a hip hop artist and Casey Affleck learning to be a director – or the two as artistic collaborators) an indication of the creators conceit of a famous fame-seeker not having to work hard – or was it a genuine misconception about how one goes about making art? Was Joaquin’s painful “failure” after simply not securing one of the world’s most famous music producers and not doing well at a few gigs supposed to really represent genuine failure? Or was it to show someone who is bound by being an actor? Was it all really just to say that something that looked real was scripted? Was the music at the end supposed to be funny?

I wouldn’t ask these question if there was something truthful here at the centre to hold on to (I consider a biting satire truthful for instance). If there was something truthful at the centre, then all these questions would be trivial and besides the point. But at the end, I just had the questions and a wish that the creators had worked longer or harder or had taken the ideas to a more developed place. I think there was a lot of potential. I hope Joaquin Phoenix tries something like this again, just… with everything else different. Much has been made of the ridiculousness of Joaquin Phoenix suddenly becoming a hip hop artist, but no one has mentioned how crazy it is for Casey Affleck to suddenly become the director of a contemporary reality experiment. The traditional well-oiled machine that makes a Hollywood movie might have been an easier choice.

When Joquin Pheonix finally manages a meeting with a hesitant and wary Diddy, Diddy eventually looks over at Joaquin and says slowly, “You can’t come into this shit disrespectfully.” I agree, this shit is hard – respect is essential. That goes for reality tv, experimental movies, and hip hop (acting was properly respected in this motion picture). Joaquin Phonix nods along with me. I believe him.

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Little Boxes #15

(from Atagoul, by Hiroshi Masumura, 2000s)

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Tea With Chris: The Ballad of Four Feet Joe

Tea With Chris is a roundup of recommended links, posted every Friday. Here are a few of our favourite things from the Internet this week:

Carl: If listening to Werner Herzog and Errol Morris discuss their favourite reading (and arguing the virtues of the Warren Commission Report as a crime novel) would turn you on, I’d say your tubes are in working order.

If your tubes are not in order you may need to read this book.

Since early summer, Toronto’s unsettlingly hilarious Kathleen Phillips has been posting no-motion movies in which she endows eccentric personalities and absurd backstories to photographs and inanimate objects on her Chatty Kathy blog. (Maybe start with The Filthy Weather Dog and The Ballad of 4 Feet Joe.) If you are in the t.dot, tonight Kathleen is expanding this new-minted art form to live performance, with “live foley” sound effects by some outfit called The Racket, at the !059 (1059 Bathurst) at 9 pm.

Chris: My First Love Story is a new Tumblr simultaneously exploring Korean pop music, feminism and “my diminished and/or burgeoning identity as a Korean/Chinese-Canadian woman.” I began following K-pop for this year’s Pop World Cup (the blog’s title comes from a single I fell in love with during that competition) and never stopped, so I’m very happy about this. The author is a fellow Ann Powers fan! There’s a post about idols’ abs and female agency! She’s working on a poetry zine about Girls’ Generation! This right here is my swag.

Margaux: There’s a new season of this really good British TV show.  It’s about the inevitability, and also the impossibility, of non-stop political theatre. It’s like a bunch of kids in kindergarten playing a lot of games together, except that they are exhausted, lifeless and gray-clad grownup clowns. Thanks to Misha Glouberman.

My friend Ryan Kamstra is making his own personal library. It’s called Parkour! It’s great to see your friends’ brains like this. He has 19 entries on Ritual Sacrifice and 9 on Robot (Automata). The entry on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” that consists of links to all the works cited in her imagined informal pocket canon of camp is especially great.

My friend Gracie gives the world a small Tarot card reading every morning – complete with an image of the card and photos she took in her house to illustrate her point. Pretty beautiful. It’s a pleasure to  read her thoughts on the “Hierophant” card (representing the bridge between human kind and the Universe) while looking at a photograph of (1) her television; (2) her front door window with the blinding sun coming in; and (3) a ball thrower for her dog.

Eye Weekly‘s front page feature this week is called “Toronto’s most huggable douchebags”! A bold and refreshing move. They are clear to differentiate between the category of despicable humans and the one of forgivable, huggable douchebags. The latter being a category that most of us occasionally fall into.

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Friday Pictures – Chris Ofili

 

Chris Ofili / Lover’s rock – guilt

 

Chris Ofili / Iscariot blues

 

Chris Ofili / Annunciation

 

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“Hauntings,” by Guy Maddin (1912-2010)

by Chris Randle

I have a minor obsession with lost artworks. The potential psychological motivations for this are almost embarrassingly transparent, but there’s also the increasing scarcity of vanished masterpieces as a concept. Though unfinished or abandoned creations will always tantalize – no one’s ever going to read the ending of Big Numbers, Alan Moore’s fractal opus – mass digitization should save a future Cardenio or London After Midnight from erasure. I think that’s one cause of the current vogue for ultra-limited cassette releases: when almost any work is instantly accessible, willful obscurity becomes a source of cultural capital.

My own little fixation isn’t quite as covetous, or so I’d prefer to believe: it’s a desire for obliterated possibilities to be made manifest again. To see a major-key version of the obsession, look at Guy Maddin. The director of such weird and wonderful fabrications as Brand Upon the Brain, My Winnipeg and The Heart of the World was already defined by his love of the archaic. Ethereal cinematography, strict monochrome, silent typographic dialogue – if a technique has been absent from conventional filmmaking for 50 years or more, he’ll cherish it. But the September opening of the Toronto International Film Festival’s new Lightbox headquarters allowed Maddin to spoil his artistic parents rotten. Hauntings is an installation of 11 short pieces essaying “unrealized, half-finished or abandoned films by otherwise successful directors,” a “ghostly collage” licked together with glowing ectoplasm.

The film fragments are arranged in two horizontal rows along the Lightbox’s diminutive gallery space; the tumour-shaped, slit-eyed helmet from Videodrome is sitting behind glass nearby. They’re staggered, hiding a couple of the projections behind other ones, and vary widely in length. Playing and overlapping simultaneously, they give the installation an effect of constant distraction. Memory is messy here. Several Maddin hallmarks are obvious: every clip is silent, most are in black and white, swooping closeups abound, and the very Germanic list of “otherwise successful directors” (Murnau, Lang and von Sternberg all appear) is filled with people he’s already cited as favourites.

But Hauntings never succumbs to reverent imitation. Its realization of Mizoguchi’s Out of College, which centres on a young aviator torn between his fiancee and oily cockpits, does channel the master’s painterly attention to light…but it also features Udo Kier as the eager airborne graduate. No tragic geishas, either. Fiancee Teruko is much more Maddin’s type: beautiful, bewitching, flickering between “dangerous” and “maybe just totally inscrutable.” He should collaborate with Dan Bejar.

A couple of the notional films don’t name an inspiration at all, enigmas among enigmas. In “Bing & Bela,” the husband of another mystery woman has been transmogrified into an inexplicably bloody white wolf, and she can’t decide whether to leave his corpse on the grave of Bing Crosby or Bela Lugosi (who are indeed buried right next to each other in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City). I know Kenneth Anger still technically walks our plane, but I pictured his spectral hand spelling out EROS and THANATOS during a tinsel-strewn séance. As one intertitle puts it: “REDDEST OF LIPS! WHITEST OF WOLVES!”

The feverish ardour of Maddin’s deadpan text narrations is another habit untempered by his ghostwriting. (My favourite title card in Hauntings is probably “WOOED TO THE LAND OF NOD,” from an allegorical Hollis Frampton tribute where camera-headed Kino is literally seduced by passing clouds.) The director has mastered a tricky contortion: embracing the phantoms he admires while tweaking their tics at the same time. So his version of Murnau’s lost Satanas shows revolution gone wrong from the atmospheric perspective of various toes: “Hopeful feet…On their way to join the surging masses! The lumpen cheer!” Part fetish reel, part Marxist sight gag, and funny as hell, it’s the kind of joke that could only be played on a friend.

A few years ago, I saw Maddin in discussion onstage with Toronto film critic Jason Anderson. The idea was that they’d each take turns constructing a fantasy life with scenes from favourite movies. The director’s first choice was an old British film, seemingly dating back to the 1930s. In his clip, a little girl was moving in with her relative for reasons I can’t remember; the benefactor is a chauvinist cad who immediately reels off all the rules she’ll be obliged to follow. (“I don’t like having…women around.”) Maddin, beaming, told us he wanted to relive childhood as that stunned moppet, because hers had precious “structure.” I understood where he was coming from, if not where he was going. I just wish I could remember the film’s title. What if I’m only imagining it?

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Superchunk. Need I say more?

by Carl Wilson

I went rather beyond the terse mandate of Tea With Chris on Friday. So I thought I would be brief today.

Above is the hottest, cleanest vein-infusion of joy that I’ve had in a while, Superchunk’s TV appearance this week, with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats playing the role of a (much more sober) Bez-style hypeman, and a throng of the ‘Chunk’s NYC friends’n’family serving as boogie-woogie peanut gallery.

The contrast with the self-conscious appearance of Pavement (whom I also love, don’t get me wrong) on the Colbert Report this week couldn’t be stronger: Superchunk represent the anti-slacker version of 90s “indie” culture; though they sort of popularized the term post-Bob Dobbs/pre-Linklater, it was actually in the inverse: “I’m working/ But I’m not working for you/ Slack motherfucker.” That was the harder-beating heart of the ethos, even if it didn’t turn out to be “the winning side of history.” (Pavement’s musical influence is overrated and Superchunk’s underrated, for one; for another, with Superchunk you don’t actually need quote marks around indie.)

But forget subkultchura beancounting. Back to the world: First, consider, here’s an art project whose two central figures were able to break up their intimate relationship without breaking up the project (or a related one, their record label), and who have come back after a long hiatus with a record of new songs rather than just a rehash, a task at which most of their “bigger” contemporaries have failed. (And yeah, a lot of the new album Majesty Shredding is actually this good, as you can hear on the Merge website.)

It’s a matter of tint and shade, of angles and apertures, but for Superchunk, so-called Gen X “irony” was the freightage of open-eyed realism, not preemptive defeatism. Their music always said the necessity of taking a tragic view of life can be countered with enough palliatives – jokes, rhythm, shouting, friendship, travel, velocity, did I mention jokes? – that it’s a damn fair facsimile of an antidote. (“Welcome to art class, and yes it does involve shaking your ass.”) They insist that bliss is not ignorance. Exhale. Repeat.

Please apply freely to your local political, professional, romantic or existential situation. And pogo twice daily until symptoms improve.

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