Tag Archives: reality TV

Martina’s Playhouse (1989) – Directed by Peggy Ahwesh

by Margaux Williamson

(Tom McCormack at Union Docs in Brooklyn asked me if I had seen Peggy Ahwesh’s Martina’s Playhouse. I hadn’t. I watched it on Ubuweb one night recently. It was great. It’s 20 minutes long and you can watch it here.)

 

We start on a roof with a little girl named Martina. She looks at the camera and eats a sandwich   Though the camera isn’t talking back, she figures out how she wants to talk to the camera.

There is footage of hands examining a flower, with a monologue about flowers and love and organs.

There’s footage of a grown-up woman also figuring out how to talk to the camera – she is clearly more anxious about the situation. You can see her aching a bit to talk to the person behind the camera, to interact with them, maybe even  to be reassured.

There’s more footage of Martina, now inside, confidently conducting her own playtime for the audience of the camera.

More than just evocative or suggestive, Martina’s Playhouse reveals a poetic and complicated structure made from subject, camera and quiet filmmaker behind the camera.

During Martina’s interesting and noticeably uncensored play time, we are reminded, as Martina occasionally talks and looks up to the camera, that a camera doesn’t blink, express concern, distaste or encouragement. Though we know well enough that a camera changes everything, we are reminded here that people change everything.

It made me think of parents – and also of good science fiction, where we are often shown how machines are kinder and more cruel than humans.

 

 

 

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March 10, 3 pm-midnight: Reality Art TV Marathon. Back to the World @ the AGO

It’s been almost a year since our last live event, our 100,000th Word Party in March, 2011. So let’s do it again: As part of Margaux’s stint as Artist in Residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario, we’re holding a Daytime-Evening TV Slumber Party in the Education Commons on the west side of the AGO.

The date will be March 10. The time will be 3 pm until about midnight.

We’ll be screening videos of a show (you might know it, but be discreet) that turns art into a ruthless Elimination Dance in a whole other way than the professional art world does. Making and judging art on reality TV makes for strange and strangely refreshing stabs at more clear ways to talk about it.

Mostly this’ll be a lot like sitting at home on the couch vacuuming up consecutive episodes of a TV show on the Internet or DVD, except with friends you might not know yet, in a public place. And with somebody else ordering the pizza. Bring your own well-concealed beverages and snacks, and any other comfort-inducing devices (sleeping bags welcome!). There will be time for discussion and perhaps some unexpected interventions.

After, we’ll go out for drinks and talk more about who we think should have won and which one we would have sex with.

We’d love any readers to come out and join us.

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Reframing Africa – curated by Jean-Marie Teno

by Margaux Williamson

Last night at the Images Festival, I saw “Reframing Africa 1: Representation or Reality?”.

Boy, what a relief it was to see such good work. It’s rare to have all of the short works  in a curated program be this full of life, this compelling – to have the story they form together be both so direct and so complicated. It was curated by the African filmmaker Jean-Marie Teno and included the work of 5 other African filmmakers.

Now that I trust Jean-Marie Teno completely,  I can recommend a conversation between him and Deanna Bowen today, April 5th,  at the Gladstone from 3 pm to 4 as well as his second curated program of short works that’s screening tonight (April 5 from 9 pm to 11 pm) at Jackman Hall (AGO) – “Reframing Africa 2: Perspectives in Mambety’s Footsteps.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop – a movie by Banksy, starring Thierry Guetta

by Margaux Williamson

(I rented this movie recently and didn’t watch it. Then I saw it lying on my friend Carl Wilson’s coffee table and asked to take it home. I managed to not watch it again but did pay some more overdue movie money. More recently, I ended up watching it one night as it came through my television from the internet while I sat on my bed with three friends. We all liked it more than we thought we would. I think. )


We start out in Exit through the Gift Shop with a lot of amateurish, rough and beautiful video footage. It has supposedly been shot by the star of the movie, a mustachioed and side-burned Frenchman living in California. The Frenchman is named Thierry. He is obsessed first with videotaping everything in his daily life and then with taping famous street artists at work. His obsession does not come with discipline but the years of it has lead to a hoard of unwatched videotapes, the casual neglect of his wife and children, and an introduction to the elusive British artist Banksy. Banksy is an artist who works anonymously and has an unconfirmed identity. In the movie we meet him but do not see his face.

Banksy (the more disciplined and purposeful obsessive) encourages Thierry to make a movie out of the videotapes. Thierry comes up with an old-fashioned avant-garde mess. After Banksy see the video, he encourages Thierry to leave the tapes with him and let him see what he could do with them. He encourages Thierry to take a break and maybe have an art show. As Thierry initiates a giant art show of his creation under the name Mr. Brainwash, Banksy makes Exit through the Gift Shop.

Exit through the Gift Shop is presented as a documentary. We see bits of Thierry’s sweet private life as shot by him. We are told stories about the narrative by Thierry and Banksy and also by the American street artist Shepard Fairey. We watch the pretty remarkable collected footage of street artists in action. When Banksy takes over the movie, we watch Thierry try to be an artist, to put his tag over other artists work, to put on his art show. We watch the public line up and buy his work.

I have read one movie critic who saw Exit through the Gift Shop as a straight up documentary and another, as a complete hoax. My default viewing position for most movies involves being comfortable being “a sucker” who is often mesmerized by story and flashing lights, as well as taking pleasure in my subjective position that often has no access (or admittedly, curiosity) about the “authentic” origin or intention of the work that I’m watching.

What helps even more in the case of Exit through the Gift Shop is that in all conceivable possibilities for how this movie was made, it is pretty easy to see that someone with a talented and thoughtful hand was making the most of their resources.

Imagine if the movie began with a room full of videotapes with the creator explaining that they had gathered hundreds of hours of footage of street art, shot by a mess of street-artist and their friends, and was now going to try to make something that the world should see.

Sometimes a lie wastes our time less and gives us more. Even if the movie is 100 percent true, Banksy’s nudging of Thierry to create an art show and leave him with the footage is a construction. A way of making art in the world from real things in the world. Pretty similar to what Banksy got himself famous for.

In Exit through the Gift Shop, we see a room full of videotapes, shot by one man, a man obsessed but, unfortunately, also overwhelmed. Here we demand order or crave it. Please, we think, make some sense of this man’s obsession. Free the disciplined artists caught by this fool.

I should mention that this fool has true gifts. In one scene as he sits in a backyard, looking at the camera and grasping for words to explain the feelings he had when he met Banksy for the first time – the performance is beautiful. Whether he is an actual street-art obsessive fan, or an amiable friend improvising, or France’s great actor – he nailed it.

The movie is accessible, clear, humorous, thought-provoking and entertaining. Or, to say it another way as one critic did, nothing new! But that is the wonderful thing about some great art – especially great street art. Communicating pain, politics and playfulness with clarity, lightness and charm should never be discounted as old-hat. It is always the hardest trick.

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Friday Pictures – Karen Kilimnik

 

Karen Kilimnik / Me Getting Ready to Go Out to a Rock Concert with Bernadette in Moscow in 1977 (1997)

 

Karen Kilimnik / Natalya Tatiana Petrovskia

 

Karen Kilimnik / Planning the Attack of Malta, the Mastermind

 

Karen Kilimnik /  Friends in the Woods

 

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The September Issue (2009) – Starring Anna Wintour, Directed by R.J. Cutler

by Margaux Williamson

(This always looked pretty compelling on the video store shelf but was always out when I would think to pick it up. The day it was in, it looked a little less compelling. I remembered, once I had it in my hand, that I had not had such luck with movies about fashion. But it still looked compelling enough.)


The September Issue is a documentary about the all-powerful and greatly feared editor of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour. Anna Wintour is credited with creating a “fashion bible” through Vogue, jump-starting the careers of young designers, centralizing the power of the fashion industry in a circle around her, striking fear into the hearts of subordinates, reigniting the fur industry, and ending grunge.

The movie covers the creation, which Anna Wintour oversees, of the 2007 September issue of Vogue – the bible part. Here, Anna Wintour is a woman who loathes small talk, is self-aware of the relation fashion has to the rest of the world, works incredibly hard, tries to not get mad when others don’t work as hard, uses words more than facial expressions to communicate, is incapable of following her grown child’s every move without adoring and irrepressible love in her eyes, reacts to things she dislikes with silence and reacts to things she likes with genuine praise. She is not primarily negative and she is not a trash-talker.

When I was watching this, I couldn’t remember if this is what our culture thinks a bitch is or if this is a very generous portrait of a woman and an industry.

Sure, you feel for the people who quiver in her uncomforting presence, but you also hope for a bit more integrity of character. If fashion really is an intersection between art and commerce, we think mostly of the commerce part in these moments. We also see that Anna Wintour does believe (or hopes) that fashion is meaningful and that art is involved. Her relief is obvious when people around her seem more preoccupied with the art than with winning her favour for obvious and easy reward. Her relief is most notable here in relation to Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director. The working relationship between these two women forms the poetic spine of the movie.

Anna Wintour’s immensity of character was the subject of another movie – fictionalized in The Devil Wears Prada, a movie based on a book of the same name that was written by one of her former assistants.

For The September Issue, the man allowed in to document the real Anna Wintour is named R.J. Cutler. R.J. Cutler’s production company is called “Actual Reality Pictures” (quite a tall claim in these early 21st century times, but anyway). Based on the production company’s name, and the other projects listed on their website, it appears as though R.J. Cutler is a man who thinks that reality TV is not real and that he is the man who will make it real. Though this just means his is a old-school documentary filmmaker whose weakness will be in forgetting his own subjectivity and impact on his subject (or his subject’s impact on him).

All in all, not a bad fit for a real person who was referred to fictionally as “The Devil” right there in the title of a Hollywood movie starring Meryl Streep. How much worse could it be in an old-school documentary? Not worse, though also not great. And clearly Anna Wintour is a subject worthy of something monumental.

If I was Anna Wintour, I too might have invited R.J. Cutler of “Actual Reality Pictures” to take my picture after I was fictionalized as “The Devil”. Had “The Devil” not happened, maybe someone from the production company “Not So Much Actual Reality But Still Kind Of Reality and Killer for Deeper Truth About Humans” would have gained access and made a complicated mountain out of this mountain of a subject. Though there is still time.

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“I Need a Dollar” by Aloe Blacc (2010) and “Busking” by Aloe Blacc (2006)

by Carl Wilson

Los Angeles rappa-ternt-sanga Aloe Blacc has been garnering millions of plaudits and YouTube hits (if perhaps not dollars) since spring for his verymuchremixed recession lament, “I Need a Dollar.”

The song got its boost on the shoulders of an HBO series called How to Make It in America that, like a few other of the channel’s other recent recession-conscious productions, seems to stumble over the gap between the subject and the channel’s, shall we say, coastal-elite sensibilities (“from the producers of Entourage,” ’nuff said). The best recession-informed work of art on TV I know is Breaking Bad, from comparative upstart AMC.

You could make parallel criticisms of Aloe Blacc’s take on neo-soul: He’s the well-educated offspring of Panamanian immigrants and the layoff that inspired his popular mini-beggar’s-opera was from a job as a consultant with Ernst & Young. Which is definitely part of the financial downturn’s story, but not quite the blue-collar, Bobby Womack tale that his song calls to mind. More important (because using biographical details to call a song phony is always a sucker’s move) is that musically, as many have noted, the track gets walloped by the comparisons it’s just strong enough to bring up, whether that’s Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.

Nevertheless, social-realist songs about money are still scarce enough in the Richie Rich fantascape of contemporary hip-hop and R&B that I’ll take its anthem-of-2010 status gladly.

In a couple of interviews Blacc talks about the stylistic genesis of “Need a Dollar” in listening to field recordings of chain-gang music. That’s what inspired the “woah-oh” bits of the arrangement, the call-and-response. To NPR he also added: “The song, to me, feels like kind of a community song, something that you would sing with a group of friends. And each verse would be sung by a different person about their particular issue or problem or reason why they need a dollar, you know?”

So the tune comes by its ultra-remixability organically, and versions that add rapping (a form that has passing verses around in its DNA) feel more satisfying than the original, enough so that it’s funny he didn’t think to do it in the first place – since Blacc’s also been an MC since his start in 1990s rap duo Emanon.

But that field-recording impulse is more simply and delightfully realized in an oddball track from Blacc’s previous album, Shine Through.

I’ve been thinking lately about whether and how the current vogue for mixing fiction and documentary expresses itself in music, and “Busking” goes pretty far in the direction of audio vérité. Enough so that I can’t quite tell if this video is actually the record of the song’s creation and don’t even want the illusion shattered. (I know he’s said that he used to walk around at the time with a recorder to capture song ideas on the fly.) In lieu of a bass line you’ve got the hum of traffic and pressure hoses, and instead of a snare break you’ve got a bus-stop sneeze.

But more than those elements, I love its seemingly almost-involuntary, OCD weave of internal monologue and melody, which feels like pulling open the lid on the deepest wellspring of song. I don’t know about you, but occasionally, when I’m feeling lonely, fretful, a little desperate, I’ve comforted myself by taking whatever set of thoughts is looping unstoppably through my brain and singing them to myself: “Gotta make that phone call, don’t wanna make that phone call, it’s a terrible phone call…” or even just, “I’m freaking freaking out today, can’t make that freaking out go ‘way.”

Blacc here applies that formula to what is no doubt the very frustrating situation of dependency on Los Angeles public transit – a recessionary audio-film without all the hoopla of beats and horns and all the more effective in suggesting scarcity.

Of course, low production values in music are just as often the domain of the privileged (who unintentionally make a show of that privilege exactly by discarding its trappings and going “lo-fi”), while polish testifies to the aspiration to accrue more privilege (which isn’t an ignoble goal at all). The standard object of a field recording, after all, is someone or something of exotic or anthropological interest. Still, the gutsy sonic imagination of “Busking” (with the pun in the title that both recalls and makes fun of hip-hop bragging – hey hey, he’s the Bus King) presents alternatives to the old escapism-versus-protest-song duality when it comes to portraying hard times in music just by lending a little extra meaning to the phrase “economy of means.”

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