Movie Wannabes

So you wanna make movies? Michael O’Pray looks at artists as film directors

Cindy Sherman’s first feature film Office Killer is the latest cinematic offering from a cluster of American artists who achieved star status in the 80s American art world and who have recently made mainstream feature films – namely, Robert Longo who made Johnny Mnemonic, David Salle’s Search and Destroy, Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, and the lower league Larry Clark who made the controversial Kids. Rumours that young British artists like Douglas Gordon, Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Wood are about to enter the fray seem to be part and parcel of a similar impulse, although I want to argue that the two cases are quite different.

The American experience does not seem to be a happy one. Longo’s film, based on a William Gibson short story, had a budget of $27m and Keanu Reeves as its lead star. The result, while not awful, is largely undifferentiated from the efforts of any Hollywood journeyman and when last heard of had not broken even. Longo had done some pop-music videos, a short film and an episode from Tales from the Crypt1 which meant that at least he had some credibility with the industry. Schnabel’s Basquiat, with a lower budget and art movie-oriented, got good press, had a wonderful soundtrack and was an enjoyable movie even though its mythologising of the artist, creepily wrapped in Schnabel’s own narcissism, was otherwise conventional. Salle’s film was never distributed in this country but as a reworking of Scorsese’s After Hours it was a dour affair, by all accounts, that squandered the acting talents of John Turturro and Christopher Walken. Cynics speak of art careers being rescued by the silver screen but Sherman’s Office Killer (from big-timers Miramax) is pretty awful and, disturbingly, is close enough to her photographic work to lead one to question the high reputation it enjoys – slack-mouthed we wonder: does the Empress have any clothes? I am sure Lacan will come to the rescue.

The more interesting issue is why, leaving aside sheer self-indulgence, these artists bother to venture into movie making at all. Is it the seductive charms of Hollywood razzmatazz (Salle and Schnabel are from the media-orientated Mary Boone stable of the 80s art boom), the opportunism of gallery ‘stars’ well past their peak, money or narcissism that motivates them?

Michael Duncan wrote a piece2 that unpicked the relationships between the American art world and the Hollywood hierarchy. The actress Jamie Lee Curtis, for instance, has been a longstanding collector and supporter of Sherman’s work (and contributed to the BBC2 Arena profile on the artist’s work screened in 1994). More importantly, Michael Ovitz of the all-powerful Disney empire serves on the board of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One can argue that there is perhaps a mutual understanding and respect between elements of the American art world and the big film corporations that did not exist before. But these excursions into Hollywood by major American artists seem only to reveal the difficulty, even hopelessness, of artists achieving mass-market success in a context which is rigorously industrial.

This mutual love-affair between the established art world and Hollywood is a new phenomenon. Traditionally, modern painters have seen Hollywood as the enemy – the great spewer of kitsch, reactionary values and vicarious emotional states, of premodernist subject-matter served up as narrative which was supposed to have been strangled in painting in the 19th Century by Impressionism and the invention of photography.

In the past when major artists dipped their toes into film it was usually to make low-budget avant-garde gallery films as was especially the case in the 60s and early 70s when Robert Morris (eg Mirror, Slow Motion, both made in 1969), Richard Serra (in the late 60s and early 70s), Robert Smithson (a film document of Spiral Jetty in 1970), Bruce Nauman, Mary Miss and others widened their aesthetic projects to encompass film. Andy Warhol is the exception who was a prolific and influential filmmaker as well as an important painter. In fact, if there is a figure who overshadows the gallery/popular-art crossover, it is Warhol who seriously nursed ambitions of Hollywood success which were brought to fruition, under the direction of Paul Morrissey, in art movies like Trash and Heat in the early 70s. This was after he had dumped his avant-garde trajectory, which was almost a spent force by the time of his modish success with The Chelsea Girls in 1966, but the aesthetic connections between Warhol’s early films and painting were quite clear – portraiture, trash culture and mass mythologising.

Excepting Warhol, the best films by artists of the 60s were those by sculptors – Serra and Morris especially – and not by painters, whereas most of the recent artists’ films have been made by painters and photographers. This fact leads one to reflect again on the fundamental misconception behind the supposed intimacy between painting and film. It is not true that sharing two-dimensional representationality is enough to ensure that the ability to manipulate colour and composition is transferable to the big screen. Film is essentially a temporal medium. At the most banal level it takes seconds to see and often judge a painting and over 90 minutes to sit through and see (forget summary judgements) the purest film tosh. The remarkable success of such directors as David Lynch does not lie simply in their flair for composition and colour (which he has in abundance), but in their manipulation and construction of moving images in time. This involves articulating figures, objects and space itself through form and narrative as fantasy in the widest sense. It is here that mainstream film parts company with the experimental fine art-based films of Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow and, in video, Gary Hill and Bill Viola for example. It is also a reminder that art which is also entertainment (John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks) may be one of the most difficult things to pull off successfully.

Sherman’s film does not come into this league but neither does it come into the less ambitious league of simply being entertainment. Nor does it enter the league of the experimental fine art-based films – of Snow, early Warhol, et al. As you might expect, Sherman’s film is reminiscent of her photographic work – the close-ups of the slime of one of the corpse’s innards is like her ‘Disgust Pictures’ of 1987; the bunch of cadavers arranged around the TV set in her basement resonates with much of her recent work which has turned toward mannequins, freaks etc while Molly Ringwald, the protagonist in Office Killer, reminds me of the woman of the ‘Film Still Series’ which stars Sherman herself. But in the end, narrative wreaks its usual havoc on those whose artistic endeavours are based around the single image be it the canvas or the photographic print. Office Killer is a sub-Corman-cum-Cronenberg-cum-Wes Craven mess which does not contribute to the ‘bad’ film genre or to the awkward tongue-in-cheek nightmare scenarios of the infamous video nasty genre. As the Surrealists understood, you cannot create the reverie nor the eidetic unconscious of the naive B movie.

In the pre-First World War years such avant-gardists as Picasso and Apollinaire adored the popular cinema of silent comedies largely for its urbanity, humour, vulgar irreverence and sheer energy – it was after all the essence of modernity. The Futurists even made films and Balla planned an abstract film, but it was the Surrealists who embraced Hollywood to find, especially in B movies, the oneiric qualities that they sought in their own art. Fascinatingly, they turned out few filmmakers with the notable exception of Luis Buñuel – most of the others were minor figures. In the post-war years, mainstream cinema was where you went for emotional roughage after a day of struggles in the studio. For such a reason art movies were not popular with artists – much too serious.

In the great crossover decade of the 60s film did enter the art world but in its experimental mode, sometimes exploring the issues found in painting and sculpture, as in the film work of Warhol, Snow, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, at other times tying in with performance and theatre, as in the case of Jack Smith and Warhol again. Jonas Mekas formed the New York film co-op and the Arts Lab spawned its English counterpart in 1966. Throughout Europe, experimental film thrived in the atmosphere of the counter-culture and the anti-gallery conceptualism which peaked in the early 70s. This was the period that formed the talents of Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter and Ken Russell – all originally painters, dancers or photographers respectively. In fact one could argue that most of the best British filmmakers since the war came from art school backgrounds whereas in America, film school produced pure filmmakers like movie brats Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

The interesting exception is the art school-educated David Lynch whose Eraserhead is maybe to blame for this recent upsurge in art-world infatuation with Hollywood. His is a cinema which is quirky, dark, referential and arty in a low-culture way that resonates with certain postmodernists like Eric Fischl, Sherman, Longo. The feeding frenzy of the postmodernists on low culture after the starvation diet of the 70s is reminiscent of the Surrealists’ own relationship to the cinema as a huge source of objets trouvés. As the humanist values of painting become less central in the fragmented surfaces, borrowings and ahistoricism of postmodernism and as semiotics tolerates no aesthetic difference between painting and the artefacts of popular culture, we would seem to have other reasons for the banalities of the film offerings of Sherman, Salle, Schnabel et al.

What is bizarre is that these painters and photographers, who are discussed in relation to the most sophisticated ideas in art journals, reduce the medium of film to subject-matter, to plot and to clichéd style. The art of Blue Velvet (to stay with Lynch) is as hard to achieve as any other artistic project, it only looks easier, the way certain kinds of abstract or conceptual art does to most people.

Of course what they don’t experience in their new found medium is the anxiety of influence. What Sherman et al produce is not art in the way that the work of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, John Ford, Roberto Rossellini or Orson Welles is – not because their films fail as art but because these artists have no idea of how to begin to conceive of film as an art even in the intuitive way Ford did. It would be like asking Orson Welles to turn out a painting exhibition for MoMA. We would expect very little in the way of art, except something perhaps of a biographical or thematic interest. So if it is not art what is it? Bad popular entertainment, which is very bad. What is often forgotten in all the theorizing about Sherman is that she is an artist of the found object – she did not invent the frozen stances, gestures of the ‘Film Stills’ – she found them (her surrealist surfaces here reminding us of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart in which he pillaged a B movie for those gestures – looks that are the life-blood of a certain kind of cinematic surreality) and her art was in transposing them. Her originality is not in creating the styles she ransacks. Her film is a mish-mash which has none of the graphic vitality of popular horror, or the subtleties and true style of a Cronenberg, Lynch or Romero.

In Britain the rise of film and video in the art world has been nothing less than astonishing. Sam Taylor-Wood, Gillian Wearing, Douglas Gordon, Jane Wilson & Louise Wilson, Mark Wallinger, Tacita Dean, Georgina Starr, Steve McQueen and others – all working in film and video – made up the majority of the recent British Art Show. There are enormous differences in their approaches to the moving image, as you would expect. Taylor-Wood, McQueen and Dean are all working in some way with varying narrative forms. Gordon operates in a long tradition of found-footage (Joseph Cornell, Bruce Connor, Ken Jacobs) although his location of such images in an installation setting gives it originality. Slowing down classic feature films is not a new idea but doing it on the scale of Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho pushes the aesthetic possibilities of Warhol’s epic Empire somewhat further. Rumours of some of these artists moving into feature films (large budgets, actors, scripts, cinemas, audiences) must, in some cases, fill us with dread, in others, with some excitement. Unlike Sherman, Longo et al Sam TaylorWood, for example, has already explored aspects of narrative and more importantly of emotional states – her fascinating combination of early Warhol explorations of film as performance and of the gritty baroque emotionalism of Abel Ferrara, John Cassevetes and others provides a basis for extending her ambitions. Similarly McQueen whose muted psychodramas using exquisite frame composition, tense montage constructions and black and white photography places him within the historical avant-garde film of such as Maya Deren and a certain kind of form-driven art movie also reassures us of the integrity of any feature film ambitions if embedded in his present work. Unfortunately, but as a lesson to other artists, Damien Hirst’s damp squib Hanging Around depresses us in the way Sherman’s film does, in so far as its ambitions are not located in his sculptures or paintings. Instead of playing up to his artistic strengths in the realm of film he exposes his weakness, ignorance of film history and the fact of having nothing particular to say in that medium (how could it – good art is in part always dictated by its medium).

Beyond all of this is the simple fact that cinema audiences for mainstream Hollywood is not one that has much truck with contemporary gallery art. In the area of the new art movie – Lynch and Ferrara – audiences will give no quarter but measure, quite rightly, the output of these newcomers by the highest standards. Hopefully, the film ambition of the young British artists, if they come to anything, will find a true filmic space in which to deepen their art. Good luck.

1. Brian D’Amato, ‘Electric’, Artforum, Summer 1995.
2. Michael Duncan, ‘Hooray for Hollywood’, frieze, issue 25, Nov-Dec 1995.

Michael O’Pray teaches at University of East London, is director of the East London Gallery and wrote ‘Dear God, how much longer do I have to go?’ in Sam Taylor-Wood, Chisenhale Gallery, London 1996.

First published in Art Monthly 210: October 1997.

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