Friday, May 14, 2010

IFFB 2010 Night Seven: Marwencol and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

To say I have a love-hate relationship with the second-to-last night of IFFBoston is to overstate things; it has, after all, only been a distinct entity for two years now, it's a clever idea, and I really like the ICA as a movie venue. I think I'd be a poor movie fan if I only went see movies that I knew I would like, and a poor human being if I only went to documentaries on subjects which I had existing interest in. I genuinely like knowing new things, so I like to combine that with my love of film by seeing documentaries whenever I can. And having a night of films on artists and the creative process at the ICA is a clever idea on IFFBoston's part (last year's here).

But, man, when I got the schedule and saw that, once again, the ICA was the only option on its night, I found it kind of annoying, especially since I had to make hard decisions on other parts of the festival. After all, if you've shelled out near two hundred bucks or inflated your websites hit count (kidding!) to get a pass, and want to use it as much as possible, it's not unreasonable to wish that some of the stuff that played once while there were six screens running over the weekend had encore showings during the same time period as, say, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.

But... This evening did give me a chance to see Marwencol, which is excellent. I don't know what the distribution situation is, but here are a couple of noteworthy sites if you'd like to see the art featured in the movie: "Marwencol on My Mind" in Esopus Magazine, and the official site, which is mainly a blog featuring Mark Hogancamp's action-figure fumetti.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2010 at the Institute for Contemporary Art (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Documentaries about artists and art are frequently disappointing. Filmmakers try their best, but as artists themselves they can make intuitive leaps between their subject and his or her work that is not obvious to a general audience, who hear vague words and see abstractions. That's not the case with Marwencol; the artist and artwork are not just inseparable, but unusually accessible.

On 18 April 2010, Mark Hogancamp was attacked outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York by five young men, and sustained tremendous brain damage - he had to relearn how to walk, talk, and even feed himself; he not only lost his memory, but a great deal of control over his anger and ability to concentrate. Naturally, he had a wholly inadequate rehabilitation program, and when released from the hospital, was more or less left ot his own devices. What he came up with was "Marwencol", a 1:6-scale Belgian village, circa World War II, that he built in his back yard and populated with army and fashion dolls. One was named after himself; others after friends and family. He would build an intricate narrative around these characters, and photograph them. Eventually, a professional photographer, David Naugle, would see his work, and forward it to Esopus magazine editor Tod Lippy, leading to a gallery show in Soho.

Even without context, Hogancamp's work is striking; he has a natural eye for composition (although, before he had a digital camera, it took long rounds of trial and error to learn the craft of photography), he can use a still photograph to tell a story, and an eye for detail. His photographs flit across the uncanny valley without being trapped in the middle; though clearly made of toys and sometimes out of scale to the environment, the scenes often seem real. I would (and will) happily purchase a book featuring Mark's photos.

Full review at EFC.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 April 2010 at the Institute for Contemporary Art (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

In the last review I wrote (for the delightful "Marwencol"), I said that documentaries about art and artists were frequently disappointing, in part because filmmakers have a hard time translating the brilliance they see into something a non-artist can appreciate. Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child is an example of that, a loving tribute that probably tells his existing fans very little new but fails to paint a compelling enough picture to create new ones.

"In 1986," director Tamra Davis opens, "I filmed an interview with my friend Jean-Michel Basquiat." He died soon after, and Davis put the footage away, rediscovering it a decade later. It forms the spine of her documentary, although it is greatly augmented by stock footage, some imagery of his work, and contemporary interviews with Basquiat's friends and acquaintances. A familiar picture emerges - the talented youth who gains fame and success, gets into bad patterns, including substance abuse, and either emerges stronger or, like Basquiat, dies young.

You've seen this movie, both as a documentary and as a feature, if not necessarily about Basquiat specifically (in 1996's Basquiat), though it's the ones about musicians that generally get more play. And though it's a cruel thing to say, Basquiat's story as told by Davis isn't a particularly interesting variation on the theme. It's by turns inspiring and sad in all the usual ways, and his personal and professional life's intersections with the likes of Andy Warhol and the rest of the New York art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s means that there's no shortage of colorful characters, but when looking at this film afterward, what stands out, makes it a particularly fascinating example of the genre? Very little.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: