Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine (2008) tenderly untangles the personal and public lives of the esteemed artist, and clocks in at just over an hour and a half—as if to offer a minute for each of her ninety-six years. The film is the third and final production by the Art Kaleidoscope Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1990 by Marion Cajori (1950–2006), who began work on this film in 1993 with codirector Amei Wallach and editor Ken Kobland. Its premiere at Film Forum precedes a presentation of Bridgette Cornand’s documentary video trilogy at Anthology Film Archives, and both coincide with Bourgeois’s full-career retrospective at the Guggenheim.
Like Cajori’s previous features about Joan Mitchell and Chuck Close, which provide unusually candid interviews, this atmospheric portrait of Bourgeois bypasses the dryness of most art documentaries. It resembles instead a work of art in its own right, no doubt fueled by the uncanny sight of an artist revisiting her ideas from over forty years ago with vivid clarity. The film’s three sections are titled after Bourgeois’s sculptural installation I Do, I Undo, I Redo, 1999–2000, and explore several of her major themes, including memory, trauma, and identity. Although difficult to encapsulate, the best précis of Bourgeois’s career is offered near the end of the film by Tate Modern curator Frances Morris, who notes, “For me, the first encounters with Louise were really as a historic figure, a classic modern twentieth-century artist. Subsequent encounters with her were as a contemporary artist. . . . She’s the only figure in twentieth-century art that I see in both these contexts. . . . As she’s become physically older and, in a way, more ambitious, her work has become more universal.”
Other interviews with curators, such as Robert Storr and Deborah Wye, offer personal glimpses of their relationships with the artist. Wye emphatically states that she was “totally taken” and “in her power” when she first met Bourgeois; Storr compares Bourgeois to a vampire sucking up psychological energy. (“But most of the time she’s putting energy out,” he concedes.) However, the most scintillating bons mots are offered by the doyenne herself, and there are enough here to fill up a pocket-size inspirational book. These weave through the film as she gleefully describes and lovingly caresses her works, like little children. A few gems: “The purpose of sculpture is really self-knowledge”; “The artist has a privilege of being in touch with his or her unconscious”; and, in response to a question from her longtime assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, “You have to read between the lines when I talk.”
Although Bourgeois’s joie de vivre is infectious and at times downright endearing (as when she rides in a Cadillac or wears a fluffy, hot-pink coat), viewers are reminded how her works have shaped—and have been shaped by—the art world. Never fully embraced by Dada, Surrealist, or Abstract Expressionist circles, she stopped showing her work in the early ’50s, only to gain late-career success in the ’80s, when “Greenberg formalism was on the way out.” As Gorovoy aptly puts it, “My generation was interested in narrative. . . . Louise had been mining that area for a long time.”
Not long after Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” plays on the sound track, the moody and meditative film concludes with a montage depicting an invasion of sorts: Bourgeois’s massive bronze spider sculptures parked in front of art institutions around the world. Bourgeois notes that her spiders have been her most successful subjects and represent her mother, yet the film makes a stronger case that the artist is her own most successful subject and is the “mother” of generations of artists, particularly those working with feminist themes. As two members of the Guerrilla Girls argue, “Whether she likes it or not, she’s our icon.”
Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress, and the Tangerine runs at Film Forum from June 25 to July 7. To view the trailer for this film, click here. Brigitte Cornand's La Rivière Gentille runs at Anthology Film Archives July 8–20.
“WHEN THE PRISONERS began to speak,” Michel Foucault told Gilles Deleuze during a 1972 conversation on power, “they possessed an individual theory of prisons, the penal system, and justice. It is this form of discourse which ultimately matters, a discourse against power, the counter-discourse of prisoners and those we call delinquents—and not a theory about delinquency.”
To watch certain of Danny Lyon’s films is to read Discipline and Punish through the aperture of a camera. Lyon’s figures are more than just delinquents, though, more than subjects of an academic study (such that either of these terms is anemic, attenuated by emotional distance and sterility). Most of the people featured in Lyon’s films are, in fact, friends, men (almost always men) encountered during his sojourns and projects, while shooting his numerous photo essays and making other films. There is Willie Jaramillo, the eponymous lead of Lyon’s 1985 movie, who originally appeared in Llanito (1971), the first of Lyon’s many films set in New Mexico. Another, Michael Guzman, whom Lyon met while shooting Willie, is a protagonist of Murderers, a half-hour documentary made in 2006. And there is Eddie, the undocumented migrant worker who stars in both El Chivo (ca. 1970s) and El Mojado (1974). Lyon sticks with people.
Futility is a running theme: In one scene of Willie, a man comically, desperately chops firewood with a hammer. In Media Man (1994), a stadium of fans at a bumper-car derby cheers as junkers haltingly crash into one another. Security fences, punching bags, graveyards, beat-up cars: These are Lyon’s tropes. Bleak Beauty, he calls his production company. The journeys he charts (and sometimes facilitates) are those across borders, those into and out of prison, those, often, to nowhere in particular. It’s the peculiarly American, desperate aimlessness of the underclass—our country, riven with roads, none of which take you where you want to go.
Lyon’s sympathies lie with those who are hard up against said borders, who are contained and who ultimately break past them only, perhaps, to be broken by them all the same. “Freedom is what I’m doin’ right now. Sittin’ down and talkin’ to you,” says Jesse Ruiz, one subject of Murderers, a man who had just spent eight and a half years in penitentiary for beating another man to death in Alphabet City with a Louisville Slugger. “Outside prison; this is freedom.” Freedom has perhaps never been so succinctly, convincingly, defined.
Rare are films that hew so closely to the vaunted spirit of “independent media.” In Lyon’s cinema, there is no studio support, little in the way of a “crew.” His unflappable wife, Nancy, often appears in the frame, smirking and hoisting a boom mic in one hand as she lugs a suitcase filled with sound equipment in the other. Credits are brief and include notes such as CHILDCARE: GABRIELLE LYON. Rare, too, are films so honest, so clear in their intentions and sympathies, yet largely free of didactic impulses. Lyon’s only agenda is to get people to talk and to get us to listen; the concerns of policy think tanks seem abstract and beyond the pale. His practice is simply the implementation of an instinct for people.
“What you guys doin’?” a man in Willie asks Lyon from behind bars.
“Uh . . . that’s a good question,” Lyon replies.
“Are you with a publication?”
“Nah, no, no. I’m makin’ a film, you know. Makin’ my own film.”
“Born to Film: The Cinema of Danny Lyon,” a retrospective of features and shorts the artist made between 1969 and 2006, runs June 20–26 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Concurrent with this retrospective, Edwynn Houk Gallery is presenting an exhibition of Lyon’s photographs.
Jacques Rivette, Céline and Julie Go Boating, 1974, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 193 minutes. Left: Julie (Dominique Labourier). Right: Céline (Juliet Berto).
IN HIS AMOROUS 1975 essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater,” Roland Barthes intimates that “we go to the movies through sloth, out of an inclination for idleness, inactivity. It is as though, before even entering the theater, the traditional prerequisites for hypnosis were met: a feeling of emptiness, idleness, inactivity: we dream, not by viewing the film or by the effect of its content, rather, we dream, unwittingly, before becoming its spectator. There exists a ‘cinematic condition’ and this condition is prehypnotic.” In the essay, Barthes avoids referring to any film in particular, but his hallucinatory description of a disembodied spectator—hypnotized, doubled, “twice fascinated”—certainly reminds me of the eponymous protagonists who occupy both sides of the looking glass in Jacques Rivette’s 1974 masterpiece Céline and Julie Go Boating. Ingesting magic candy, amateur magician Céline (Juliet Berto) and librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) slip into the rabbit hole of narrative; in return, they stare at us through a trippy two-way mirror with wide-eyed attention, sometimes horrified by what they see, sometimes amused, giggling. Their screen is our screen, too.
Arriving at the tail end of the New Wave—it should be noted that Rivette, like auteurs Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol, wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma and replaced Eric Rohmer as editor in 1963—Céline and Julie seemingly predicts, among other things, the Lacanian cinema theory of Christian Metz’s Imaginary Signifier (1977) and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (written in 1973, published in 1975). If the latter essay dissected the male’s gaze and the female’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” encoded in cinema, then Rivette’s film is remarkable in its positioning of its female leads as both characters and spectators (mostly) in control of the film’s subjectivity and outcome. (Despite Rivette’s position as director, Berto and Labourier are credited as writers, and indeed, much of the film was improvised, which surely informs its playful, unrushed sensibility.) It is never clear whether Céline and Julie are lovers or just friends—or perhaps each other’s imaginary friend; the film’s allusive subtitle is Phantom Ladies over Paris. But the pair clearly reflect complex aspects of each other in their game of cat and mouse.
Beginning June 13, a new and long-overdue 35-mm print of Céline and Julie will receive a weeklong run, inaugurating BAMcinématek’s “Directors’ Fortnight at 40” series. Even at three and a quarter hours—an eternity in our Quicktime moment—Céline and Julie is hardly Rivette’s most demanding film: That honor goes to his 1971 ensemble film Out 1, which runs nearly twelve and a half hours (some 225 minutes of which were restructured and released in 1974 as Out 1: Spectre). Breezy in comparison, Céline and Julie nevertheless invents its own sense of time, meandering in and around Montmarte with a dreamy summertime rhythm that is occasionally prone to repetitions, stutters, and blackouts. Its structure is a Möbius strip: The film literally begins and ends in the same location, with Céline and Julie swapping places. Rivette bends genres while nodding to cinema’s variegated history by inserting a suspenseful horror story—and what seems to be a haunted house—inside an endearing, slow-motion slapstick comedy, efficiently connecting the dots between vaudeville and genuine movie magic along the way. Viewing Rivette’s hypnotic film is perhaps the perfect fulfillment of summer’s “inclination for idleness,” because when Céline and Julie go boating, we go boating, too.
For more information about “Directors' Fortnight at 40,” which runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinématek from June 13 to July 3, click here. Céline and Julie Go Boating screens June 13–19.
THE LATE ARTIST Derek Jarman’s warm, unhesitating voice, offering personal reminiscences and pointed opinions throughout a previously unaired 1990 interview, threads through Derek, an idiosyncratic portrait directed by his friend Isaac Julien. Scenes from Jarman’s film experiments, art-house features, and pop-music videos are interspersed with Julien’s own footage of Tilda Swinton, Jarman’s longtime muse, passing ghostlike through today’s tidy London. The contrast is palpable—Julien’s composed icy blues, framing the glass facades of so many corporate towers, make Jarman’s freewheeling cardinal reds and sensuous expanses of skin seem of another era. In a voice-over, Swinton reads her wistful 2002 “Letter to an Angel.” “I think that the reason that you count for so much, so uniquely, to some people, particularly in this hidebound little place we call home, is that you lived so clearly the life that an artist lives,” she says.
Military-brat uprootedness, early exposure to The Wizard of Oz and La Dolce Vita, and a formative sojourn in the United States marked the early phase of that life. On his return to England in the mid-’60s, Jarman desultorily attended the Slade School of Art and was galvanized by his friendship with David Hockney. He moved into an unconverted corset factory and made Super-8 shorts starring visitors. Then came the first films we know him for. In his words: “Sebastiane was sex; Jubilee was violence.” Libidinal antiauthoritarism, in the form of punk rock and gay dance clubs, gave way to the straitening era of Thatcherism, with Jarman scattering painterly films like blossoms all the while.
HIV/AIDS scythed through his community, and Jarman grounded the political essence of his exuberant filmmaking by coming out publicly as a victim of the virus. His remaining seven years, poignant and resilient, brought minor masterpieces, from his 1993 film Blue to the garden at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, his retreat. Julien’s film, more homage than full biographical study, is an affected yet affecting collage, sure to help stave off, if only for a short while, the narrator’s assertion near the end of Blue: “In time, / No one will remember our work / Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud.”
Derek screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 9 to June 16. For more information, click here. To read the text of Tilda Swinton's “Letter to an Angel,” originally published in The Guardian, click here. To see Julien and Swinton discuss the film, click here.
THE COOL SCHOOL is Morgan Neville’s snappy eighty-six-minute documentary about the emergence of an art scene in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, specifically about the circle of artists and supporters associated with the Ferus Gallery. Period photographs and film clips, together with the “cool” jazz on the sound track, transport viewers to Los Angeles of the 1950s and ’60s, with its notable storefronts (May Company and Eat in the Hat restaurant), its cars barreling down brand-new freeways, and its bohemian enclaves, including Venice, then home to derelict buildings and neglected canals. Extraordinary footage of the nascent art scene includes Ed Kienholz at the local watering hole Barney’s Beanery; visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art commenting on Kienholz’s Back Seat Dodge ’38, 1964; Marcel Duchamp interviewed at the opening of his retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963; and a young Andy Warhol at his second show at Ferus, also in 1963. Many of the era’s heavy hitters—now in their sixties and seventies—consented to interviews, including Irving Blum, Dennis Hopper, Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, and Frank Gehry. The film also contains poignant clips of Walter Hopps speaking at the opening of a George Herms retrospective, the last exhibition he curated, twelve days before he died in 2005.
In 1957, Hopps and Kienholz joined forces to open a gallery devoted to contemporary art from Northern and Southern California. Many of those interviewed revere Hopps and credit him with being the spark that ignited Ferus, if not the entire Los Angeles art scene. Eventually, Kienholz left the gallery, and Blum fortuitously partnered with Hopps. Blum, repeatedly described as the Cary Grant of the art world, engineered a distinct shift in the gallery’s program. Moving it across the street to a sleeker storefront space, he radically pared down the number of Californians affiliated with the gallery and invited artists from New York to exhibit, famously giving Warhol his first solo gallery show. As collector Donald Factor puts it, “Wealthy people felt comfortable. . . . Whereas if it had been left up to Walter, it would have been full of students and beatniks.”
By including many photographs depicting the antics of Blum and his artists, the film highlights the importance of publicity in promoting the gallery. The men played up their machismo, presenting themselves as “The Studs,” but at points the aging artists let down their guard; Billy Al Bengston, for instance, flatly confesses his distrust of Blum’s maneuverings. Self-promotion, celebrity, and, of course, talent all put Ferus at the center of the city’s burgeoning contemporary art world and led to the gallery’s demise when the group inevitably splintered. The end of Ferus, in 1966, presaged the beginning of a new, vibrant moment in feminist, performance, video, and Chicano art in Los Angeles, developments touched on only briefly by The Cool School.
The interviewees repeatedly cast Los Angeles as culturally barren until the arrival of the visionary (if idiosyncratic) Hopps and the ascension of Ferus. Bengston calls the city a wasteland, and narrator Jeff Bridges asserts, “Los Angeles built an art scene from scratch.” No doubt Hopps generated interest in contemporary art by collaborating with young artists in Los Angeles and San Francisco, by mounting groundbreaking shows at both Ferus and, later, the Pasadena Art Museum, and by grooming potential collectors at his UCLA extension course on contemporary art. And no doubt philistinism and censorship were prevalent in the city: In 1951, as recounted in The Cool School, city officials derided a painting of boats for purportedly secreting a hammer and sickle on a sail, and in 1957, the vice squad raided Wallace Berman’s show at Ferus and arrested the artist for obscenity.
Nonetheless, it is also true that there is a long history of modernist art production in Los Angeles. Ferus didn’t operate in a void. Other galleries, such as Dwan, Felix Landau, and Primus-Stuart, exhibited contemporary art in the ’60s, and alternative circles of artists, musicians, writers, and independent filmmakers also established niches for themselves. By focusing only on the Ferus artists and by minimizing the disagreements among them, The Cool School offers a somewhat one-dimensional narrative of the city’s art scene, even as it provides a lively and clear account of that seminal group.
The interviewees often allude to the towering presence of New York. At points, artists dismiss the New York art world altogether, while at other times, they claim Los Angeles outstripped New York or at the very least shared the limelight with Manhattan. Snippets from an interview with Ivan Karp, former director of Leo Castelli Gallery, may explain why the West Coast artists have chips on their shoulders. Karp’s dripping condescension toward Los Angeles and its artists is extraordinary, matched only by the disdain for the locals expressed during the ’60s by Henry Seldis, the homegrown Los Angeles Times art critic. These attitudes point to why the story of Ferus needs to be told again. The special contribution of The Cool School is that it preserves the vivid recollections of those who were intimately involved in the gallery at a time when it helped make such high-handed dismissal of the Los Angeles art scene a sign not of sophistication but of cultural naïveté.
Cécile Whiting is professor in the Department of Art History and the graduate program in visual studies at University of California, Irvine, and the author of Pop LA: Art and the City in the 1960s (University of California Press, 2006). A sixty-minute version of The Cool School premieres on PBS on June 10. Click here to check local listings, and click here to watch the trailer.
Steve McQueen, Hunger, 2008, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Left: Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbenger). Right: Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) and Gerry Campbell (Liam McMahon)
Issues of control, power, and defiance are central to nearly every frame of Hunger, artist Steve McQueen’s first feature film, which won the Camera d’Or at last month’s Cannes Film Festival. The tension between extremes is palpable throughout, with the impact of Hunger’s most violent and appalling imagery counterbalanced by its rigorous composition and patient construction. In his recounting of events in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in the months leading up to and during Bobby Sands’s sixty-six-day hunger strike, which culminated in Sands's being the first of ten IRA inmates to die in an effort to gain recognition as political prisoners, McQueen displays his own kind of defiance. Though the film's visual austerity and documentary-like immediacy bring to mind the early TV dramas and features of British social-realist filmmakers Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, McQueen consistently upends expectations about how his film ought to look and behave—both as a docudrama and as the work of a visual artist making the difficult transition to narrative features. (Julian Schnabel may get Oscar nominations these days, but big-screen efforts by Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and David Salle all fit into a larger pattern of flops.)
For one thing, Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) doesn’t even emerge as the film’s subject until a third of the way through the script, which McQueen authored with Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The closely observed experiences of Raymond Lohan (Stuart Graham), a vicious but internally conflicted prison guard, and Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan), a determined young IRA prisoner, serve to establish a context for Sands’s decision, which he then justifies to a visiting priest (played by Liam Cunningham) in a pair of extraordinarily lengthy single-take scenes that are as psychologically nuanced and thoughtful as the preceding scenes of prison brutality are horrific.
The final section’s depiction of Sands’s self-sacrifice mostly takes place in a kind of awed silence; having exhausted his use for words, Sands seems able to communicate only through the hideous lesions that appear on his emaciated body. Not surprisingly, the human form in extreme states of distress is Hunger’s primary visual motif, and the viscera coming out of those bodies manages to cover nearly every visible surface in the prisoners’ tightly confining and tightly controlled environment. Though such sights as a cell wall caked with prisoners’ feces can never exactly be beautified, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s neutral presentation dignifies them without excessively aestheticizing them. An even more primal physicality inheres in the actors’ performances. Whereas visual artists who attempt feature films frequently do not know what to do with the people in front of their cameras (think of Norman Mailer’s cringe-inducing appearance in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 2), McQueen is a highly capable director of actors, as evidenced by the centerpiece scene with Sands and Father Dominic Moran.
Only in the last part of the film does Hunger lose force, as the director resorts to some trite imagery to convey Sands’s final moments—unsurprisingly, the textbook lyricism of birds taking flight does not fit very well in a movie whose signature shot might be of a prison guard mopping up puddles of urine. But McQueen has done more than enough to convince viewers of his huge promise as a filmmaker. No recent British movie has been quite so ferocious. (Hunger also qualifies as the most stylistically radical film about the Troubles since Elephant, a still-bracing nonnarrative 1989 short by the late Clarke. If Hunger’s most shocking moment, of Raymond’s murder by an IRA assassin, is a fair indication, Clarke’s movie was as much an inspiration for McQueen as it was for Gus Van Sant, who borrowed the title for his 2003 Palme d’Or winner.)
But McQueen also manages to wrest from his subject a sense of contemporary relevance. The images in Hunger are too uncomfortably familiar for this exercise in reconstruction to be perceived at a historical remove. McQueen has said that when he began the project at the beginning of 2003, “there was no Iraq War, no Guantánamo Bay, no Abu Ghraib.” However, his film will inevitably be regarded within the context of these events. In such extreme circumstances, the human body may be the last desperate frontier of protest. Hunger makes this all too clear.