Yellow is Forbidden (2019)

I’ve been making an attempt in the last few years to learn more about fashion as an artform – something I have a lot of ground to catch up on after decades of being a snotty brat who didn’t appreciate its full value. Unlike other niche artforms I’ve recently taken a better-late-than-never interest in – pro wrestling, drag, comic books, etc. – fashion doesn’t have an easy crash course introduction to its history or artistry. You can pick up practically any comic book issue, tune into any wrasslin’ bout, or drop by any dive bar drag show and get a basic feel for the merits of their respective media. To fully get fashion, by contrast, there’s centuries of factual history, evolution in craft, cultural context, and seasonal fads to catch up on to even approach a basic appreciation of what you’re looking at. I’ve found a couple decent quick-fix workarounds to this daunting gap in my art history education: The podcast Dressed: The History of Fashion is an excellent resource, although an auditory account of a visual medium. Reality competition shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, and America’s Next Top Model drop fashion history context in small morsels while showing off the basic building blocks of workroom craft (when not distracted with the typical beats of reality TV drama). Documentaries, then, would seem like the perfect middle ground between the fashion history podcast & the reality completion show – offering an explicitly visual format that can discuss historical context and fully display the artistry of the medium. That’s why it’s so frustrating that so many fashion documentaries fail their subjects by only profiling personalities & historical movements – literally losing sight of the artform being discussed, zapping it of its visual majesty.

Although its own subject is extremely niche, Yellow is Forbidden is a cut above the average fashion documentary in this way. A feature-length profile of Chinese couture designer Guo Pei, the film largely traffics in the well-established grooves of the fashion doc as a medium. Its fascination with Guo Pei’s larger-than-life ambition & peculiar persona, and its tangential interest in the history of Chinese fashion & the current state of Chinese textile production, are well in tune with the concerns of the typical fashion documentary. It even works those contextual details into a clear narrative structure, following Guo Pei as she prepares for a career-high runway collection meant to earn her recognition among the Parisian haute couture elite. Where Yellow is Forbidden overachieves within its own medium, however, is in the cinematic eye of its director (and fine art journalist) Pietra Brettkelly. Within just a few minutes of the film I was crying at the beauty & extravagance of Guo Pei’s work. That’s not something that can be achieved with a photograph or a podcast recap or even television news coverage of a runway show. Guo Pei’s extravagant, hand-beaded art gowns speak loudly for themselves as grand, inspired works of genius design, ambitious collaborations that take years to stitch into place. I’m sure seeing them in person, whether in motion on the runway or propped up on art museum display, could easily trigger an emotional response in an observer. That’s not an easy experience to reproduce in the document of a show, however, and I’ve seen few fashion films even attempt to do so as actively as Yellow is Forbidden. Brettkelly shoots Guo Pei’s designs with the careful, eerie beauty of an arthouse nature documentary, matching the avant-garde designs on display with its own heightened cinematic language. It’s an impulse I wish were more prevalent in the fashion doc as a medium.

Guo Pei is most widely recognized for having designed a bright yellow dress modeled by Rihanna at the Met Gala in 2015. The story of how she & that gown got to that world stage and how much of a struggle it has been to be recognized by the infamously snobbish Parisian couture elite in the years since is perfectly suited for the documentary feature treatment. Themes of class disparity, political tyranny, racial & gendered glass ceilings, and the abuses of auteurist ambition arise naturally in Guo Pei’s quest to impress The Haute Couture Commission with her climactic runway show. Brettkelly could have very easily rested on the virtues of telling that story in plain documentarian language. Instead, Guo Pei’s intensely dyed fabrics, wedding gowns made of pearls, and glow-in-the-dark contraptions are treated as part of a larger, ethereal cinematic language that includes goldfish fins waving in slow-motion, kaleidoscopes turning in impossible configurations, and the cold digital exterior views of cityscapes being harshly interrupted by intensely colorful art shows of the museums they contain. Composer Tom Third matches this eerie beauty with an appropriately atmospheric, delicately sinister score. Brettkelly excels at the fashion documentary by keeping in mind that she’s not only documenting history; she’s also cataloging fine art – an achievement in craft & a sensory experience that’s difficult, but necessary to recreate in your documentation to do couture creations justice. The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.

If you’re as ignorant to the history & cultural context of the fashion industry as I am, I’m not sure that Yellow is Forbidden will do much to fill in those gaps of personal knowledge. There’s some insight here into textile production & the political limitations of the industry’s gatekeepers. Yet, this story of one artist’s struggle for recognition & legitimacy within that paradigm is a little too specific to be all that illuminating in a big picture sense. Guo Pei’s work in particular is very much worthy of study for anyone with an interest in fashion as an artform, though, no matter how well versed you are in the subject. Yellow is Forbidden does justice to her artistry by at least attempting to match her ambition in its own craft, no matter the impossibility of that task. That’s an ethos that the fashion documentary template in general could benefit from repeating, as too many middling docs chase down the medium’s history at the expense of its visual art.

-Brandon Ledet

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As Is (2017)

Imagine being told the best band you’ve never heard before just played a mind-blowing concert nearby, but it’s okay that you missed it because there was an all-access documentary produced around the event. The documentary shows you all of the practice, fine-tuning and songwriting leading up to the day of that mind-blowing, life-changing, world-stopping concert, and then documents none of the performance itself, just the reactions of the people who were there in the audience. Would that leave you frustrated or satisfied? The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick “Not That Nick Cave” Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.

Glimpses at Nick Cave’s visual creations is certainly the draw for this unassuming art doc. Cave is most well-known for his “sound suits,” costumes that essentially look like a Yo Gabba Gabba! character made out of brightly colored cheerleader pompoms. The construction of these costumes is very reminiscent of the similar traditional garb worn at Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations (Courir de Mardi Gras); the beaded blankets meant to accompany them in the one-time performance are similar to the beading of Mardi Gras Indian costumes. This Louisiana cultural context is entirely ignored by Cave, an “international artist” who acts as if he were creating these works in a void. Incorporating over 600 collaborators from the Shreveport area as beaders, dancers, musicians, and lyricists, he certainly interacts with the local community. He just treats that interaction like an act of charity instead of a cultural exchange by making a huge to do about how his show has elevated local visual art with high falutin’ NYC production values. He speaks of the cultural & religious undertones in As Is in such vague terms that by the time a gospel choir arrives to sing about how “He changed my life and now I’m free” it’s understandable to assume they’re praising Nick Cave, not God. Lip service is paid to healing the trauma of Katrina, homelessness, mental illness, and so on among the local people of Shreveport, but as the film goes on the whole show starts to feel like a complex ego boost for Cave himself and nobody else.

So, was As Is a once-in-a-lifetime art event that forever transformed Shreveport and sealed Nick Cave’s legacy as a charitable, soul-healing deity? It’s tough to tell, because this film does not invite the audience to see the performance for themselves. The gospel, zydeco, light shows, sound suits, and (appallingly muted) Big Freedia performances suggest that it could have either been a total mess or a work of genius. Without being given enough evidence to verify either way, it’s difficult not to turn on Nick Cave as he boasts at length about the transformative nature of his art and all of the good deeds he’s done bringing real culture to Shreveport (again, without acknowledging the immediate similarities between his work & long-established Louisiana culture). As Is might be a much more rewarding doc for anyone who actually witnessed its subject in person, but for everyone on the outside looking in, it’s a frustratingly incomplete work about the supposedly transformative accomplishments of a very vain man. At least the beading and sound suits are verifiably cool-looking; there isn’t much else to latch onto.

-Brandon Ledet

Love and Saucers (2017)

There was an audible wave of giggling in my audience with the opening line of dialogue in the documentary Love and Saucers. The subject of the doc, visual artist David Huggins, explains directly to the camera, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extraterrestrial. That’s all I can say about it.” It’s somewhat understandable that an audience would titter at the outlandishness of that claim and the movie that parses out the details of David’s stories is often content to find humor in its absurdity, but I was personally more struck by the confession’s supernatural terror. David Huggins is entirely sincere about his reports of hundreds of encounters with space aliens, which are mostly sexual in nature. His impressionistic paintings that illustrate these encounters are more art therapy than ironic kitsch, and you could hear the terror & the sadness in his voice as he recounts the stories behind them. There’s inevitably going to be a contingent of viewers who view Lovers and Saucers as a “Get a load of this weirdo!” line of humor at David’s expense, but the truth is that both the movie and the artist are tragically, horrifyingly sincere.

Huggins lives a mostly solitary life, holed up in his Hoboken apartment/art studio with piles of sci-fi & horror themed VHS tapes & paper backs providing inspiration for his illustrations. He proudly displays titles like The Day of the Dolphin, Sssssss, Teenagers from Outer Space, The Thing From Another World, and Son of Frankenstein for the camera, explaining why the sci-fi genre and the VHS format are so important to him. At 72 years old, he’s stuck in his ways: working a menial job at a nearby deli, keeping his stories of alien abductions private outside his family & follow paranormal enthusiasts, and painting Impressionist illustrations of his memories interacting, erotically, with the space aliens that have targeted him throughout his life. There’s a wide variety of species within these alien tormentors’ ranks, including the classic “greys,” a bigfoot-type “hairy guy,” the humanoid aliens David fucks, their hybrid offspring, and a voyeur mantis who enjoys watching their copulation. Whether or not audiences cosign belief in the creatures’ existence, David has to live & cope with that reality daily and there’s a tragic sense of terror in that isolation & grief.

Love and Saucers follows the same approach to oral history documentary filmmaking that Rodney Ascher employs in his docs about sleep paralysis & The Shining-inspired conspiracy theories. David is allowed to tell his own story directly to the audience with no editorial judgement made on his personal account of the facts. He’s an endearing man with an unshakable smile, so this is far from a portrait of a Henry Darger-type recluse. Still, his stories of repeat sexual encounters with an alien species have a distinctly menacing tone underneath them, one the film accentuates by intercutting them with images from David’s illustrations, like a nightmare intruding a wandering thought. The matter of fact way David explains things like, “This is my other body,” and the fact that his illustrations are genuinely fascinating works on their own leave the film with a sincere sense of heartache & menace. I understand the temptation to treat Love and Saucers & David’s accounts of his personal history with alien sex as a goof or a lark, but much like its subject’s art this movie mostly functions like a strangely beautiful nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet

The Well-Intentioned Letdown of When John Waters Targeted the Art World

Starting with the mid-career course correction of Polyester, cult director John Waters had a kind of creative epiphany. In his earliest works of divine genius (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, etc.), the trash-dwelling provocateur gave life to insular freakshows of over-the-top Baltimore personalities, outsiders who were naturally exuding a punk rock nastiness when hippie feel-goodery still ruled the counterculture. Polyester and its suburban-set follow-ups (Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom) found an even more subversive platform for his cinematic freaks, contrasting their outlandish trashiness with the supposedly more well-behaved sect of Proper Society. Hairspray & Cry-Baby were especially adept at exposing suburbia for being a sea of hateful, racist, close-minded assholes in a way that wouldn’t be apparent in more insular settings like Desperate Living‘s Mortville, where the weirdos keep to themselves. After four consecutive films exposed this suburban evil, however, Waters was in need of a new target. Mainstream commercial success had entirely changed his outsider status as a renegade filmmaker & a provocateur by the mid-90s. Waters found himself the toast of both the suburban monsters he’d lampooned for the better part of a decade and the art world snobs who enjoyed his early works for their supposed dedication to irony. With suburbia thoroughly skewered, the director fired off two successive films that targeted the ironic hipsters & mainstream moviegoers who fundamentally misunderstood his passions & his appeal. The intent was admirably calculated, but the results were . . . mixed.

It pains me to write anything even remotely negative about a director I consider to be the greatest artist, if not greatest human being, of all times forever. The nu-metal vibes of the late 90s & early 00s were just poisonous for pop culture in general, though, so it would make sense that Waters would experience the worst creative slump of his career in that era. You can feel him introspectively reaching for something to say in his 1998 comedy Pecker, which continues his childhood period piece navel-gazing in Hairspray & Cry-Baby by centering on a weirdo teen artist who accidentally makes it big just by goofing around with his nobody loved-ones in Baltimore. I think the biggest misconception of Waters’s career, particularly in his early “trash” pictures, is that his portrayals of over-the-top Baltimore caricatures are entirely rooted in a sense of irony. Those pictures are actually coming from a place of feverishly obsessive love. There’s obviously a sense of camp that informs his humor, but Waters also deeply loves & admires early regulars like Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey (as well as his home city of Baltimore) and seemingly only makes his films as a way to document & broadcast their art & their obsessions. Pecker is, above all else, a film about that clash between his intent & public perception of his work. Just as Waters obsessively made movies about his weirdo friends in 1970s Baltimore, he depicts a young photographer (Edward Furlong, the titular Pecker) who obsessively documents his loved ones & their surroundings on the same city streets. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when, in the film and in life, Big City hipsters latch onto those characters only with a sense of irony, laughing at them instead of with them.

Pecker is a film about obsession & authenticity. Even beyond the titular protagonist’s bottomless passion for photography, every character in his social circle has a sitcom-esque dedication to a singular interest: candy, laundromats, shoplifting, clothing the homeless, gay men, pubic hair, ventriloquism, teabagging, etc. These damned souls stay dutifully within their own lanes, only speaking on their one respective topic of interest whenever prompted for dialogue. Pecker finds their passions endearing & documents them within his own sole interest: photography. When his art takes off to an unlikely notoriety in New York City, he assumes everyone championing his photographs is similarly celebrating the beauty of his subjects. Instead, they’re ironically laughing at his “culturally challenged” family & friends for their perceived tackiness. Once this Big City hipster irony is revealed as a real world evil, the film eventually takes the form of a good-natured revenge tale. Pecker invites his new Art World “friends” to Baltimore for his latest show, where they’re given a taste of their own medicine as the derogatory subject of his photographs, a source of mockery. They’re briefly gawked at by Baltimore weirdos as the true freaks for once, until Pecker unites both sides for a climactic party where everyone shares indulgences in each other’s obsessions & collectively cheer, “To the end of irony!” The point being made in that celebration is admirable and I love that Waters took his audience to task for looking down on his weirdo friends as inhuman curiosities instead of genuinely joining in the celebration of their obsessions. The comedy just doesn’t feel as sharp or, frankly, as dirty as it should to match the laugh riot heights of earlier triumphs. Besides a few details involving strip clubs & gay bars (of which The Fudge Palace feels like an obvious ode to New Orleans staple The Corner Pocket), the film didn’t feel very much interested in its own subjects, at least not with the same obsessive intensity they were interested in things like candy & pubic hair. It seems in making a film about art & obsessions, Waters somewhat lost track of funneling his own passionate obsessions into his art.

Cecil B. Demented, the 2000 follow-up to Pecker, feels even more creatively exhausted. Waters shifts his focus slightly from the irony of Art World assholes to the slow death of modern cinema, which he sees as being completely drained of the obsessive artistic passions of his earlier work. Here, the director sides with the artsy types he previously lampooned in order to take aim at the corporate business end of film production. In an opening credits sequence that’s only become more relevant as the years roll on, movie theater marquees are overrun by sequels, franchise titles like Star Trek & Star Wars, comedies starring disposable knuckleheads like Pauly Shore, and art films dubbed from their original languages. As Pecker toasted, “To the end of irony!,” Cecil B. Demented cries, “Death to those who support mainstream cinema!” This is essentially a heist picture where a “teenage” gang (including early appearances from Michael Shannon, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Adrian Grenier) kidnaps a famed Hollywood starlet (Melanie Griffith, who has no trouble slipping into the role of Terrible Actress) and forces her into a guerilla film production that often borders on outright terrorism. Literally wearing their influences on their sleeves in the forms of tattooed names like William Castle, David Lynch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Kenneth Anger, they attempt to disrupt business-as-usual Hollywood filmmaking by bringing artistic obsession back to the forefront of the industry. There’s an unfortunate irony in this intense focus on authenticity, as the movie doesn’t feel nearly as dangerous or as personal as Waters’s own past in guerilla filmmaking. His murderous cinephiles are certainly silly, but you get the sense that he’s on their side, while still failing to live up to their impossible ideals. “Technique is nothing but failed style,” is a great line in isolation, but I’m not sure what it means in a work that’s Waters’s least funny, least stylish, and most obedient adherence to the mainstream technique of its time: the nu-metal Dark Ages.

By the mid-90s, John Waters’s outsider aesthetic had become an essential part of mainstream filmmaking thanks the gross-out comedy boom that followed the success of There’s Something About Mary. There’s an “Okay, what now?” quality to Pecker & Cecil B. Demented that might be a direct result of that assimilation. With a sensibility he was on the ground floor of establishing now the mainstream standard and his own personal obsessions already documented for infamy in previous works, Waters had to find new purpose for his art in a time mired in one of our worst modern pop culture slumps. I admire his ambition in tackling the commercial end of art production in Cecil B. Demented & the earnestness of the art consumer in Pecker, even if I believe those films to represent his worst creative period. Not only is it a half-assed put-down for me to call out a film or two for being the worst releases from my favorite director; this story also has a happy ending in John Waters eventually getting his groove back back in the excellent 2004 sex comedy A Dirty Shame, his most recent (and most underrated) film to date. Having proven himself in so many other titles that transcend these nu-metal era doldrums, Waters’s Art World potshots are worth having around if not only for giving voice to the director’s take on the art & commerce compromises of his industry. Characters describing Pecker’s photography persona as “a humane Diane Arbus” while Cindy Sherman (playing herself) walks around art galleries offering Valium to children or a dangerously horny Michael Shannon shouting “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls!” are worthwhile indulgences for their own sake, even if they don’t match the obsessive passion of documenting Divine & Edith Massey’s exploits in the Dreamlanders era. I may wish that the final products were a little funnier & more artistically distinct, but I love that Waters took the time to dismantle art world pretension & empties commercialism once he was done vilifying suburban normies.

-Brandon Ledet

Miss Hokusai (2016)

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Brandon directed us to keep it spooky this past October, and although that’s normally my forte, there was a dearth of time to check out much horror goodness this past month (notably, my only review last month was of Magnificent Seven, while my review of tense anxiety-driven thriller Don’t Breathe found itself online during September). I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of the animated feature Miss Hokusai, which, despite not being a scary movie, does have a lot of the hallmarks thereof: ghosts, dragons, demons, and spectres.

The film exists less as a straightforward narrative and more as a series of vignettes that depict short periods of time in the life of Katsushika Ōi, the daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, a painter most well known in the west for The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which I (and probably you) had a poster of in college. Plot descriptions of the film imply that the plot will largely center on the fact that Ōi was herself a painter whose own work was overshadowed by her more famous father, but this is actually a relatively minor element. The most overarching themes are Hokusai’s failure as a father to Ōi’s blind younger sister O-Nao (a character invented for the narrative), whom he ignores in favor of his work and because he feels responsible, as well as Ōi’s attempts to transcend her own artistic limitations. Along the way, she fends off an overzealous suitor and spends time with O-Nao, taking her for walks and treats.

The more striking visual elements come largely from dream sequences and a few scattered moments of magical realism. Most notably, a dragon that Ōi paints (after ruining Katsushika’s painting of the same) appears in the sky over their humble abode, and a courtesan whose neck is rumored to grow overnight is shown to have a spectral head that leaves her body in the night and attempts to fly away, but is kept in check by bed netting. In another sequence, a woman is haunted by dreams of Hell and the demons therein after receiving one of Ōi’s paintings depicting just that scene; Katsushika must correct this error by including an image of salvation in a tiny corner, underlining the apparent message that art releases beauty and terror into the world in equal measure. Ōi herself is also haunted by strange dreams of being trampled by gods when she realizes that O-Nao will die, and that the young girl fears damnation because her handicap prevents her from being a “good daughter” to her parents.

There’s a lot more going on in Miss Hokusai than is first apparent, but the film is not without its flaws either. The vignette nature of the film leaves something to be desired narratively, and there are musical choices that are, frankly, puzzling. Still, this is a beautiful movie with images that intrigue and disquiet, and it’s well worth watching if you can track down a screening.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Artist Ramón Santiago’s Unlikely Influence on the Creature Feature Alligator (1980)

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June’s Movie of the Month, Alligator, is an early 80s creature feature about a baby alligator named Ramón who grows mythically gigantic after being flushed down the toilet & feeding on a cruel science experiment’s cast-off corpses of animal subjects he finds in the Chicago sewers. Ramón is a fascinating monster in many ways. He not only embodies the urban legend of alligators living out of place in the sewer systems of major American cities; he’s also the size of a dinosaur and has an uncanny ability to hunt down & exact revenge upon the heartless people who’ve wronged him & other discarded animals. Still yet, one of the strangest aspects of Alligator‘s titular monster is that he’s indicated to be named after the little known, late painter Ramón Santiago. How or why that association between the gator & the painter was made is a total mystery.

Britnee wrote in our Swampchat discussion on Alligator, “During the scenes in David’s apartment, there are prints on the wall by Ramón Santiago (obvious inspiration for the alligator’s name). I was unaware of Santiago’s work prior to noticing the prints in the film, and I have to say that this guy has some phenomenal art. […] According to Santiago’s website, he stated, ‘My paintings are what dreams are made of.’ I would say that’s a pretty accurate description of his work. Unfortunately, I haven’t stumbled across an Santiago gator paintings yet.Indeed, Google search results for “Ramón Santiago alligator” don’t lead any Santiago depictions of gators or even any discussions of the 1980 horror film in question (except for our own). At what point, exactly, was Santiago brought in as inspiration for our reptilian antihero Ramón? The artist could theoretically have served as a point of inspiration for director Lewis Teague or screenwriter John Sayles, but he could just as easily have been brought in as a sly visual joke by the set designer. There’s not a lot of evidence or context to point this connection in any solid direction.

Although there are no Santiago paintings of gators we were able to hunt down & the artist’s unlikely inclusion in the film might’ve been a question of set design or clever prop, it’s easy to see how his work fits into the Alligator universe on a very basic aesthetic level. Santiago’s work is dark & brooding, the exact same muted & grimy color palette of the gator Ramón’s urban environment. There’s also a magician’s touch to the painter’s work that is simultaneously a little corny & vastly mysterious, a combo of sentiments I could also assign to the gator Ramón’s artistry: chomping people to bits for crimes against animalia. The two Ramóns, painter & gator, are artists who largely go unrecognized for their accomplishments (pretty pictures & spectacular violence, respectfully). At first glance their work can appear a little common or even silly, but there’s a dark, mysterious soul lurking underneath he surface in both cases that makes them oddly fascinating in an unexpected way.

Until the greater mystery of the two Ramón’s true connection (if any truly exists) is cracked, here are a few of their works juxtaposed for your own consideration.

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For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1980 creature feature Alligator, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing People (2015)

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I first heard of the visual artist Roy Ferdinand when I attended his one-man show In Your Fucking Face at Barrister’s Art Gallery (when it was still on Oretha Castle Haley) sometime in 2004, As the title of that show suggests, Ferdinand’s work is aggressively crude & transgressive, assembling a unique document of New Orleans at the height of the city’s fever pitch crime rates in the 90s & 00s. An self-taught, outsider artist along the lines of a Henry Darger or a Daniel Johnson, Ferdinand drew portraits of the city & its inhabitants at their most cruel & vulnerable moments. His art is somehow both immediately digestible & impossible to ever shake once seen. The imagery sticks with you in a deeply affecting way, both in its violence’s absurdity & honesty, despite a lack of honed technical skills you’d expect from a more traditionally trained artist.

Roy Ferdinand may have been a somewhat financially successful artist, but he’s far from a household name & information on his personal life is scarce at best. That’s why I was stoked to discover that a documentary about Ferdinand was screening at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as a part of the 2015 New Orleans Film Fest. Super stoked. Indeed, Missing People was a rare chance to see interview footage of Roy Ferdinand talking about himself, his city, and his art. However, it was far from the film that I was I expecting. Instead of being a documentary about Ferdinand outright, Missing People follows the story of Martina Batan, an art collector & curator who obsessively amassed hundreds of Ferdinand’s pieces for reasons that even she had difficulty understanding. It would be incredible to see a documentary strictly about Ferdinand & his work, but Missing People is not that film. Instead, it serves as a document about the way his art can deeply affect someone in a personal way. And after seeing the film it’d be difficult to argue that it’s ever affected anyone nearly as much as it has Martina Batan.

Described by a close friend & comic book artist Dave Carino as “a cross between Wednesday Adams & Holly Golightly”, Martina Batan was once a young art student with a Joey Ramone haircut in NYC’s highly influential late 70s punk era. The polaroids depicting her energetic youth are a stark contrast with her current life as a middle age divorcee & professional art curator. Living alone with two elderly dogs in Brooklyn, NY, Baton is a deeply depressed, anxious soul, one that rarely sleeps or, ostensibly, enjoys herself. One thing that haunts Batan in an ever-increasing intensity is the decades-old violent stabbing death of her teenage brother, a tragedy that tore her family to shreds. One of the ways Batan processes her grief over the loss of her brother, of course, is through collecting Roy Ferdinand’s artwork.

Batan first discovered Ferdinand while volunteering in New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery shortly after the artist’s premature death in 2005. She soon became possessed with the task of collecting what she describes as “a greatest hits” of the artist’s work. Although Missing People is by no means a straight-forward documentary on Ferdinand & his art, it does feature hundreds of his pieces, by far the most I’ve ever seen, thanks to Batan’s tireless obsession as a collector. Besides the drawings, Batan also collected various ephemera from Ferdinand’s life, including a cowboy hat, boots, and unwashed socks Ferdinand’s two living sisters had entrusted to the owner of Barrister’s Gallery (a detail spookily echoed in Batan’s collection of her slain brother’s similar ephemera). Speaking of Ferdinand’s sisters, as a pair they offer one of the few points of insight into the deceased artists’ life & personality, outside stray interview footage of Roy in 1997, a few anecdotes from Barrister’s Gallery owner and, of course, the work itself. Roy’s sisters are particularly endearing in their dismissive laughter after hearing their brother describe himself as “an OG retired”. Whether or not roy was a certifiable “original gangster”, his self-declared role as a “journalist” & a “documentarian” that lead him to record “simple portraits of neighborhood characters” suggests that he at least had some kind of first hand experience with New Orleans’ crime element. As Roy himself puts it, he felt compelled to depict “guns, drugs, violence, and church” in his work because that’s what happens in a city where you constantly see “cops shooting at drug dealers, drug dealers shooting at cops, drug dealers shooting at each other.” Leave the scenic streams & meadows to the artists who live where that’s the reality. Although Roy’s sisters couldn’t corroborate his self-image of a “retired” hard criminal, they did admit that he often sold his paintings as a means to support his crack cocaine habit, saying “When he did his most eye-popping pieces, he was high as a kite.”

Not enough is really known about the “true” Roy Ferdinand to support a full-length documentary in the traditional sense (not that I wouldn’t love to see someone try). As one interviewee puts it, Roy was somewhat of a “performance artist”, adapting to many personas over the course of his lifetime: cowboy, voodoo practitioner, crack addict, fine artist, limo driver, French Quarter eccentric Chicken Man’s “official bodyguard”, etc. Although Missing People makes little to no attempt to offer a full portrait of the artist as a man, it does wonders to establish his role as a docuementarian. Roy explains the reasons he depicts the victims of horrible acts of violence is to preserve their likeness beyond being a mere headline in a news story. He says, “If it wasn’t for me, nobody would remember that these people existed.” Perhaps that sentiment is the essence of Martina Batan’s personal connection with Ferdinand’s work, seeing as how her long-deceased brother suffered a similar fate to many of Roy’s subjects, just in New York instead of New Orleans. The movie offers little in the way of answers.

As Martina struggles with her brother’s mysterious death, with her own failing health, and with an uneasy relationship with Roy’s sisters (who are justifiably suspicious & jealous of her collection of their brother’s work), Missing People paints a bleak, complicated picture. Much like Roy Ferdinand’s artwork, the documentary is painfully honest in an absurdly open, vulnerable way, refusing to play by the rules. Missing People documents the life of a great, little known artist not by offering a traditional biography, but instead focusing its attention on a few people still actively engaged with his work a decade after his passing. It works in the same way that Room 237 revealed a lot about the power of ambiguity in Kubrick’s The Shining by exploring the crackpot theories the film inspired instead of documenting the production of the film itself. As I said, as a fan of his work I would love to watch a proper, full-length documentary about Ferdinand (if that’s even possible), but that’s not at all what Missing People is aiming for. Instead, Roy is just the connective tissue in a story about the people living in his wake. It’s a bold & often frustrating choice, but in a lot of ways the film is more fascinating & satisfying for it.

-Brandon Ledet

Arakimentari (2004)

EPSON MFP image

three star

A short, brisk documentary about Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki, Arakimentari tiptoes the same line as its subject: the division between fine art & shameless erotica. Araki, a photographer, is an excitable pervert even in his old age, rapidly firing off lofty platitudes about the visual appeal of vaginas & what it means to be an artist. The movie itself begins with the questions “What is a photographer? What is photography?” before diving head first into Araki’s unique world of daily self-documentation & bondage model photo shoots. As a total weirdo and a sexual deviant, Araki comes across here as the (much cheerier) Robert Crumb of photography.

Araki reached his peak cultural popularity in the 1990s & Arakimentari is smart to mimic a 90s aesthetic in the telling of his work. There’s a truly hip 90s NYC vibe in the movie’s long stretches where aggressive electronic music (provided by DJ Krush) plays over blindingly fast slide shows of Araki’s photography. The movie works best in these montages, allowing the art to speak for itself. Portraits, flowers, everyday objects, and muted landscapes mix with Araki’s obscene erotica in surreal bursts. Several photographers are interviewed to help provide context for Araki’s significance, but musician Björk is also included as a kind of Ambassador of 90s Cool. She explains that she found his work when she lived in London during that decade, describing what a powerful discovery it was at the time. Björk also points to the significance of Araki’s book about his deceased wife in a moment that gets a deservedly calmer, tenderer type of slideshow than the rest of his work does here.

Arakimentari is not a prying, tell-all type of documentary. It offers its subject’s life & work for review in the best light possible. It tells the story of an energetic degenerate with a photographic eye & a constant smile, without asking him to reveal too much about either himself or his detractors. Its best moments occur when the art is offered for viewing free of context, but Araki himself is an amusing character & deft storyteller that makes the rest of the run time worthwhile as well.

-Brandon Ledet

Drawing Restraint 9 (2005)

drawing rest 9

onestar

I recently watched & reviewed the two cinematic elements of Björk’s multimedia project Biophilia: Biophilia Live & When Björk Met Attenborough. Both films make outlandish claims about science, art, and nature that could have been pretentious drivel in the wrong context, but come across as both personal & fun in Björk’s capable hands. Biophilia is a vast, ambitious intellectual exercise, but one that never feels labored or pompous. Drawing Restrait 9, conversely, is a pompous multimedia project Björk participated in, the exact kind of pretentious drivel she avoided when her own hands were on the wheel.

The film Drawing Restraint 9 is one element of a project that includes sculptures, books, photographs and drawings. It’s a single entry in the much larger Drawing Restraint art project that’s been ongoing since 1987 and currently in the Drawing Restraint 19 phase of its evolution. It’s the work of visual artist Matthew Barney, whose now defunct personal relationship with Björk is the subject of her most recent release, a heart-wrenching breakup album titled Vulnicura. Björk plays a large role in the film Drawing Restraint 9, both composing the music & playing one of the main characters opposite Barney himself. As it is a mostly dialogue-free affair with a very loose narrative, her musical contributions are a vital aspect of the production and one of the only pleasant elements in play (until it too takes a savage dive at the film’s climax). Drawing Restraint 9 is a work of avant garde filmmaking, the kind of art that dares you to hate it. It’s a dare I accept often.

The film opens with an unidentified figure carefully wrapping organic material in beautifully delicate packages. There’s a care & precision to the ceremony that’s both suggestive of the portrayals of precise, careful ceremonies to come as well as the overall craft of the movie itself. Barney’s background in visual art is constantly on display in some truly impressive images of the dance teams, tea ceremonies, and working class fisherman that participate in the mysterious rituals of a Japanese whaling ship. Very little dialogue is provided for context of how this all fits together. At almost 80min into its massive 3 hour run time, a few, sparse lines provide a brief glimpse into the occasion & purpose of the elaborate tea ceremony that takes place aboard the whaling ship, but it’s not a story that wants to be understood completely. It instead wants to be effective visually.

The narrative-free images are not the problem. There is an entertainment value to ambiguity & obfuscation that Drawing Restraint 9 could have achieved, but it’s as if the film deliberately wanted to be devoid of entertainment as well. The climactic tea ceremony/mating ritual is a perfect encapsulation why the picture doesn’t work in this respect. As the characters played by Björk & Matthew Barney sensually gut each other with knives on a sinking ship in the film’s sole moment of action (as opposed to its endless portrayals of preparation), the music becomes aggressively horrendous. A lone male voice & an arrhythmic woodblock combine to create without question the single most unpleasant song I have ever heard in my life. The disgusting surgical gore in this scene is violent enough to get its point across without the somehow even more painful sound design. Minutes after the gore stops the song continues to soldier on, leaving an intensely bitter taste in its wake. It turns out Björk’s potent approach to music can be used for evil as well as good.

In addition to her distinctive musical contributions, it’s easy to see Björk’s fingerprints elsewhere in Drawing Restraint 9. There are themes about humanity’s inseparable connection to nature running throughout and the final line she sings is “Nature conspires to help you”, something you could reasonably expect to hear in Biophilia or The Juniper Tree. She appears on screen as the first sign of a natural image, perched on beachside rocks in furs. Aboard the whaling ship she is treated as royalty, as if she were Mother Nature incarnate. It’s a role and an image that fits her well, but like with the violent climax, any entertainment value is severely undercut by Matthew Barney’s pretentious, overwrought inclinations. The farfetched philosophy of Biophilia is tempered by a desire to entertain & include, while Drawing Restraint 9 is the result of an ego (or two) unchecked. The images Barney crafts are undeniably powerful, but utilized poorly in my opinion.

Of course, I’m admitting a bias here in this preference between the Drawing Restraint & Biophilia projects. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m typically a less artsy and more fartsy kind of an audience. The two albums Björk recorded during this phase of her career, Medúlla & Volta, are the only two she’s released in my entire lifetime that I honestly don’t enjoy, which may be part of the problem. But maybe the problem is bigger. Maybe the problem is that I hate Matthew Barney’s aesthetic (or at least think he should stick to sculptures & still images). Maybe I hate avant garde cinema. Maybe I hate all artists everywhere. I’m not sure. I do know I hate Drawing Restraint 9, though. I hate this movie.

-Brandon Ledet