Archive for the Ah Hollywood... Category

Documentary filmmakers have been delving deeper into the phenomenon of artistic failure of late. I have seen three such films (which I will describe in a future post) in the past three months myself. And this Toronto Star article, generated by the 15th annual Hot Docs festival, describes an additional four such movies:

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a film about a Toronto-based heavy metal band that has long avoided superstardom, or any kind of stardom. The filmmaker, Sacha Gervasi, follows the bad on a disasterous European tour. (Did I hear you say Spinal Tap?)

The Rise and Fall of the Grumpy Burger: One Man’s Search for the Half-Truth, by Toronto-based filmmaker Matt Gallagher, concerns an amateur auteur named Marshall Sfalcin. Sfalcin, who has created a series of Twilight Zone-like episodes for a local cable station, has long been attempting to film the life story of his grandfather, who was ahead of his time by creating a fast food burger, the titular ”grumpy burger,” for the defunct chain of Hi Ho Restaurants in the Detroit/Windsor area long before MacDonald’s arrived. The film document’s Sfalcin’s inability to complete his film.

Nik Sheehan’s Flicker, is a flim about Brion Gysin (1916-86), a Canadian artist and mystic and close friend of novelist William S. Burroughs. Gysin invented the flicker machine, a device with a bright light inside a rotating cylinder with patterned holes that is said to boost alpha wave-stimulated creativity and transcendence (because the lights supposedly correspond to alpha waves in the brain). The film records the failure of Gysin’s device to find its way to the mass market, leaving Gysin permanently embittered.

Alison Murray’s Carny is about a strange and oft-overlooked subset of the creative class–fairground workers. In particular, the film follows one carny worker, named “Bozo Dave,” as he deals with the highs and lows of his profession and his eventual decision to quit his job.

Following on the heels of the essay that I wrote five years ago and reposted a few days ago, I wrote my final word on Hollywood in January of 2004, after a long ten days spent back home.

Here you go:

Hollywood Art Critic, Part 2

January 31, 2004
Michael Fallon

IT’S BEEN SAID MANY TIMES BEFORE, but California is a bizarre place. And I don’t mean the constant calamities. (Sure, it might seem unnerving that there was an earthquake up near San Simeon just this morning as I write from a coffee shop in Malibu–but that’s background noise here.) I’m also not referring to the endless stream of eccentrics who make their home in California. (San Simeon, for example, is the locus of William Randolph Hearst’s infamous castle; Hearst was once spoofed by an outlandish and vastly overweight filmmaker in the movie “Citizen Kane;” the filmmaker later in life shilled for cheap California wines before dying of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1985. Strange enough stuff for most places, but rather quotidian for here.) Rather, mostly what makes California strange is its endless taste for make-believe.

If one had time, one could read Boorstin and Borges, Baudrillard and McLuhan and perhaps Sontag, and somehow come to understand the state’s Hollywood-borne penchant for fancy. For example, why does the state’s electorate continue to elect actors to play the role of the chief executive office? (We all know from our experience with the wrestler that this just doesn’t work in the end.) Or, in more mundane life, why do Californians eat “teardrop” tomatoes, rather than what we more prosaic Minnesotans call “grape tomatoes”? (They’re the same thing, just different names.) Or, why, at the end of the day at Disneyland, do machines spew out “snow” over Main Street after the fireworks show to conjure up the magic of a winter wonderland to an enraptured audience in 60-degree weather? (This stuff turns out to be some sort of detergent foam that, if you’re not careful, can sting the eyes.)

And speaking of winter, the fashion rage in Malibu this December seems to be knee-high mukluks. Since I’ve been sitting in the open courtyard of the Coffee Bean Café in a strip mall a block from the ocean, I have seen nine women, and one man, wearing this displaced garb–often with short skirts and midriff-revealing tops–as they wander from store to store (Malibu Lifestyles, Indiana Joan’s, Planet Blue) looking like extras from a Klondike gold rush movie. I came from the direction of Hollywood this morning via the Ventura Highway and Mulholland Drive, through the Malibu Valley and the scrubby Santa Monica Mountains, but this is definitely the deepest suspension of disbelief I have seen all day. Consider how impossible would be the diametrically opposed phenomenon: bikini-clad lifeguards on the beach at Lake Harriet in late December.

If you think California is so strange, you’re probably wondering, why are you even there? Well, I could talk to you about the true reason–preempting the winter blahs that have tended to afflict me every year since moving to Minnesota seven winters ago (yes, I count my time in winters) through contact with sun-warmed Pacific Ocean salt air–but that’s not terribly interesting. Instead, let’s talk about the reason I’m going to present to my accountant at tax time: I am here to research further the potential of becoming the Hollywood Art Critic that I dreamed of becoming in my column of August 29 of last year (see link below).

LET’S BEGIN AGAIN. On my third day of my recent trip to California, just a week before this past Christmas, I made my way to “The Brewery” just east of downtown Los Angeles. I had been hearing a lot of buzz lately about how this artists warehouse commune was the ground zero of L.A. art activity these days, and while it turned out the complex was not much more than what’s going on in Lowertown or in the NE arts corridor, the visit was revealing nonetheless.

At the Brewery I bumped into Mat Gleason, the editor and publisher of a ten-year-old underground arts zine called Coagula (see link below), a low-tech, slash-and-burn gossip rag that art regulars from coast to coast seem to hate even as they can’t help but read it. (To give you an idea of Coagula’s attitude, a book compilation of its first five years is called Most Art Sucks and is billed as the “only honest book about the world of contemporary art.”) Gleason himself was a fast talker who relished keeping tabs on who’s been stroking whom in the back rooms of the art world. Indeed, when I came on the scene he was busy complaining about the Coagula compilation book. It turns out Most Art Sucks didn’t sell particularly well–despite the fact that David Bowie wrote a glowing book review of the text for barnesandnoble.com, and that a Bowie blurb was included on the book’s back cover.

“You would think a publicist might be able to get us some publicity based on this fact,” says Gleason. “But what do I know? She couldn’t get us a write-up anywhere.” This leads to a litany of further invective. For example, as it turns out, the aforementioned publicist now works for Viggo Mortensen’s nonprofit “charitable” organization that is charged with funding art. “Really it’s a scam,” says Gleason, “It exists for Mortensen to take a write-off and to filter money to his artist friends.”

Eventually I make my escape (but not before hearing more complaints–about Gleason’s landlord, about how cold the studios are, about some art by a dead artist he’s been saddled with and that no one wants to take away), intrigued that he brought up the issue of publicists. According to the New York Times, Hollywood these days is all but ruled by publicists. A recent article by entertainment columnist Frank Rich quotes journalist Peter Biskind saying: “The disconnect between appearance, as it is presented in the media, and the reality of what actually occurs behind the scenes is as great in Hollywood as it is in Washington, if not greater.” And in fact, as I discovered when I first began researching what kind of art a “Hollywood art critic” might end up covering, the lion’s share of the art buzz out here was more of the same-old same-old California penchant for unreality. That is to say, if you look for info on California artists what you get is a lot of guff about Hollywood stars who act the part.

To mention just a short list of Hollywoodians who have gotten press for their artistic pretensions of late–there’s Tony Bennett, whose sailboat scenes have been collected by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathi Lee Gifford, and Arsenio Hall. Beyonce Knowles was quoted as saying of her painting habit: “It takes me away, and it’s really peaceful.” Dwayne Hickman, star of the 1960s TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” says painting “is an expression of art that you can sit down and do anytime you want. I can’t go downstairs and act, but I can go downstairs and paint.” Couple Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson hang their own work on the walls of their sunny L.A. home. Michelle Pfeiffer wishes she “could paint like Renoir.” And Jane Seymour; Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt, John Waters, and the aforementioned Viggo Mortensen and David Bowie have been among those cited in the “trades” for their art habits.

I’d let this hoopla pass me by as just so much dabbling by people who have too much time on their hands if in turn the real California artists–the ones worth watching–were getting their due as well. But the simple fact is, the truth beyond the glitzy Hollywood portrait of the pursuit of art is the life of the artist here, as elsewhere, is bleak. Artists in California who do not happen to be Hollywood actors struggle to survive against the terrible ambivalence of society.

I know this first hand, as I spent the rest of my Brewery-excursion in the studio of 70-year-old artist George Herms, a local mainstay since the 1950s. Herms came up with the Beat Generation and has been collected by most of the major museums (including the Walker Art Center). At this point in his career, he should basking in success, coddled by art patrons, happily retired and secure in his finances. But in fact, I discover, Herms is struggling to survive at the Brewery, unable to pay his bills despite all he’s accomplished, and recently sued by the Brewery’s owners for back rent.

“I’m just an idiot,” Herms says, as the afternoon light fades in a studio that is filled with nearly fifty years worth of art and art materials, some of which he’s recently had to raffle off just to pay lawyer’s fees. “I get up and work everyday. I’m more into what I’ve just started than in taking what’s finished and turning it into the coin of the realm.”

If only this were a Hollywood story: The upstart pretender to the throne, looking like a fashion model in his mukluks, would lead a ghost army of nonprofit granters and art patrons from across the sea just as a light foamy snow begins to fall. All would arrive just in time to save the debt-ridden artist from near-certain calamity. Ah, wouldn’t that be something?

Here are some more of my (slightly more cogent) thoughts on what’s messed up about Hollywood, written nearly five years ago by a younger (slightly less jaded) version of myself.

(*Note: Just so you know, I grew up in the shadow of Tinseltown and am quite aware of what LaLaLand is all about.

**Note too: Just so you know, I’m a critic (on art, culture, etc.). I critique. It’s what I do… This doesn’t mean I hate Hollywood. Actually, I critique because I love. Things that I hate, I don’t write about…)

Hollywood Art Critic, Part 1

August 29, 2003
Michael Fallon

HOLLYWOOD LIKES A GOOD YARN—especially a tidy tale that’s been telegraphed in advance, hits all the right emotional points, and plays out exactly as expected.
Consider the recent hit summer flick Seabiscuit. Never mind that the truth of the story of this 1930s-era race horse—as told in Laura Hillenbrand’s book, on which the movie was based–was much more intriguing than the movie version. The producers/writers/consultants/test audiences couldn’t help but keep the story satisfyingly predictable for the glazed but touchingly unjaded eyes of moviegoers.

The very emotional climax of the film—the race with War Admiral–was a complete put-on. Oh, I don’t mean that the race didn’t happen, and that Seabiscuit didn’t win, but in reality War Admiral’s owner didn’t exactly shy away from the challenge, as the movie implied. Both War Admiral’s and Seabiscuit’s owners attempted to gain advantage by setting and canceling the meeting for over a year, and in fact Seabiscuit cancelled more races with War Admiral than the other way around.

Even more egregious a falsehood is Seabiscuit’s depiction as a tiny colt up against the majestic and massive War Admiral. Though the real War Admiral was the more stately and beautiful animal, Seabiscuit was actually the heavier horse. What was odd about Seabiscuit was his shape—he had short splayed legs, and a wide massive chest; but he certainly was no puny runt, and this was no David vs. Goliath race. And, absolute truth be told, Seabiscuit and War Admiral were actually close relatives. War Admiral’s sire, Man o’ War, was Seabiscuit’s grandsire—making War Admiral half-uncle to Seabiscuit. None of this was revealed in the simple underdog-makes-good sweep of the Hollywood plot.

Our culture today is pre-programmed to expect Hollywood-style narrative. There is little room for messy exposition or explanation. I have to believe this is what’s behind the gubernatorial candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger in my home state of California. Why else would a guy with no experience and few qualifications suddenly be a front runner in the race to govern the biggest state in the nation? It’s all for the sake of the story—Arnold, the humble immigrant with a dream. Arnold, the boy who overcame his father’s fascist past. Arnold, the party boy who made good (Married a Shriver! Rules the cutthroat world of Hollywood!). Even Gray Davis recognized the Tinseltown quality of the race., He said on August 15: “This election has turned into a Hollywood movie, and I assure you it will have a surprise ending.”

Simple stories seduce us—just ask your average Minnesotan who got sucked into the bad-boy-made-good narrative of the Jesse Ventura show. No need to remind you that the movie didn’t turn out as had been advertised, and our fair frozen state was left with a pretty bad taste in its collective mouth once his term ended. The real world often trumps the fantasy narrative.

“SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH ART, Mr. Art Critic Man?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell ya. I’ve been wondering lately why art gets so little play in the national discourse despite the ever-growing number of people claiming to be artists. To cite some statistics, the most recent population survey revealed that in the U.S. in 2001 there were 2,108,000 people who claimed as their primary career one of the 11 artist occupational categories established by the National Endowment for the Arts. This equaled 9.8 percent of the labor force—nearly one out of every ten worker in this country. In comparison, engineers and surveyors accounted for 2,145,000 U.S. workers, and scientists/mathematicians/computer scientists accounted for 2,685,000. If you add in the extra 315,000 workers who were employed in secondary jobs as artists, and the 88,000 artists who were unemployed, we end up with a whopping 2,511,000 million American artists cluttering the labor force!

Yet despite the numbers, artists have relatively little national cachet. Ask anyone off the street to name a favorite living artist and you’ll no doubt get a blank look. Ask anyone to name the latest contestant to be eliminated on The Bachelor, meanwhile, or, more to the point, to converse about the differences between the porn peddler and the ex-porn star who are running for California’s governor, and you’ll be in business.

More and more I think this loss of prestige in the fine arts—even as the practice of them has grown exponentially–has to do with the Hollywoodification of our culture. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at art over the years, grappling with the complicated issues and trying to describe them to an audience, and I, and the sixteen people who read my writing, get satisfaction out of this. But the rest of the world, I’ve come to realize, just doesn’t care. Art doesn’t make a sexy enough story. Sure, there are exceptions–Picasso, Warhol, Pollock, Kahlo–but not every artist lives a made-for-Hollywood life, despite what Hollywood would have you believe. Artmaking is a rather mundane and tedious (read: unsexy) practice on the whole.

What’s an art-lover to do then?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit tired of butting my head up against the wall of Hollywood. If you can’t convince ’em otherwise, I figure, you might as well pander to ’em. So, below is my working draft for all of my future artist profiles. I can only hope this offering will help make art more palatable in this age.

Profile of Artist X :Artist X is standing on the verge of a great (choose one) dilemma/chasm/turning point/hitch on the road to fame. It is _______ (list time of day) in the (choose one) noisy/stultifyingly hot/rather placid/dirty confines of ________ (list place). Artist X is (choose one) pensive/nervous/eager/ambivalent about the tasks that face him/her as we watch the (choose one) people/cars/wildlife/clouds pass by.
But this isn’t the first (choose one) obstacle/opportunity of this sort the ________(list age)-year-old artist has faced. In fact, Artist X is used to the (choose one) ambivalence/hostility/snide mockery/jeering of society at large. “I can’t count how often I was (choose one) misunderstood/mistreated/ underestimated/dismissed as I was learning to (choose one) sculpt/take photos/paint in the Telemark style of Norwegian rosemaling/be a performance artist,” he/she says, as we hear the distant and (choose one) plaintive/harsh and edgy/warbly/sonorous strains of (choose one) Eminem/Tori Amos/Jewel/Johnny Cash from someone’s (choose one) car radio/boom box/open window/bar mitzvah.
“There was only one person who ever believed in me, despite that I suffered from (choose one) dyslexia/a profound lack of self-confidence/ a horrible physical disfigurement/ rickets,” Artist X continued, looking once at a photo of his/her (choose one) cross-dressing roommate/dog/imaginary friend/great aunt Esther before (choose one) releasing it in the wind/tossing it into the river/setting fire to it/placing it on a ritual altar. “He/she always told me that my work would eventually reach (choose one) the Whitney Biennial/a Paris gallery/the White House front lawn/the Edina Galleria…. And now I have a chance to prove that he/she was right.” &c…
Am I ready for Hollywood or what?

So I guess the Hollywood writers are coming back to work soon.

Yay.

I had been intending, for weeks and weeks, to write something about the plight of the writers, to compare their lot to the lot of all the everyday artists in the country who are slowly working their fingers to nubs for an occasional bone thrown by an uncaring public. Etc. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do so.

I mean, this is Hollywood we’re talking about, not art. And these are corporate workaday hacks–correction, well-paid corporate workaday hacks–who are fighting for a bigger share of the tons of money you and I stupidly throw at them year after year. This is not something of any sort of lasting cultural value…

All the stories I read about this strike went on and on and on about how “devastating” was the strike to the entertainment industry, and how “demoralizing” it was to the struggling writers. They cited the number like a running stock-ticker—$1 billion dollars lost and counting… $2 billion dollars lost and counting… And Bingo! $3.2 billion dollars lost (*according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp).

But you know what? The strike wasn’t really that devastating really, at least not to the people who matter— i.e., you and me. The world did not stop turning. People did not go into withdrawal. No one suffered any lasting effects. The juggernaut industry that is our modern bread-and-circus distraction was not really missed all that much.

Of course the bitter strikers and the even bitterer globocorporations that produce this tripe will trot out all the positive cliches, if only to get the river of money (our money) flowing back where they want (their pockets). “At the end of the day, everybody won. It was a fair deal and one that the companies can live with, and it recognizes the large contribution that writers have made to the industry,” said Leslie Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS Corp.”These advances now give us a foothold in the digital age,” said Patric Verrone, president of the guild’s West Coast chapter. “Rather than being shut out of the future of content creation and delivery, writers will lead the way as television migrates to the Internet.”

Fine fine sentiment. But we, who will be ponying up for all this bonhomie, know better.

Truth is, we’d be much better off without all the distraction and crap. Or at least we’d be just fine. And we’d certainly have more money and more time to focus on something more meaningful–the paintings made by the minor genius who lives at the end of the block, the song written by your cousin the burgeoning cafe-folksinger, the short one-act play written by that cute girl at work.

Art, people. Not mindlessly distracting entertainment. Art. (Or at least a better balance between the two…)