The Reel Deal
TEN MUST-SEE ART DOCUMENTARIES
Tyler Malone Counts Them Down
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Art isn’t just painting and drawing; art is music, art is film, art is literature, in addition to all the visual arts. So for our PMc Magazine Arts Issue, I think I’d look at some great art on the topic of other great art. In other words, for my Reel Deal column, I decided to make a “top ten” list of some of my favorite film documentaries about art and artists (in any medium). I’ve listed them in chronological order by release date, rather than in any order of importance, because they are all MUST-SEE DOCS ABOUT THE ARTS.
1. The Mystery of Picasso (1956): In The Mystery of Picasso, Henri-Georges Clouzot captures Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest artists of all time (in any medium), painting numerous new pieces. As we watch him paint, we get a glimpse into the mind of that genius. “To know what’s going through a painter’s mind, one just needs to look at his hands,” Clouzot says at one point in the film. Amazingly, we actually do not see Picasso’s hands because of the ingenious set-up wherein Picasso paints directly onto a translucent surface allowing the camera to view the detached brushstrokes from the other side as they are created. Due to this inventive conceit, we can focus on the brushstrokes, which seem (without the hands painting them) both independent of the artist yet also synechdocically representative of him. It becomes not only an important document of the artistic process, but also a stunningly profound immersive experience. It is, as film critic Pauline Kael said, “One of the most exciting and joyful movies ever made!”
2. Dont Look Back (1967): Bob Dylan, like Pablo Picasso, is one of the greatest artists of all time (in any medium), and D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back documents Dylan at a critical turning point in his career: just as the quintessential singer-songwriter began to “go electric.” The film shows Dylan as my favorite Dylan: as the young “anarchist” trying to venture in new lyrical and aural directions, weary of the box audiences and journalists have placed him in, experimenting with surrealism, growing slightly arrogant, and being a complete contrarian. The Dylan in Dont Look Back is the Dylan that is about to create one of the greatest albums in the history of rock n’ roll: Highway 61 Revisited. As a fascinating glimpse into the changing landscape of an artist’s world, there really is nothing better than Pennebaker’s “direct cinema” masterpiece.
3. Gimme Shelter (1970): The Maysles Brothers, like D. A. Pennebaker, made many praise-worthy “direct cinema” documentaries, but one of their best is surely Gimme Shelter. The film focuses on The Rolling Stones, often considered “the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world.” It catalogues the final part of The Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour which culminated in the disastrous events of the Altamont Free Concert (i.e. the stabbing of 18-year-old concert-goer Meredith Hunter). Unlike most rock docs, Gimme Shelter has an extra preternatural quality to it, because the viewing experience is heightened by the intensity of knowing this murderous event is coming. By the time, Mick Jagger is shimmying on stage to “Sympathy for the Devil,” the gathering storm of dread, mixed with the still envigorating live music of the Stones, has instilled the whole event with a near-uninterpretable over-signification. The Maysles have found some great subjects, but here they literally walked into something even bigger than they could have ever imagined.
4. F for Fake (1973): Not only my favorite art documentary, but my favorite documentary in general, Orson Welles’ F for Fake is a masterfully crafted rumination on art and truth. The film is about art forgery, lies, Elmyr De Hory, fakes, fake fakes, authenticity, sleight of hand, the reclusive Howard Hughes, the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century, Oja Kodar’s sexiness, Oja Kodar’s grandfather, Oja Kodar herself, charlatans, truth, magic, uncertainty, mystery, doubt, documentation, the expectations of the medium of film documentary, Orson Welles himself, storytelling, acting, Clifford Irving, play, perception, deception, and a million other things all tangled up. It is one of the most playful films I’ve ever seen: it starts with a François Reichenbach documentary on the greatest art forger of all time (Elmyr De Hory) and then Welles takes hold of the material, kneads it, wrestles with it, works it like playdough, twisting it into new shapes and turning it back on itself. It moves in seemingly infinite directions, the perfect film embodiment of Keatsian negative capability. By the time he released F for Fake, his last film, Welles was considered all washed up, but I think this strange glimpse at art forgery may actually be his ultimate film achievement (yeah, I just claimed that this is better than Citizen Kane, which is obviously widely considered one of the greatest films of all time). F for Fake, which is forever turning over on itself, is a perfect cinematic enigma, and a marvel to behold.
5. Antonio Gaudí (1985): Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Antonio Gaudí is an astoundingly unconventional look at the work of an artist that we get to by way of taking the most conventional approach imaginable. Instead of voice overs or archive footage or interviews or anything that we consider part of the established documentary tricks of the trade, Teshigahara just goes back to basics by letting us see the artistry of architect and artist Antonio Gaudí as it exists in modern Barcelona. As in The Mystery of Picasso, the music plays and we immerse ourselves in the world of the artist’s art. Only, unlike The Mystery of Picasso, we are not viewing art being made, but art in the context in which it exists after creation. Teshigahara’s cinematic poem shows Barcelona as the ultimate dream landscape and Gaudí as the great dreamweaver.
6. A.K. (1985): A.K. is director Chris Marker’s ode to Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, filmed as Kurosawa works on his late-life masterpiece Ran, based loosely on Shakespeare’s King Lear. As the voiceover says, “It is King Lear, yet it is not King Lear, more like Lear‘s echo, reverberating across those castle walls built by Kurosawa in Mt. Fuji.” Chris Marker paints a portrait of a man and his artwork but though the lens of his own constellation of interests philosophical, thematic and troplogical interests: art, truth, beauty, chaos, memory, continuity, history, masters, doubles, animals, Japanese culture, weather functions, fragments, ruins, Sisyphus, documentation, subjectivity (things already explored in his other brilliant films like Sans Soleil). In a marvelous way, Marker’s film A.K. is Kurosawa, yet it is not Kurosawa, more like Kurosawa’s echo, reverberating through Marker and, by way of the screen, into us, the viewers.
7. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991): Like Chris Marker’s A.K., Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper give us a glimpse behind the camera into a filmmaker’s world. This time, instead of Kurosawa, we get a look at another consummate film auteur and artist Francis Ford Coppola. The behind-the-scenes look at the making of Apocalypse Now is truly exhilarating stuff. We find that the set of Coppola’s iconic film, which is certainly the ultimate movie about the insanity of war, becomes the perfect backdrop for the insanity of filmmaking. Chaos reigns, and it often makes some damn good art along the way.
8. Crumb (1994): Crumb is Terry Zwigoff’s hauntingly beautiful portrait of a very eccentric artist: R. Crumb. Crumb, in addition to being a unique comic artist, is a sex-and-violence-obsessed, dysfunctional oddball, dealing with various mental and emotional scars from his youth. He becomes an strangely lovable and sympathetic character, as we see his art as his coping mechanism, dealing with the madness and depression always knocking at his door. Zwigoff’s portrait is one not just of discovering how an artist came to construct the art he creates, but how a man came to construct the persona he inhabits.
9. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010): A playful little film, Exit Through the Gift Shop is pretty much exactly the kind of documentary you’d expect from enigmatic street artist Banksy. It focuses on another street artist, Mr. Brainwash, who in a way it to Banksy what Frankenstein’s monster is to Dr. Frankenstein. Exit Through the Gift Shop acts as both a celebration and condemnation of the commercialization and commodification of art in the contemporary art world. It also, in a very F for Fake kind of way, deals with authenticity in art. In doing so, it gets at the question “What is art?” in both direct and indirect ways. It’s enough to leave one wondering: Is the whole thing a hoax, a trick, a put-on? You’ll have to decide.
10. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010): Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores Chauvet Cave in southern France, which contains the earliest known cave paintings in existence, giving us access to some of the oldest art there is on this Earth. Of course, being a Herzog film, it is not content to simply stop there. Instead, Herzog asks many eccentric, but deceptively important questions. For example, talking about the Manhattan phone book in an extended metaphor, he asks: “4,000,000 people listed. But do we know if they cry when they’re alone at night? Do they dream?” In true Herzogian fashion, he uses the cave paintings as an avenue to explore his idiosyncratic interests, and thus transcends the subject matter, and keeps us riveted, all the way to his near-fantasy ending replete with albino crocodiles.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Specialty Films
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film still from F for Fake, Photography Courtesy of Specialty Films