International Festival of Films on Art (Montreal, March 15-25)
Awards for the 2012 International Festival of Films on Art were handed out last Saturday night in Montreal on the festival’s 25th anniversary.
The selection was mixed, but it included some of the best films on art and architecture that you’re unlikely to see anywhere in the United States. What a pity. Every year I urge film critics and art critics to visit FIFA. Every year I find that I’m the only American writing about it.
The top jury prize went to Opalka: One Life, One Ouevre, by Andrzej Sapija, about the French-Polish painter Roman Opalka (1931-2011). who painted numbers in ascending order in the series of paintings to which he devoted his life since 1965, 1965/1 a Infini.
Most of these films will end up on television, but not in the US. The documentary that won FIFA’s award for best film for television was Ai Weiwei – Without Fear or Favor, Alan Yentob’s portrait of the confrontational persecuted Chinese artist as seen through the preparation of his recent exhibition at Tate Modern.
Assuming that Ai Weiwei himself – the man who needs no introduction — will make any documentary about him outdated, Yentob’s 50-minute profile (2010, from the Imagine series on BBC, which American filmmakers and programmers should watch with envy) is a useful prequel to Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, by Alison Klayman, which premiered at Sundance, with more current footage.
Both films do make a similar point. With digital communication almost unstoppable, except in North Korea and Guantanamo, Ai Weiwei has won the battles of the media. Or has he? What will the Chinese government do next? See the NY Times for a scenario of cyber-conflict in a New Cold War, from which art can’t be excluded. If you can’t beat him, hack him. Read the report from Trend Micro.
There’s no denying that media scrutiny and the deployment of media by Ai Weiwei have made him one of the world’s best-known living artists. Forget about this artist’s 15 minutes – Ai Weiwei got his 15 pages of fashion in W.
An artist whom the festival revived from an ebb in popularity — art, for better or worse, rises and falls with fashion — is Henry Darger (1892- 1973). The scribe and the creator of vast interplanetary battle scenes filled with girl warriors is the subject of a feature-length documentary by Mark Stokes.
Darger on film has happened before, with the much-praised In the Realms of the Unreal (2004), by Jessica Yu. The film takes its title from Darger’s novel of more than 15,000 pages, much of which consists of The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
Like lots of people, Yu seems to have been taken with the mysterious and troubled Darger, so much that she decided that she could make his eloquent work say more than Darger intended it to say, by animating the figures in Darger’s scenes. Plenty of film critics liked it. I didn’t. I thought that there was no excuse for tampering with Darger’s work.
In Mark Stokes’s documentary, Revolutions of the Night: The Enigma of Henry Darger, parts of what’s new is an investigation into the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois, where young Henry Darger was sent after his institutionalized father died. Surpassing any notion of Dickensian squalor (except perhaps the prison ship from which convicts escape in Great Expectations), it was a hellhole. A historian interviewed in the film says the Illinois authorities at the time could have expected no less when they confined more than fifty teenaged boys into overcrowded rooms without ventilation – a typical situation. There was sexual abuse (including rape), beating, and the scalding of children (a scandal erupted when the son of a rich man had his face burned into a grotesque mask of scars). A final public report downplayed the horror to save some political skins. Most of those responsible got away with murder.
Darger escaped on his third try in 1908, and walked to relative freedom in Chicago – his autobiographical The History of My Life can sound like The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski – but not before the impact of those experiences was deep enough for him to devote hundreds of pages to life at the home, and to adapting the mistreatment of his youth into scenes of violent aggression by evil adults against children in his paintings and massive epic novel, In the Realms of the Unreal.
Revolutions of the Night traces other steps that Darger took. Those places are now eerily empty, given Darger’s penchant for packing his writing, his art and his dwellings with everything from his life. Remember that the reclusive man, who worked as a janitor, never spoke about his past or his art. Stokes has given us the best connection between Darger’s experience and his imagination so far on film. And after years of research, he still calls Darger an enigma. I hope this film travels beyond Montreal.
Another artist that FIFA dragged out of history’s oubliette was Jean Tinguely (1925-1991). A sex symbol, provocateur, and commercial success from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, Tinguely these days is something of a hula hoop, even eclipsed in the zeigeist by his wife and co-conspirator, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2012) .
Tinguely constructed odd machines that spun around — for no particular reason, he liked to say – just like so many other creations in the infinitely-expanding world of consumer items that he was lampooning. They were the anti-thesis of the reliable and durable Swiss watch. Many of the constructions improvised from scrap metal also exploded or self-destructed. His most famous work, Homage to New York, chronicled in admiring detail by Calvin Tomkins in The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde, was a tangled contraption that caught fire and failed partially. It was filmed in 1960 by D. A. Pennebaker. Try saluting New York that way after 9/11.
Long before Ai Weiwei (even before Warhol at his most visible), Tinguely gave the media what it wanted. He had a rugged allure that complemented his devil-may-car attitude, and he loved beautiful women and cars, and seemed to be attracted to money, although he claimed not have much interest in it. The template for the media-savvy artist who mocked fine art all the way to the bank took shape long before the surging auctions of the 1980’s and Koons-ian dada.
Thomas Thumena’s feature bio-doc on the showman may clash with everything you assume about Switzerland – nonetheless, the Swiss held the undisciplined extrovert in high enough regard to give him a museum in Basel.
These were the days before artistic creation was bound by the fire and security regulations that we have today. In Thumena’s revisiting of the creation of the exploding installation Study for the End of the World (1962), Niki de Saint Phalle’s granddaughter recalls Niki flying out to the Nevada desert with sticks of dynamite for the detonation of that work by Tinguely. She brought the explosives into the cabin of the plane. The man sitting in the seat next to her was smoking. Fortunately, the smoker was careful with his ashes. Otherwise an unintended Tinguely airborne explosion might have been an homage to Las Vegas, scattered all over the landscape where the US Army had detonated nuclear bombs a decade earlier.
The plane arrived intact for the glam-art event. Niki had been a model, after all. NBC television filmed the feux d’artifices, and LIFE magazine photographed it.