Thursday, December 11, 2008

In Buddy's Eyes

The arts are rarely about objectivity. And yet, depending on his likes, dislikes, strengths, and handicaps, a person's perspectives may be skewed in a particular direction. While there's an old saying that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," one wonders what criteria an artist's eye employs to distinguish between truth and fiction, between the beautiful and the banal. Just as composers and musicians depend on their "ear" to give them a sense of acoustical balance and artistic truth, visual artists aspire to occasionally imperceptible ideals as their guide in the creation, marketing, and appreciation of art.

Many a movie has been built around the challenges and frustrations confronted by a contemporary artist. Whether one thinks of Keith Haring (The Universe of Keith Haring), Jean-Michel Basquiat (Basquiat), Andy Warhol (Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film), or Jackson Pollock (Pollock), their art -- as well as their lives -- continue to be dissected under the lens of a highly subjective microscope.

A favorite scene from Act II of Sunday In The Park With George captures a great deal of the preening self-importance and manic pretentiousness that can be found throughout the art world.

As part of its Quebec Film Week, the San Francisco Film Society is presenting a curious feature called Missing Victor Pellerin. Shot like a documentary, it lacks the humor and wit of a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind). Instead, writer/director Sophie Deraspe has done to Quebec's contemporary art scene what Anna Broinowski so brilliantly did to the world of fake journalism in Forbidden Lie$.

At the heart of Missing Victor Pellerin lies a grand artistic hoax. After achieving sudden fame on the Quebec art scene, Pellerin is supposed to have gathered up all his paintings and burned them before disappearing from sight. Lots of Pellerin's former friends, lovers, colleagues. rivals (as well as the police) would love to get their hands on him. But in the fifteen years since he disappeared, his mystery has never been solved.

As a supposedly close friend of the artist's (who claims to be dying of cancer) prepares an exhibition honoring Pellerin's memory, documentary-style interviews with some of the vacuous types who claim to have been close to Pellerin (as well as his sister and mother) yield few, if any clues to the enigma of Pellerin's true identity.

Was he simply -- as his relatives claim -- a mercurial, spoiled man named Luc Gauthier? Or a con artist who made forgeries of contemporary art pieces hung in corporate spaces and then sold the originals as part of a giant scam? Was Pellerin a brilliant young artist who liked to do drugs and make love while wearing a set of bunny ears? Or a cagey manipulator who used everyone he met as a pawn for his bizarre power trips and mind games?

An art dealer who sold nearly a dozen of his pieces (that had never actually been painted) would certainly like to get her hands on Pellerin, as would a former girlfriend who has never recovered from his disappearance. When his sister and the man dying of cancer fly off to South America to find Pellerin, the documentary comes to an inconclusive end, leaving them near a tiny jungle airstrip as they acknowledge that Pellerin may be hiding from the camera.

While Missing Victor Pellerin pulls no punches in revealing the fatuous delusions and often silly pretenses of the international art world, it never really answers any questions. Why not? Because Pellerin's hoax (if that's what it really was) left no solid clues to his whereabouts. What the film ultimately lacks is a sense of dramatic tension. Nearly every person interviewed as part of this documentary is silently screaming "Me....Me...Me....Look at ME!!!!!!!"

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Quite the opposite artistic vision comes from filmmakers intent on making travelogues. For many, the goal is to document their discoveries as they travel around the world. Focusing on whatever crosses their path and running the images through the creative lenses of their mind, it's always fascinating to see what kind of documentary these filmmakers may deliver.

In November, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco screened Mike Smiley's documentary about Cambodia, which turned out to be about as satisfying a cinematic experience as the Blair Witch Project. Although now a professional filmmaker, Smiley stumbled across footage he had taken nearly 20 years ago with his first camera during his first trip to Cambodia. In reviewing the footage, he thought it might be interesting to show how Cambodia looked through the innocent eyes and youthful eagerness of an aspiring filmmaker.

Unfortunately, his narration undermines a great deal of the footage as he gushes "Oh, and over here is a typical Cambodian hut. And over here are some typical Cambodian children. Look over here -- this is, like, a typical Cambodian market."

What elevates this Cambodian travelogue to a much different level of documentary filmmaking is his coverage of Pol Pot's torture chambers, torture museums, and his interviews with crippled and wounded Cambodians who have lost arms, legs, and other parts of their bodies to land mines. The film, instead, becomes an essay on man's cruelty to man and how powerless nations are to stop this kind of evil in the world.

Infinitely more appealing was Rick Ray's fascinating travelogue about Morocco. Ray is the filmmaker famous for making 10 Questions For The Dalai Lama, which was screened at the JCCSF in October. A San Francisco native with an incredibly sensitive eye for finding natural beauty and framing it with a great sense of balance and tremendous charm, his Moroccan travelogue shows you more diverse sites than you ever imagined in a country rich with history and blessed with a startlingly diverse topography. Ray's film is the kind of travelogue that makes you wish you had a magic carpet that could immediately whisk you away to such exotic destinations as Casablanca, Tangier, Marrakech, Fez, and Rabat.

Take a moment to watch this trailer for Morocco and bask in the colors and culture of a land barely known to Americans (but which, ironically, was the first to recognize the independence of the United States of America). Today's Morocco is a nation ruled by an extremely progressive Muslim king that is filled with friendly faces.

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