Sunday, September 5, 2010

Living In The Moment

One of the strangest things about the artistic process is its ephemeral nature. Moments of inspiration come and go. Sometimes an artist manages to capture them in print, in paint, or in a photograph. Brilliant moments of performance art often only reside in the memories of the audience.

Sometimes a promising artist or athlete dies very early in his career, leaving others to wonder what might have happened if he had lived a longer life. What contributions to his field might have ensued? What would a more mature version of the artist have produced?

What if?  What if? What if?

Two new documentaries deal with the issues of instant fame and careers that were tragically cut short. Although the two men who died were about the same age, the activities in which they excelled could not have been more radically different.

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (who died of a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988 at only 27 years of age) was a man of such promising talent that his death dealt a severe blow to the New York art scene. As a new documentary entitled Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child makes clear, by that point Basquiat had become such a celebrity that his aura may have started to outshine his art.

During the 1970s, Basquiat gained notoriety as a graffiti artist whose tag, SAMO, appeared all over New York. By 1983 (after he had been painting on canvas for two years), Basquiat had achieved  celebrity status and great commercial success. "He was one of the people I was truly envious of," stated Madonna (who dated the young artist in the fall of 1982), "...but he was too fragile for this world."

In 1985, Basquiat became close friends with Andy Warhol (who became a mentor and father figure to the young artist). After Warhol's unexpected death on February 22, 1987, Jean-Michel (who had already started to use heroin) sank into a depression that spiraled downward. Within 18 months, he had died of an overdose.

Basquiat's friend, Tamra Davis, had once taped an interview with Basquiat during which he spoke candidly about his childhood, his wealth, how music influenced his painting process, and the kind of racism he experienced in the art world. Combining her footage with interviews of those who knew and worked with Basquiat (Julian Schnabel, Larry Gagosian, Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi, Fab 5 Freddy, Rene Ricard, Kenny Scharf, etc.) she delivers a charming portrait of a free spirit. Hailed by some as the first African American painter to become a star on the international art scene, Basquiat was also a kid who wanted to show his father (an accountant) that he had done well with his art. In many ways, he was just beginning to become a man when he died.

While Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child often shows a young man of uncommon beauty, some might find his art less than miraculous with its childlike simplicity. The fact that, in May of 2007, one of his paintings sold for $14.6 million can easily overshadow one's appreciation for the prodigious amount of work that Basquiat left behind.

While much of the film feels like a wild ride through Basquiat's catalog of paintings, an added bonus is a soundtrack filled with the bebop music that so often inspired him. The film's main drawback is that many of the quotes and titles that appear onscreen are too small to be easily read. Indeed, the filmmaker's words must often fight for the viewer's attention against a rapidly changing background of Basquiat's art. Here's the trailer:

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Ever since I saw Bruce Brown's 1966 surfing documentary, The Endless Summer, I've had a soft spot in my heart for surfing films. Not the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello type of "Beach Blanket Bingo" films, but the magnificent documentaries that show the grace of skilled surfers as they perform a delicate dance with the thunderous power of huge waves.

The latest surfing documentary, High Water, contains some breathtaking footage that will cause viewers to gasp in awe of the sheer physical beauty of the water. But it also contains something you don't usually find in surfing films: a memorial service for a fallen surfer who was totally wiped out by a huge wave (Malik Joyeux of Tahiti drowned in 2005).

Malik Joyeux (1980-2005)

While High Water includes plenty of footage featuring surfing stars (Kelly Slater, Sunny Garcia, Rochelle Ballard, Chelsea Georgeson, Pancho Sullivan, and young John John Florence), it also features disabled surfers, surfers about to retire, and one of Hawaii's most eccentric and mysterious surfers. As filmmaker Dana Brown explains:
"After working with my father (Bruce Brown) on The Endless Summer 2, then making my own Step into Liquid, I didn't think I'd make another surf movie. I had been all over the world looking for waves and surfers and surf stories. What else was there to say?
After making Dust to Glory about the Baja 1000 off-road race, I was approached about making a reality series on surfing. I could pick the subject as long as it was surfing. So, I proposed covering the six weeks when the surfing world descends on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii for the Hawaiian Triple Crown contests which decide both the men's and women’s world championships. We would cover not just the competitors, but those trying to be discovered, the soul surfers, the locals, the legends, the media, and the huge surf… the whole circus that surrounds this pristine stretch of coastline from Thanksgiving to Christmas when the all eyes are focused there. It would be inexpensive to do and the story, though well known, hadn't really been told. So, with a budget about one third of Step Into Liquid, I went with a small crew and lived on the North Shore for those six weeks to try to capture the beauty and madness.
Then came the hard part: taking the 150 hours of footage we shot and turning it into something cohesive, true, and worthy of the subject matter.  With a small budget, that meant thousands of hours in a dark room trying to piece together that puzzle. The task would have been impossible without my son, Wes, who was in the room with me as co-editor. Without his talent, humor, work ethic, and ability to read my handwriting, there is no way the film would have ever been completed. It took us well over a year and a half to edit the film. No assistants. Just us and a limited budget. We wanted to make the film as grand as the subject matter, so we toiled away, turning paler, losing social skills. About the same time we finished, the economy nearly collapsed. 
It's taken a while for the film to finally to make it to the screen and I am grateful it has. There was a symmetry in the process. I had started working for my Dad, working my way up to associate producer and co-editor on Endless Summer 2, and now there was Wes working with me. There is something to that, and I think it transfers to the film. I am proud of this film and think it reflects the spirit of the North Shore, which is the high water mark in surfing."
As with most surfing films, the musical score is a lot of fun. But, for me, one of the greatest challenges is trying to figure out how Brown and his friends managed to shoot some of the most spectacular footage without drowning in the surf. If you love the ocean, you'll love High Water. Here's the trailer:

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