Thursday, February 19, 2009

Art Isn't Easy

One of the key challenges faced by a young artist is how to tame the sheer volume of ideas cascading from his brain. Can he write or compose music fast enough to keep up with it? Can he paint fast enough? At what point does he step back and let a piece rest, convinced that it's finished? At what point does he develop the discipline to start eliminating wasteful output that is clouding his artistic vision?

What if he's just learning the basic skills of making film? First, he needs to master the basic tools of the trade. What if he's just gotten a digital video camera and is experimenting with it to see if he has anything to say? Where does he look for ideas? What does he see?

One of the shorts programs scheduled for this year's San Francisco Asian American Film Festival is entitled The Secret Lives of Urban Space. The program notes state:
"From Tijuana to Kuala Lumpur, these magnificent shorts examine how space and architecture define personal lives, and how intimate interactions and habits are shaped by and reshape their surroundings. Eschewing narrative for thoughtful experimentation, set amongst skyscrapers, shuttered buildings and teeming streets, this collection of films negotiates the complex interplay of public and private in ways both playful and majestic."
Different styles quickly emerge. First, there is what I call "meditative filmmaking," in which a fixed camera is focused on an object as it is filmed over an extended period of time.  In 1982, Geoffrey Reggio scored a major success with Koyaanisqatsi, a ground-breaking film which employed slow motion and time lapse photography. The series of Qatsi Films set a new standard for time lapse photography as an art form. Two of the shorts on this program follow Reggio's template.  

In Upside Down - Downside Up, Heather Keung focuses her camera on a young woman practicing yoga (essentially performing an extended head stand) on the roof of a building in Hong Kong. As the woman attempts to maintain her balance for seven long minutes, clouds race past the sun, changing the lighting on her bodyscape.

In Chris Chong's Block B, a motionless camera remains focused on a high-rise apartment building in Kaula Lumpur's Brickfields neighborhood.  In two long segments (which basically chronicle the building's "coming to life" as the sun rises and its occupants awaken and its "going to sleep" as night falls and the building eventually goes dark), we watch people move in and out of their apartments, walk toward the elevators, hang their laundry on the apartment railings, set off fireworks, and eventually go back to bed. If you're an urban planner who needs a screen saver, this is the film for you!

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One of the challenges of filmmaking is to figure out whether you have a story to tell, if you have the ability to tell the story and, if not, whether you have an artistic vision that is compelling enough to capture an audience's attention without an underlying narrative.

In Green Dolphin, Oliver Husain seems to have trouble making up his mind. Part of the film involves him following people as they walk down the street (one of his targets being a mysterious woman in a green scarf). Moving between the streets of Jakarta and a Canadian suburb, part of the film includes an interview with a Filipino woman who describes how she ended up in Canada. The hybrid nature of this 15-minute film undermines its impact as one struggles to figure out where the filmmaker wants to go and if he even knows where he is heading.

A similar problem occurs in Sergio de la Torre's Nuevo Dragon City as a group of Chinese-Mexican teenagers take over an abandoned furniture store, moving the battered file cabinets and discarded panels around until they have effectively barricaded themselves inside the property. Although the program notes suggest that "as the outside world is closed off and they sit entrapped, their surroundings and actions become a powerful commentary on their own social existence,"  what the audience really sees is a pretentious piece of performance art that fails to communicate its goals to the viewer.

Thankfully, two of the shorts show filmmakers with potential for developing a strong sense of artistic vision.  In Kimi Takesue's 8-minute video entitled Suspended. the camera spies on people who may not be doing anything of particular meaning, but whose actions and settings coalesce into a strange kind of poetry in motion.

My favorite, however, was Oliver Husain's five-minute-long Shrivel, in which an inspired sense of humor, outrageousness, and cinematic madness is allowed to reach a boiling point. The program notes describe Husain's short film as:
"A surrealist fantasy of a hyper-globalized Indonesian suburb where American consumer culture has taken over. Amidst tract homes, bad hair and incessant cell phone calls, a hysterical, soapoperatic mystery unfolds."
There's a touch of hysterical drama queen silliness here which would make this short a perfect appetizer for one of Peaches Christ's  Midnight Mass screenings.

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Trimming, polishing, cutting, and editing are all acquired skills. Finding the strength to harness them in such a way that one's art can shine is a life-long pursuit. Meanwhile, as a young artist, the pressure to produce never goes away. Early success increases demand -- from the public as well as from the artist -- to produce more work that may be bigger, better, and attract more attention. It's a never-ending cycle which helps to focus in on the strengths and weaknesses of one's process. Sometimes what you see can be quite startling.

Many artists go through a stretch of rocky years in which their lack of money, connections, and emotional maturity act as strange and often incendiary catalysts.  One of the documentaries that will be shown at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival next month is Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe.

Like Shepard Fairey, Choe started out as a street artist, spraying graffiti on blank walls that were begging to be defiled. A self-professed enfant terrible,  Choe makes no bones about his love of destroying public property while "making shit." 

Whether doing illustrations for Larry Flynt's porn magazines or intense murals, finding God or becoming a corporate shill, the one thing that cannot be said about Choe's lifestyle is that it is boring. There are times when you might want to smack the shit out of him, but he'll beat you to it and draw blood from himself with a demonic glee faster than you can think about what to do next.

Harry Kim first started filming Choe around 2000.  Over the past 7-8 years he has amassed enough footage of Choe acting out as a bipolar bad boy of the art world to exhaust the viewer. If you think the cliche of the tortured artist has lost its meaning, you'll want to check out Kim's documentary. 

You'll meet a man whose gigs have ranged from ghostwriting lesbian fiction to volunteering with children as they dabble in art.  You'll be confronted by an uncontrollable street rebel whose exploits take him from being accompanied by pygmies as he searches for an elusive dinosaur in the heart of the Congo to a deeper despair serving time in a solitary isolation cell in a Japanese jail. As Choe catapults between various media (working with spray paint, blood, soy sauce, urine, and anything else that captures his fancy) you'll get an uncomfortably long look at an artist whose biggest talent may be acting like a major asshole.

If you're searching for a trendy but "safe" artist to discuss at high tea, Choe is definitely not what you're looking for. On the other hand, if you're seeking a wild man-child who simply can't stop acting out, you've found your guy.

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