More and more artists are directing feature films with large casts, big budgets, and elaborate story lines involving everything from intellectual werewolves to Polish cowboys.
A stranger comes to town. Shots are fired, then more. The stranger becomes a bloody pulp. So does the sheriff. When vigilantes strafe the saloon, their bullets explode in clouds of red, yellow, and blue dust.
Thus begins the penultimate scene of Summer Love, a new feature film by the Polish-born conceptual artist Piotr Uklanski—only one of the contemporary artists infiltrating the cineplex in more and different ways than ever before. In most cases, their movies are extensions of their usual work, with one difference: the films are based on screenplays that have a fairly conventional narrative bent. They also feature seasoned actors and technical crews, and mean to reach audiences beyond museums and film festivals.
For example, Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s you-are-there study of the Algerian-born soccer star Zinedine Zidane, titled Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May and was released commercially in Europe and the United Kingdom. And Uklanski introduced Summer Love, his first film, at the Venice Film Festival in September.
During the summer, photographer Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers opened in select theaters around the United States, his fifth film to do so since his stunning debut with Kids in 1995. At about the same time, Julian Schnabel began production on his third feature, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he recently completed shooting in France for Hollywood producers Ron Bass and Kathleen Kennedy. Based on the memoir by the late Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former editor of French Elle, the film has a large cast that includes French heartthrob Mathieu Amalric, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Max von Sydow, and Emmanuelle Seigner. (Schnabel also has another movie in the wings, an adaptation of Jean Nathan’s biography, The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright.)
Meanwhile, the Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist has her first feature, Pepperminta Colornoise, in development with Hugo Film in Zurich. Rist hopes to shoot the film next summer in the Netherlands, Sicily, and the Swiss Alps using a primarily female cast of professional dancers. In September, Shirin Neshat learned that she had won the $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize while she was scouting locations for her full-length adaptation of the 1998 book Women Without Men, by the exiled Iranian novelist Shahrnush Parsipur. The film, her first, is backed by European producers Philippe Bober and Susanne Marian and is scheduled to begin principal photography in Casablanca next month.
We have seen this kind of activity before, in the mid-1990s, when art stars like Robert Longo, David Salle, and Cindy Sherman directed independently produced movies to little appreciable effect and quickly returned to their usual media. Only Clark and Schnabel went on to establish serious careers in film, which, at this point, have surpassed all expectations. In Schnabel’s case, even his strongest artwork now seems as if it were only a rehearsal for the real thing. (Before Night Falls, his $8 million second film—the first was Basquiat in 1996—was nominated for an Oscar in 2001 for its star, Javier Bardem.) “Basically, I’m an artist,” Schnabel told an interviewer at the time. “I made the movie so I could make art, so I could make something I wanted to look at.”
However, making art and making movies are different skills, requiring, perhaps, different temperaments. So why are established artists willing to put their reputations—and sometimes their own money—on the line to enter an industry likely to dismiss them as novices or, worse, as dilettantes serving up the vanity productions of rich backers?
One answer lies in two words: Andy Warhol.
Of course, artists who came long before Warhol—Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Hans Richter—also dabbled in cinema, but Warhol raised the bar when he stopped making non-narrative, 16-millimeter silents and started producing full-scale movies like Trash (1970) and Women in Revolt (1971), both directed by Paul Morrissey, for distribution in commercial theaters rather than underground screening rooms. Had he lived to witness video Internet sites like YouTube.com and MySpace.com, Warhol might well have made provocative use of them, too.
His legacy exercised a direct influence on Parreno and Gordon, whose collaborative portrait of French soccer star Zidane was partly inspired by the three-minute black-and-white reels known collectively as Warhol’s Screen Tests. Filming during a single soccer game in Spain, the artists compiled 35 hours of 35-millimeter film and high-definition video footage from a trailer parked outside the stadium, directing 17 different camera operators. The finished product does something new for portraiture, turning it into a live-action study and examining what it is to watch, and be watched, from a great remove and in sweaty close-up.
It might seem natural for video artists like Gordon and Parreno, Neshat, and Rist to move into filmmaking, but artists accustomed to working with the small crews it takes to produce a video may not take so quickly to commanding a small army of specialists on a movie set. For those accustomed to working solo in studios and covering their own costs, the pressures of working with budgets of millions in other people’s money can be daunting.
Neshat, for example, made the transition slowly. “It takes me a year even to make a ten-minute video,” she says, but in 2003 she accepted an invitation from the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriter’s Lab to write her screenplay. “It was exciting for me to feel like a student again and adapt a novel to cinematic language,” she says of the story, which is set in Tehran in 1953 and follows the lives of five women whose personal upheavals mirror the one going on in their country. (This was when the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, supported by the C.I.A., wrested power from a democratically elected government.)
“I’ve never been faithful to any particular medium,” says Neshat, who left Tehran in 1975 and moved to New York in 1983, when she was making still portraits inscribed with Farsi poems. “With film you can create a photograph, you have words, a painting, choreography—you have everything. But the most important thing is the connection to public culture. I don’t want to make an ethnic film that speaks to a certain community, and I don’t want to mimic conventional movies, but I do want to make a narrative film that can engage a general audience.”
Like other artist-directors, she sees her film as an extension of her studio activity. “All of my work has been a conjunction of political reality and fiction or poetry filled with a bicultural perspective that is the life I live. But I’m inherently an ambitious artist who is always setting goals that are beyond my reach.” (Neshat is also making five video installations for gallery presentation that relate to her film but exist independently of it.) “Women Without Men is difficult to adapt, but it is incredibly important to Iranians,” Neshat explains. “It caused this woman to be imprisoned for many years, and I have a certain pride in my mission to bring attention to an author who has been practically forgotten. I don’t care if it takes ten years, and I don’t know if I’ll touch film after that.”
For most visual artists turned film directors, storytelling presents the biggest obstacle to success. “The trick,” says Neshat, “is to make a film that makes sense to an average public. Art is sometimes so conceptualized the public doesn’t get it.”
Uklanski’s entry into filmmaking came, he acknowledges, out of a certain dissatisfaction with his place in the art world and an impulse to become involved in work that would also relate to politics. “I grew up in Communist Poland, where there were westerns on TV,” he says, “but they were shown without any sense that they were propaganda. A product essentially celebrating Americana was on TV in a country that was otherwise very critical of American politics. So making a western in Poland was not to resurrect the tradition so much as to portray the absurdity of a country that is trying to be something it isn’t, as when gung-ho Poles send soldiers to Iraq.”
In fact, Uklanski had already made several provocative works related directly to popular movies. They include Dance Floor (1996), a multihued floor-bound plastic square with embedded flashing lights that is part modernist grid and part Saturday Night Fever, and The Nazis, a fetishistic display of 164 publicity shots of actors who have played Nazi officers. (The work was produced in an edition of ten: one set came up for auction at Phillips de Pury in London last October and sold for $1.07 million.) This work uncomfortably glamorizes evil while heightening awareness of the way stereotypes can distort reality. For Uklanski, there was no reason not to take on another exhausted genre and try to invest it with something new.
Thus came what he calls “the first Polish western,” a self-consciously violent film that he wrote, directed, and produced for under $2 million. “There’s blood,” he says, “but I see it as very decorative.” (It splatters, eddies, and pools and comes in many shades of red.) Working in Poland with Polish screen stars, local crews, and Val Kilmer, who has top billing but appears in a nonspeaking though critical role—as a dead man—Uklanski made the film in English, with the actors speaking in pronounced Polish accents. It received positive notices in Venice, but, he admits, his inexperience created obstacles throughout the filming.
Uklanski’s financing fell through more than once before he was able to assemble a consortium of backers—independent producers, art collectors, and gallerists—as well as government grants. The actors had no idea what to make of the surreal script at first, and there were problems with the crew. “I had a director of photography who goes all over the world doing documentaries and who believes cinema’s purpose is to communicate truth,” Uklanski recalls. “I had the opposite idea. The editor thought Godard was the most overrated filmmaker, and we ended up unable to stay in the same room.” Ultimately, he adds, “I think the conflict was fruitful.”
While increasing numbers of artists are making theatrical films, others are making artwork that refers to existing films or to filmmaking. Chief among them are Gordon, Gregory Crewdson, Stan Douglas, Christian Jankowski, and John Waters. Crewdson may be the only one who has no interest in actual moviemaking. Jankowski, by contrast, has created a new hybrid in Lycan Theorized (2006), a brainy exegesis of the horror-film genre that he introduced into an actual, made-for-DVD horror movie.
“I call it my director’s cut,” he says, explaining that he talked the director of a werewolf movie into letting him cast the film’s prosthetics from the faces and limbs of 19 film scholars or theorists from different parts of the world. Then he shot a separate, short film on the werewolf set, pairing each actor with a theorist alter ego and substituting quotes from the academics for the dialogue in the film. “So,” Jankowski says, laughing, “the werewolf’s dying words come out of the mouth of Henry Jenkins.” (Jenkins is a professor in the comparative media studies program at M.I.T.)
Other artists, including Richard Prince and Marina Abramovic, have established a toehold in the pornography market, thanks to films they contributed to Destricted, an anthology of erotic shorts that has been released to theaters in the U.K. and which IFC Films will distribute in the United States early next year. Prince cobbled together pieces of a homemade stag film he found 20 years ago in a neighbor’s apartment and added a sound track; Abramovic appears as a lecturer giving a deadpan précis of Balkan superstitions involving sex organs.
IFC is also responsible for the national distribution of Matthew Barney’s most recent film, Drawing Restraint #9, an elliptical tale involving whales and a petroleum jelly sculpture. Produced by Barney with his primary dealer, Barbara Gladstone (who also coproduced four of the five films in Barney’s “Cremaster” series), Drawing Restraint #9 ran three months beyond its initial two-week booking at IFC’s New York theater. It is a rather astonishing achievement for an esoteric film with almost no dialogue, even if it does feature pop-music star Bjí¶rk as its leading lady, playing opposite Barney himself. (The two are also a couple offscreen.)
Other conceptual artists have been able to fold fictional conceits into documentary subjects. The 27-year-old Chinese performance artist Cao Fei is one such artist. She is completing a feature-length film in Beijing commissioned by the Yunnan New Film Project, the government agency charged with organizing the Chinese film industry’s centenary. As with her previous short videos, COSPlayers (2004) and Hip-Hop (2003), the new film, as yet untitled, tracks China’s rapidly changing cultural environment.
According to Leah Freid of Lombard-Freid Gallery, which represents Cao in New York, the story is based on the diary entries of a band of young people who travel to a remote mountain region seeking a better life. Clark’s Wassup Rockers also recounts the real-life experience of a group of disenfranchised young people who play themselves. In this case, they are Latino skateboarders from South Central Los Angeles who spend a day in Beverly Hills getting into scrapes, some comic, some fatal.
Another artist, Nikki S. Lee, mixed actual events into scripted scenes of aka Nikki S. Lee, an hour-long quasi-autobiographical film, shot on video, that premiered in October at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is now at work on the script for a feature she hopes to shoot in her native Korea next year. “I always wanted to go to film school, but I started in photography,” says Lee, who is best known for posing in photographs where she blends in with disparate groups of people—bikers, punk rockers, senior citizens, preppy WASPs, and so on. “I want to have different roles in my life, too,” she says. “I can be an extra, a director, an artist. I’m writing a film script right now by instinct. Photography is a conceptual tool, but film is my first love. It is the natural way for me to go.”
For artist Francesco Vezzoli, however, movies are the conceptual tool. Vezzoli, whose Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s “Caligula” (2005) was an audience favorite at the last Venice Biennale and at this year’s Whitney Biennial, has accepted an invitation from Prada to remake the Kinsey Report as a straightforward documentary on current sexual practices, possibly for broadcast on television.
Vezzoli is only half joking when he says, “I’d love for Larry Gagosian to present a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci.” (Gagosian is Vezzoli’s U.S. dealer.) “That would be a statement,” he says. “If you have to go into a gallery to see a new film by an important director, what would that mean? For me,” he adds, “to be an artist is to challenge existing boundaries or preconceptions, so I think it’s interesting just to create a provocation. So if Gagosian wants to give me a show, I say, ‘No! I want you to produce a film by Bertolucci.’ That would be my art.”
Sherman is considering a return to the director’s chair, this time with a project of her own choosing. “One of the main problems with Office Killer was the way I came into it,” she says of her 1997 movie about a woman who becomes a serial killer and cuts up the bodies of former colleagues. “I hadn’t been thinking about making a movie,” says Sherman. “I was sort of talked into it by the producers, who had a time frame in which they wanted it done. The script wasn’t even completed when we started preproduction,” she says. “As a result, I never had time to storyboard it. That’s why I like the idea of these new, cheaper, off-the-cuff movies. People can do what they want.”
Before she makes another attempt, we are likely to see her appear as herself in Guest of Cindy Sherman, a $500,000 documentary by a former boyfriend, Paul Hasegawa-Overacker. Partly financed by the Sundance Channel, which purchased North American broadcast rights, Hasegawa-Overacker and codirector Tom Donahue have attracted attention to the project by making a ten-minute excerpt available on MySpace.com. “Millions of people have seen the trailer,” says Hasegawa-Overacker. Known as Paul H-O, he was the creator of Gallery Beat, which ran on New York public-access TV from 1993 to 2003.
Essentially a historical overview of Gallery Beat, adding recent studio interviews with such artists as Longo, Cecily Brown, Sean Landers, and Laurie Simmons, the film reveals how H-O became romantically involved with Sherman. “It’s a love story that transpires on camera,” he says.
Other artists involved in filmmaking, like the Americans Doug Aitken, Sharon Lockhart, and Matthew Buckingham, and Britain’s Tacita Dean, are leaving short-form production in favor of the 60- to 90-minute length, but their experiments in narrative structure (looping, fragmentation, fixed-camera, multiscreen projection, collaging), have established their work firmly in the art world and avant-garde film festivals. At the same time, filmmakers like Chantal Akerman or Ken Jacobs, who have long presented their works in cinema settings, are showing them in galleries and museums. Some younger artists have been making forays into new media. Chris Moukarbel, a Yale M.F.A. candidate, set off waves with his thesis project, a 12-minute video made from a bootleg screenplay for Oliver Stone’s film World Trade Center. Working in advance of the film’s release, Moukarbel used student actors and a handmade set, and then posted the video on the Internet.
“Artists are clearly trying to engage a broader culture that is in thrall to Hollywood,” says Stuart Comer, curator of film at Tate Modern. Citing Vezzoli’s new video, Marlene Redux: A True Hollywood Story! (Part One), based on both Maximilian Schell’s 1984 biopic of Marlene Dietrich and an E! Channel program, as well as Laurie Simmons’s recent 35-millimeter short, The Music of Regret, which stars Meryl Streep, he says, “You can’t get more Hollywood than Streep.” But Simmons’s film, Comer notes, grew from her own photographs, while Vezzoli’s agenda “is more Warholian in the way he engages mass culture on its own terms.”
With all the new technology, the one medium that artists other than Vezzoli and Jankowski have left virtually untouched is commercial television—possibly the next frontier. For Rist, at least, that is still a ways off. “I feel ripe to make a piece for the cinema,” she says. “For me, all the TV sets in all the living rooms together are just the biggest video installation in the world.”
Linda Yablonsky is a contributing editor of ARTnews.