In 2012, while Frances Stark was working on her acclaimed film installation Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of Davis and/or Paying Attention Is Free, actor Will Ferrell released a Spanish-language film called Casa de mi Padre. Despite the best efforts by Ferrell, Mexican heartthrobs Diego Luna and Gael Garcia-Bernal, and a white panther puppet from Jim Henson’s studio, the film was a critical and commercial flop, grossing just over $8 million worldwide.
Moreover, “They were weird about it at the video store,” Stark told Ferrell on Sunday at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, recounting the time she rented Casa Mi Padre. “Like, is this racist?”
(I failed to mention earlier that Ferrell plays a Mexican rancher whose family and estate fall victim to extremely graphic violence brought on by his brother, played by Luna. Luna’s character makes a fortune trafficking narcotics into the United States, the citizens of which are described as “shit-eating crazy monster babies” who “eat greasy shit burgers.”)
As part of the programming for “Uh-Oh Frances Stark: 1991-2015,“ a 125-piece survey of the L.A. artist’s career on view now through January 24 at the Hammer, Stark scheduled the kind of collision between Hollywood and the art world that’s inevitable in L.A. but never very convincing: a screening of Ferrell’s movie and a panel discussion with the actor to discuss his panned film as a work of art.
“I felt this was profoundly philosophical,” Stark said, having been moved to tears during the screening as a self-described “romantico ridiculoso.” “It’s simultaneous. The whole time you can feel the difficulty and the depth and the ugliness of the real situation, and you can feel the critique but then you’re dying laughing,” she said.
Ferrell, in turn, described the movie as, “Great usage of bad filmmaking.”
Equipped with about 25 minutes worth of questions, Stark sat at the center of the panel that included Ferrell, director Matt Piedmont, writer Andrew Steele, and producer Jessica Elbaum, elucidating the points at which Casa de mi Padre entered a dialogue with her own work.
“I totally adore that reading the subtitles is intentionally part of the experience,” much like her own recurring use of text, she said. This, in her words, made the film “almost like [R. Kelly’s] Trapped in the Closet,” leaving the comparison at that.
To Stark’s credit, and also much like her own work, Casa de mi Padre is deeply referential to art history, borrowing visual cues from Jodorowsky and Fellini in addition to Spaghetti Westerns. Stark also noted how the gang violence of South Central L.A., a theme that entered her body of work when she met her muse, the young, braided Latino Bobby Jesus, stemmed directly from the kinds of drug cartels portrayed in the film. This connection was made particularly disturbing by Piedmont’s gleeful boasting of his own drug use during the talk. “I’m not sure in making something that you’re beholden to the politics,” he said. Stark seemed to condone this.
“Art is the one thing that you can do that you can be totally complicit in the problem and still critique the problem,” she said.
Also surprising was writer Andrew Steele’s dismissal of the rise of narcotics-trafficking dramas on television. “Drug war porn to me is now just rampant,” he said. Ironically, Casa, fits into the category of “drug war porn” in more ways than one: it was shot not in Mexico, but the Valley, adult entertainment capital of the world.
For all parties, the panel discussion was admittedly surreal.
“I’m still totally in shock,” Stark said ebulliently. “I have nothing to do with Hollywood! I’m the loner poet in the studio.”
Ferrell agreed: “This is the first time we’ve been able to talk about the film in a formal setting.”
But to revisit the question posed to Stark at her (likely now defunct) video store: “Is it racist?” The satirization of classic Mexican genres by three white men certainly counts as brownface, or what our age of political correctness would call cultural appropriation. That, disappointingly, is the clearest similarity between Stark’s most recent works and this film, and the one she never brought to light. In the upstairs galleries, amidst the survey of Stark’s brilliant self-reflexivity and media-transcending body of work, is Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater (2013), which was cited frequently throughout the discussion. Inspired by Bobby Jesus himself, the piece projects language and images—Tupac, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube among them—borrowed from black and Latino culture. Unlike Ferrell’s film, this work is not satirical, but it’s fair to wonder if it might still be exploitative. That may be the real distinction between art and entertainment, however. In the name of art, so far, no one has really questioned it.