For the Silver Screen: Movies By and About Artists at the Tribeca Film Festival

From left: Robert Clohessy as Frank, Laurie Simmons as Ellie, John Rothman as John, all portraying characters from A Clockwork Orange, in My Art, written and directed by Laurie Simmons. DYLAN NELSON

From left: Robert Clohessy as Frank, Laurie Simmons as Ellie, John Rothman as John, all portraying characters from A Clockwork Orange, in My Art, written and directed by Laurie Simmons.


New movies by and about artists make for some of the liveliest attractions at the Tribeca Film Festival, in New York for its 16th edition, which runs April 19 to 30. Whether tangling with troublemaking art-world legends or capturing the sparks of a combustive collaboration, the films consider the consumptive nature of the creative process, each in its own way. Films at the festival screen multiple times at several venues in downtown Manhattan, including Cinépolis Chelsea, the School of Visual Arts Theatre, and the Tribeca Festival Hub at 50 Varick Street, which also hosts an array of virtual-reality presentations and interactive installations. For the full schedule and ticket information, see Otherwise, here’s a look at the festival’s most art-centric selections.

Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World (director Barry Avrich)
A breezy and methodical anatomy of the contemporary art market, this documentary features an ensemble of talking heads including gallerists, journalists, curators, and a few artists themselves (such as Taryn Simon and Julian Schnabel) in the service of a primer on everything from the uber-dealer Larry Gagosian (described by one pundit as “an ecosystem in his own right”) to Art Basel and the workings of the major auction houses. Director Barry Avrich is a prolific Canadian filmmaker whose work notably includes several portraits of power players, including The Last Mogul, about movie producer Lew Wasserman, and Filthy Gorgeous: The World of Bob Guccione.

Cate Blanchett in Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto (2015).©2016 JULIAN ROSEFELDT, VG BILD-KUNST/COURTESY FILMRISE

Cate Blanchett in Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2015).


Manifesto (director Julian Rosefeldt)
Texts from some 60 visionaries—from Karl Marx and F.T. Marinetti to Yvonne Rainer and Mierle Laderman Ukeles—supply the dialogue in this ambitious production, which recasts the fiery language of (mostly) artistic revolutionaries in 13 absurdist scenarios, each starring Cate Blanchett in a different persona: a sultry London punk-rocker, an anchorwoman, a ranting homeless man, and more. Working from discrete short films that were arranged in multi-screen installations shown in Berlin and New York (at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory), director Julian Rosefeldt cut together a 90-minute version that premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Although the physical expansiveness of the project is now shrunk to the size of a single screen, it juxtaposes various segments of Blanchett’s dynamo performances and lends the rhetorical vigor of her declarations—the manifestoes of the title—an even greater sense of familiarity. By turns, she’s a Bible Belt housewife reciting Claes Oldenberg as a dinner table blessing (“I am for an art out of a doggy’s mouth, falling five stories from the roof”) or a widow delivering a brimstone eulogy courtesy of Tristan Tzara (“We are a downpour of maledictions, as tropically abundant as vertiginous vegetation”). On screen, the vibrancy of the language startles anew.

Shadowman (director Oren Jacoby)
Street artist Richard Hambleton, now in his early 60s, out-survived peers from the 1980s art scene like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat even as he slid into decades of poverty, obscurity, and drug addiction. Sympathetic art dealers and friends tried to help him out, their efforts typically stymied by the artist’s peculiar and self-destructive ways. Once famous for his “Shadowman” figures—black silhouettes that borrowed from the chalk outline figures of downtown crime scenes—Hambleton never stopped painting, even when he was homeless. The camera bears excruciating witness to the gnomic painter’s physical decline as well as his surprising endurance against the cruelest odds.

Julian Schnabel in Pappi Corsicato's Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (2017). COURTESY COHEN MEDIA GROUP

Julian Schnabel in Pappi Corsicato’s Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (2017).


Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait (director Pappi Corsicato)
The recipient of warm and generous assessments from a long list of admirers (Laurie Anderson, Al Pacino, Bono, Jeff Koons, Mathieu Amalric, Mary Boone) as well as his children and two ex-wives, Julian Schnabel, the one-time enfant terrible who burst into the New York art scene at the end of the 1970s, presides over this biographical documentary as a kind of grand poobah. Italian filmmaker Pappi Corsicato gained access to the artist’s archives and the interiors of Palazzo Chupi, his towering Pompeii red 50,000-square-foot home on West 11th Street in New York. The film traces the evolution of Schnabel’s work from teenage days as a Texas surfer to his rock-star-like celebrity in the ’80s to latter-day success as the filmmaker behind Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Tom of Finland (director Dome Karukoski)
Touko Laaksonen (aka Tom of Finland) was a pioneering artist known for his larger-than-life imagery of strapping, leather-clad muscle men and motorcycle boys whose bold, hypersexualized forms flourished underground in the years before the Gay Liberation movement, the Village People, and a pedigreed home in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. The erotic icons come to life, in fantasy and reality, in this biopic, but the tone is surprisingly sedate as the period drama focuses more on the furtive evolution of Laaksonen’s art and life as a homosexual in postwar Helsinki than the priapic extravagance of his illustrations.

Laurie Simmons as Ellie (portraying Kim Novak as Gillian ‘Gil’ Holroyd in Bell, Book and Candle) in My Art, written and directed by Laurie Simmons. DYLAN NELSON

Laurie Simmons as Ellie (portraying Kim Novak as Gillian ‘Gil’ Holroyd in Bell, Book and Candle) in My Art, written and directed by Laurie Simmons.


My Art (director Laurie Simmons)
The work of conceptual photographer Laurie Simmons inspired the title of her daughter Lena Dunham’s 2010 career-launching feature film Tiny Furniture, a quasi-autobiographical riff that starred the artist and her home-from-college offspring as versions of themselves. Now Simmons has written and directed a full-fledged feature of her own. A departure from her previous experimental short films, My Art flips the millennial-angst focus of her daughter’s breakout movie to the romantic and professional travails of a woman in her mid-60s. As a fictional New York artist and professor named Ellie, Simmons retreats to an upstate farmhouse (in real life, the Connecticut estate she shares with her husband, the painter Carroll Dunham), where she aims to reignite her career amid rustic tranquility. Things don’t go exactly as planned after Ellie recruits a wacky assortment of locals to perform in short remakes of classic films like A Clockwork Orange and the Marlene Dietrich romance Morocco, a trigger for spoofy laughs. Sexual tension ensues, as does a relapse into cigarette smoking, in a tale that includes cameos from such beloved actresses as Barbara Sukowa, Blair Brown, and Parker Posey (Lena Dunham and her sister Grace also appear briefly). The comedy is understated and the stakes are low, but like Elisabeth Subrin’s recent drama A Woman, a Part, the focus on a female artist’s midlife crisis feels at least a little revolutionary.

Still from Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell's Flames (2017). COURTESY THE ARTISTS

Still from Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell’s Flames (2017).


Flames (directors Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell)
Their hot-blooded and hotter-headed romance went off the rails in a matter of months, but artists-filmmakers-performers Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell remained tethered by an emotionally impossible project: to expose the sublime and sordid moments of their relationship, even years after they both had moved on to new personal arrangements. The couple’s shared passion for risk-taking exhibitionism and the film’s candid sexual interludes suggest a kind of 9 ½ Weeks for micro-budget cinema fans, with New York as an exalted public playground. In one scene, as they sit in an editing session, Throwell defends himself by telling Decker “You art-fucked Joe Swanberg!” It’s a hilarious rejoinder for those who know Decker’s roles in the name-checked Chicago filmmaker’s no-frills features Art History and Uncle Kent, both made before Decker’s own luminous and mysterious films Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (which co-starred Swanberg). Inside jokes aside, the exchange underscores the difficulties faced when art and life mesh so thoroughly, especially for two people so completely programmed to drive each other crazy. The story is enhanced by an unseen third party, cinematographer Ashley Connor, whose transfixing images map the uncharted territory of visceral passion gone the way of meta awareness.

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