March 23, 2007

FIFA Dispatch. 1.

City planners, collectors, writers, a photographer. David D'Arcy views a selection of docs.

FIFA 25 The International Festival of Films on Art in Montreal (FIFA) which ended on Sunday is a rare event, a place where you'll see films about art, architecture, performing arts and literature that you won't see anywhere else. In the festival's 25th year, showing work made mostly for television, and most of it coming from Europe, it seemed that much of what I saw was French.

One of my favorites was Le Destin Des Halles (The Destiny of Les Halles), a documentary by Frédéric Biamonti about the destruction of the vast picturesque food market in the center of Paris and the failure of the buildings that replaced it to achieve much of anything, either commercially or aesthetically. The film, which tells its story with archival footage from the 1960s to the present, is a tale of error after error, with misjudgments that resulted in permanent losses to the built environment.

Back in the 1960s, Charles De Gaulle and his successor Georges Pompidou thought that demolishing the old market would make Paris more modern. It wasn't his only bad idea, but it was one of the last ones and, so far, one of the most enduring. We witness mute footage of bulldozers and steam shovels razing the place, and we see the kitschy design that replaced it, built with cheap materials that now need to be replaced. At one point there was an enormous hole where the market once stood with its steel frame and peaked rooves. The excavation was necessary because it was planned that Les Halles would be the new juncture for all the subways in town.

The hole was so huge that it dared anyone to do something even more brazen. That's just what the director Marco Ferreri did - he made a film there, a western based on Custer's Last Stand called Touche pas à la femme blanche (Don't Touch the White Woman!), with Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni, which was intended to be a satire on the arrogant folly of the US war in Vietnam. There are wildly improbable horse stampedes and cavalry battles. See it if you can find it. Remember, Ferreri was the man who made La Grande Bouffe, a film in which characters eat themselves to death. Here they're acting out a western in a space that was shoveled out of Paris.

Le Destin Des Halles Then Jacques Chirac, the newly-elected mayor of Paris, entered the scene and took control of the design process, as government officials love to do, and rarely do well. What filled the hole was even more discouraging - a vast mall hemmed in by subways underground and umbrella-shaped motifs constructed of cheap materials that began deteriorating as soon as the place reopened.

Now the blunder that used to be Les Halles needs immediate renovation, and four top architects were auditioned for the job, including the French star Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands. David Mangin's plan, calling for a promenade between Les Halles and La Bourse (the Paris stock exchange), is the one that was chosen. We see their plans, and we see official France still stalling. It's an odd mix of rashness and inertia. Not the way to build or rebuild a great city. One woman in the documentary puts it bluntly - in the 1970s and 1980s, the French government was far more effective destroying Paris than the Germans were in World War II.

Another French documentary at FIFA, Palazzo Grassi, Le Palais du collectionneur looks at the art collecting of François Pinault, the French self-made wood billionaire whose contemporary art holdings are now on view at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Not much more than an infomercial produced for the French television channel TV5, it is still an illuminating look at how the rich are treated. We watch as breathless interviewees describe Pinault as a discerning art collector. In what has become part of the formula in documentaries about architecture and museums, the camera and insistent music create a Santa's workshop atmosphere of urgency and gentle perfectionsim, as yet another observer provides a flattering depiction of the boss, who is worth more than $7 billion. A visit to the studio of Jeff Koons is appropriately nauseating, but not more nauseating than the sight of Koons's gleaming Poodle in front of the palazzo on the canal.

Pinault, now 70, explains eloquently that one reason for collecting art is to postpone the anonymity that even he is likely to face after his death. People will talk about the artists he collected and the decisions he made, he reckons with surprising openness and vulnerability for a businessman. Yet you have to wonder whether anyone will have anything to say about Koons and Maurizio Cattelan by then.

Art from the Arctic

In Art from the Arctic, a documentary that premiered on BBC4 last February, just weeks after An Inconvenient Truth made its debut at Sundance 2007, a team of artists travels to Spitzbergen in the Arctic Ocean above Norway. Anthony Gormley, Rachel Whiteread, Ian McEwan, the photographer David Buckland and others are accompanied and observed by the filmmaker, David Hinton. Their ship is locked in place as ice forms and they spend a few months on the island. Much of the snow in this once-pristine place is covered with soot from a mine that Russians operate there. To make things worse, the glaciers are melting, and our artists watch huge masses of ice drop into the sea.

Artists being artists, they think about how this experience will take shape in their work, and we see this as McEwan mulls a future text and a musician on the trip explores the interplay between wind and silence with wooden flutes. Gormley builds a casket in which he forms a man of ice, leaving the figure like a prophetic snowman when the group leaves. We never learn how long Gormley's creation took to melt. Whiteread eventually assembles a collection of cubes to replicate the landscape. Note that the one thing which you never find in nature is her trademark right angle. Yet it's still all a bit of a fool's paradise. Unlike the environment, with art, there is no risk involved in not getting it right.

FIFA doesn't limit itself to the visual arts. Also on the bill was James Ellroy: American Dog, by Clara and Robert Kuperberg. The hour-long film made for French television takes us along some familiar tracks, those of the LAPD investigating the death of the Black Dahlia, and those of the same LAPD in pursuit of the killers of Ellroy's mother, a divorced nurse who went to bars by herself to meet men whom she slept with. Judging by her mutilated body, she met the wrong one that night. Or the right one, suggests Ellroy, who narrates the film and admits to hating her.

In that realm where self-consciously hip pop culture meets literary fashion, Ellroy seems to have earned tenure from the French. He looks a lot like the new Bukowski, a foul-mouthed unapologetic veteran of bars and curbsides, whom the French have accepted as an American primitive, whether Ellroy likes it or not. Bear in mind that Ellroy is talking in this voice about his mother's horrific murder. Next to him, Bukowski sounds like Ira Glass.

From the beginning of this story, you know that the police will come up with a dry hole. You're told as much by "Boston" Bill Bratton, the Giuliani nemesis who now wears the black uniform of the LAPD chief. About a third of the 600 murders in Los Angeles go unsolved every year, says Bratton, who speaks without explanation from a lectern. Did he get this from Al Gore, or does he believe that he has a more authoritative air if he looks like he's presiding over a press conference?

Robert Mapplethorpe Also conjuring up what may now seem to be old times is the documentary Robert Mapplethorpe, a profile by Paul Tschinkel of the photographer that was built around an interview done with him in the early 1980s. In case you don't remember Robert Mapplethorpe, he was the young photographer who combined a classic aesthetic with provocative gay subjects like fist-fucking and bullwhips up the ass. Those were the days when those things were controversial. If anyone were crucial to making gay themes more acceptable and more profitable, it was Robert Mapplethorpe.

Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989, before right-wing and religious opposition to The Perfect Moment, an exhibition of his work in Washington DC, led a timid museum director to call off the show and resign. Then the director of the Cincinnati Museum of Art was sued on obscenity charges in a trial that mobilized both sides of that issue. (He was acquitted and went on the head the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Back then the name "Mapplethorpe" became synonymous with contemporary art and with the notion among its opponents that all contemporary art was depraved (and undeserving of government support). The battle over the funding of art and culture in the US has subsided for a while, in part because there isn't much government funding left, and because the Republicans had bigger fish than Mapplethorpe to fry once they came to power. Who cares about a few gay pictures when you can mobilize voters over their fears of gay marriage.

In the film, we see plenty of pictures - of flowers, men, even women. We also head from Mapplethorpe's father, who is still ashamed that his son died of AIDS, and from his lawyer, who recalls that Mapplethorpe sent him a bill for a portrait. Mapplethorpe was astonished that a lawyer would be shocked at receiving a bill for services. Mostly we hear from Mapplethorpe, who responds to questions from an inept interviewer with the composure and lucidity of a young man who knew then that he was on the winning side of an evolving zeitgeist.

Even then, Mapplethorpe seems to have been as much a businessman as a revolutionary. (Like Andy Warhol, he learned that there was a lot of money to be made from commissioned portraits.) The pictures that brought him overnight success carried a stigma, which risked hurting the sale of his mainstream flower photographs, so Mapplethorpe himself was reluctant to use an openly gay rhetoric when talking about the homoerotic images. He describes his nude photographs as works of sculpture, where the camera models the skin. Pictures of black men, he said, were like bronze sculptures. Sculptors wish they had it so easy.

Note that the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, formed after his death, has sought for almost 20 years to keep Mapplethorpe's gay work on the margins. This may help explain why the only major exhibition of his work in the last 15 years was Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Aesthetic, a show at the Guggenheim that brought him closer to Greece and Rome than to Christopher Street. The exhibition was so wholesome that it even played Las Vegas. The scheme has worked. Prices for Mapplethorpe's flower paintings have risen. So have those for the gay pictures.

Has Mapplethorpe had any influence among artists and photographers? Gay themes are certainly now easier to present publicly. To learn anything more, we'll need another documentary.

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Posted by dwhudson at March 23, 2007 2:12 AM


Rats - at first blush I thought this was a soccer festival. (Ahem, FIFA... {cough})

But I ended up enjoying reading about what sounds like such a marvelous and rare event, indeed.


Posted by: Craig P at March 23, 2007 11:21 AM