Hi. On the off chance anyone on WordPress is still reading this, I thought I’d let you know that I have a new blog up and running. It is still called The Last Picture Blog but I had a bit of a reboot towards the end of 2019 and I’m now hosting it elsewhere.
The infamous Apocalypse
Now shoot in The Philippines has been extensively covered by documentary
film before, most notably in 1991’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. It’s a
schadenfreude-inducing tale of misfortune, misadeventure and bad planning. A false
start, with lead Harvey Keitel given the boot after a fortnight, set the tone; next
came tropical maladies, unforseen delays (President Marcos, who was battling
anti-government fighters, recalled helicopters that were being used in the
combat scenes), excessive partying, on-the-hoof re-writes and the presence of an
unprepared, overweight Marlon Brando (though, granted, the Jabba-like stillness
featured in his performance as Colonel Kurtz worked in the actor and film’s
Dutch combat photographer Chas Gerretsen – who had worked in
Vietnam during the war – landed the gig of documenting the shoot, and many of
his hitherto-unseen images have been unearthed for this 35-minute film by Baris
Azman, presented by KINO Rotterdam. The pictures used for the film are
uniformly fascinating, ranging from shots that capture the sheer scale of the
production to more intimate portraits and candid photographs of the cast.
However, it’s Gerretsen’s own commentary during interviews
that proves to be the real highlight here, given that it corroborates those
earlier reports of mishaps, fevered egos and excess, as you might expect. The
photographer describes his frosty first meeting with Francis Ford Coppola, the
vulnerability of the enthusiastic Martin Sheen (who he says politely and
innocently questioned whether the river he was being submerged in for multiple
takes was actually hygienic) and the stubbornness of Dennis Hopper. The latter
– an impressive photographer himself – debated wardrobe choices with Gerretsen,
who points out that a combat photographer would never wear a red bandana, as Hopper’s
journalist character does. The cameras that Hopper wears around his neck were
It’s a short affair – running just past the half-hour mark –
but, if you’re a fan of Coppola’s sprawling and dark war movie, you’ll get a
kick out of seeing the photographs and hearing Gerretsen’s account of the
on-set travails. (3/5)
In many ways American Factory – directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, distributed via Netflix by Michelle and Barack Obama’s Higher Ground Productions – is an illuminating film about globalisation, and a timely one: it can be read as an examination of the changing relationship between the two pre-eminent world ‘superpowers’, focusing as it does on a Dayton, Ohio factory owned by Fuyao, a Chinese manufacturer of automotive glass. Symbolically, the company took over a shuttered facility that was once owned by General Motors, one of the most ‘American’ of multinationals, while the boost Fuyao’s presence has given to the local economy and job market is made abundantly clear early on. However, if this microcosm invites you to ponder the extent to which the United States will be reliant on trade with China (or Chinese investment) in the future, it’s not something that the filmmakers themselves directly address.
Instead, the meat on the bone here is the resulting culture clash that occurs at the factory, a problem that becomes evident as soon as the apparently demanding Chairman of Fuyao, Cao Dewang, visits and starts asking for changes to be made to what will eventually become the reception area. His bluntness, and the icy tone of the translator in his entourage, could easily be interpreted as a display of power and status in front of the new charges: a flexing of muscle designed to show the Americans that they should merely be asking “How high?” when told to jump. As viewers, it’s hard not to side immediately with the exasperated men tasked with ensuring that the facilities match Cao’s vision while still adhering to American building and safety standards. Clearly they had an impossible job.
When the factory is up and running, the workers on the factory floor bear the brunt of the fallout of this uneasy commercial marriage, though some of those interviewed are happy with their lots and the documentary takes time to acknowledge some of the good relationships and friendships that are forged. That said, swift, sweeping changes to the American working environment affect the white-collar workers as well as the blue; we see disgruntled middle and upper managers as the Chinese method of operating becomes the norm, with Corporate Fuyao depicted here as being unwilling to bend, convinced that their way is the best and only way.
Eventually, it becomes clear that many American members of staff are being made redundant or are choosing to leave their jobs having long lost grips on the end of their tethers. Meanwhile, the future automation of the factory floor, revealed at the end of the documentary, makes for grim viewing to say the least – and it is obvious that there’s little to no job security in place even for the most loyal, hardworking employee. So, again it is easy to sympathise with the predicament of the majority of Americans here: their collective situation often seems untenable, morale is clearly low, some cannot afford to quit, wages ought to be higher, and gradually as a result of all this unionisation becomes a major issue, with the Chinese bosses and their (Chinese and American) charges vociferously discouraging the presence of a union in the workplace. Campaigning pro-union employees are dismissed and banned from the premises, with security staff given images of the ‘worst offenders’. At staff and public meetings, and in interviews with the filmmakers, many people eloquently discuss the situation and the importance of holding on to certain rights that have been guaranteed or fought for in the past.
It’s a sad state of affairs, for sure, but I’m left with the nagging feeling that American Factory does not tell the full story. Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar have a great track record of making well-considered issues-based films, and so I am very wary of questioning the ethics of either director. However, as the credits rolled I felt the film hadn’t been even-handed in its approach; in terms of what is actually up there on screen there simply isn’t enough of an attempt to really understand the Chinese business practices on show. I understand why the film depicts American employees expressing shock when they happen upon workers at Fuyao’s HQ picking through piles of broken glass without decent safety equipment, but why not counterbalance by fully exploring the classroom-based learning that is also shown in China? Are a broad range of subjects covered in these classes or is it really just the racist propaganda that made it into the final cut?
The most negative and one-sided treatment is reserved for CEO Dewang, who in various (sometimes slightly comic) scenes comes across as being as impassive as a mountain, and with roughly the same level of personality as a hulking slab of rock, too. Granted any viewer can Google him to discover more should they wish to, but having been set up as the fall guy of American Factory – a hissable villain, no less – I began to wonder about him and his career. How did he arrived at this position within the company? Does he have a family? What do they think of him? What actually are his thoughts about the US, Americans and globalisation? Was enough access available in order to find out? I wonder whether more footage of a personable and measured Cao, seen wandering around his house near the end of the film, might have made for a more well-rounded film.
Regarding that sequence, I have concerns about a couple of shots that I found slightly suspicious, though my suspicion could well be without foundation. The first shows one of Cao’s artworks, an admittedly ostentatious piece featuring his likeness at the front of a tableau that portrays him as a heroic captain of industry and majestic leader; next, the filmmakers cut to a shot of Cao seemingly looking up admiringly, and proudly, at this work, which I took to be an overt dig at his vanity or an illustration of frightening self-belief. Yet we only see a frontal shot of the man gazing upwards, and I’m not 100% convinced he is actually looking at that same piece of art, though the edit clearly implies that he is. There were a handful of minutes remaining at this point, and maybe in the great scheme of things it’s a minor matter, but it is perhaps telling that I didn’t fully trust what I was seeing.
In depicting the problems faced by American employees in a situation that will undoubtedly become more common across the globe in the future, American Factory is a riveting watch, and it has the necessary compassion and understanding as these workers stand up for themselves. Other aspects of the film, as discussed above, are troubling at the very least. (3/5)
Stories that are based around a character or characters undertaking a long journey – often two people who are bound together by circumstance, or a sense of duty, or family ties, etc – are ten-a-penny in cinema, and especially so within the western genre. Such a time-worn set-up applies to Jacques Audiard’s latest, a revisionist oater in which antiheroes Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly on very good form) and his younger sibling Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are employed as henchmen by a wealthy figure known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a minor, non-speaking role). Charged with tracking down a gold prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, the two brothers bicker and endure – rather than enjoy – each other’s company, making their way from town to town, heading from Oregon into California. Along the way, the calmer, more contemplative Eli contemplates a change of direction in life, while the impetuous Charlie remains utterly wrapped up in the moment, largely incapable of seeing beyond the next saloon brawl; cinema conditioning dictates that we instantly expect them both to undergo some kind of change during their journey south.
If the outline sounds familiar, there are specific elements of the film that ensure it stands out from the litany of other works that combine the figurative inner journeys of characters with physically-demanding slogs across land, not least the ever-shifting tone and mood of the piece. These changes echo those of Patrick DeWitt’s source novel, a work that wrong-foots the reader by skipping between, say, brutal violence and sardonic humour, often in the space of the same paragraph. Very early on in the film it’s clear that the audience – like the brothers – is in for an uneasy ride: one minute you’re watching a shoot-out, the next a gruesome slice of body horror, then lighter, knockabout comedy (with Phoenix even offering touches of slapstick), and finally, in its most intriguing state, The Sisters Brothers morphs into a meditative, almost dreamlike study of the ties that bind.
In addition, there is a lot of elliptical storytelling (a device that all-too-often sounds the death knell in terms of a movie’s box office performance, and perhaps contributed to this film’s status as a financial flop). The plot is never unduly complicated and the story is always easy to follow, but occasionally the viewer is required to do a little work and fill in the gaps. For example, some gunfights involving the brothers end abruptly, mid-shootout, and Audiard might cut to a scene showing the pair farther on down the line, where more conventional films would clearly establish that every adversary has been downed before doing so. A grizzly bear attack – something that became the most memorable moment in The Revenant – is dealt with in a similar fashion, with one of the characters simply waking from a deep slumber to find a defeated, dead bear slumped in the camp; we don’t see any of the struggle that ensued, or get to experience any of the tension that would undoubtedly have been caused by the animal’s appearance.
That’s not to say Audiard’s film is light on excitement or action, but it’s very much a secondary concern, any near-death experiences being business-as-usual for these experienced hired killers. The director is far more interested in the changing relationships between Eli and Charlie and, in a subplot that eventually merges with the main strand, the tentatively homoerotic union between Riz Ahmed’s Warm and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morris, the latter another of The Commodore’s hired guns (and one whose highfalutin ways constantly anger Charlie Sisters).
At its best the film recalls the woozy, spiritual style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and there were enough of these passages to leave me thinking that The Sisters Brothers will be very warmly regarded as time passes, perhaps one day seen as a cult concern (if indeed it isn’t already; such things seem to be enshrined pretty quickly in the 21st century). The pared-down score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat certainly enhances the overall sense of oddness, sounding like a choppy, jerky reworking of something that might have begun life as a ‘classic’ western theme. Benoît Debie’s impressive digital cinematography, meanwhile, features some crisp interior low-light work and stunning landscape photography, even if Audiard seems wholly uninterested in lingering over the beautiful mountain vistas and plains for too long; an American director or cinematographer might have been more tempted to romanticise the land and slot in with the history of the genre by shooting on film and leaving certain views up on the screen for a few extra seconds. The Frenchman and his Belgian DoP seem less interested in such convention.
With all that in mind, as well as the generally poor box office showings of other modern westerns, it’s hardly a surprise that this failed to find a large audience upon release, but as long as you’re not the one taking the financial hit or hoping for a long and successful career in Hollywood (as Audiard may have been) that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As The Sisters Brothers peters out with a gently reverberating coda – eschewing an obvious stopping point or uplifting ending – it becomes clear that this is one that has been made for the few, rather than the many. It also strikes me that Reilly, had he been acting in another era, would have played dozens of roles in the western genre. (****)
Somewhat belatedly, here is a list of my 20 favourite documentaries of 2018, which is the second post of my three-part round-up of last year (click here for the first bit; the third will follow in the next week or so). The simple criteria is that the films were officially released in the UK during 2018 in cinemas, shown on streaming services or screened on TV.
20. Make Us Dream (Blair): The first of three football-related documentaries on this list, which is more a reflection of my love of and interest in the sport, as opposed to us being in some kind of golden age for such films. This one’s about Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career, and it smartly eschews the hagiographical style of your usual football puff piece, focusing as much on the lows the all-action midfielder experienced as a player as it does on the relative highs and providing plenty of psychological insight along the way.
19. Matangi / Maya / M.I.A (Loveridge): A fine portrait of the life of the musician and activist M.I.A., covering her arrival as a refugee in London, her time at art school and then her fairly rapid rise to global star. Director Stephen Loveridge is a long-time friend, and although that means this is hardly a critical or detached examination of a public figure, there is a certain unguarded intimacy to all the hours of footage shot as a result.
18. Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager (Clarke, Jones): And here’s the second. This is a warm portrait of a thoroughly decent gentleman, whose generous kindness and geniality was not always reciprocated by the media or the people who employed him. There’s plenty of interesting material here about Robson’s time as manager of Barcelona, in particular.
17. McQueen (Bonhôte, Ettedgui): A thorough portrait of a major, influential designer within the fashion industry, charting Alexander McQueen’s career from youthful, exuberant apprentice on Savile Row to his later, often controversial, collections, shows and collaborations. His suicide at the age of 40 hangs over every minute in which his death isn’t being explicitly discussed; this is the sad tale of a man who was, by all accounts (I don’t have much knowledge about the fashion world myself), a great talent.
16. Take The Ball, Pass The Ball (McMath): The Barcelona team managed by Pep Guardiola is the best that I have seen in nearly 40 years of watching football, and I firmly believe that Leo Messi is the finest player that has ever walked this planet, so this film – which traces the formation of the Barcelona style and the gradual steps to near-perfection taken by the team featuring Messi – is like catnip for me. Couldn’t get enough of the wide-ranging, insightful interviews, particularly those involving the tactically-astute Xavi.
15. The Price Of Everything (Kahn): I do wish this eyebrow-raiser, which gleefully spends time analysing the shocking amounts of money changing hands within the modern art world, was a little bit more forthright in its condemnation of… well, anything (even if it was just venomous about the ugliness of it all). The director’s approach is deliberately – and often infuriatingly – standoffish, but I applaud those who took part who were only ever going to come out of it looking bad or embarrassed. This is an effective summation as to how cosy art and commerce have become as bedfellows, albeit a film that tiptoes around egos a little too lightly.
14. Bros: After The Screaming Stops (Pearlman, Soutar): This one quickly gained notoriety on account of the cringe-worthy, unintentionally hilarious soundbites provided by (former?) pop stars Matt and Luke Goss as they reformed their band Bros for a one-off gig. The ‘Spinal Tap’ moments are plentiful, but the twin brothers came across well overall, and it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them as they unwittingly stitch themselves up. Third band member Craig Logan (or ‘Ken’ as he was once regularly called by Smash Hits) wisely steered clear of the whole affair.
13. Shirkers (Tan): There are two equally-fascinating stories in this film by Sandi Tan; the first concerns her youth in Singapore, its burgeoning indie film scene and her attempt at making a movie within that environment, which was thwarted by a man who mysteriously and cruelly disappeared with all the footage. The second relates to the present, twenty years on, in which the 16mm film is discovered and Tan and her colleagues analyse their memories of the time, the working relationships they had with one another and the act that – temporarily, at least – stopped them in their tracks.
12. Filmworker (Zierra): You could make the rather cruel argument that this film is less about the former actor Leon Vitali and more about the man Vitali would work with as a personal assistant for many, many years – a certain Stanley Kubrick. However, this is also a study in the dedication, the loyalty and the constant effort put in by a relatively-unknown crew member working behind the scenes, and the unusual nature of the subject matter – we don’t hear from these people so much – was welcome.
11. The King (Jarecki): Elvis as conduit for 20th century America; rather than a hagiographic biography this does not shy away from questions of cultural appropriation and more, with a wide range of interviewees appearing in a studio and in one of the singer’s old Rollers. I wasn’t expecting much but this was utterly fascinating from start to finish.
10. New Town Utopia (Smith): A fascinating study of an English ‘new town’, ie one created after the Second World War to accommodate the London overspill. In this case, the subject is Basildon in Essex, and Christopher Ian Smith’s film seems to me to be a thorough, exhaustive study of the place – the camera tracing all that Brutalist, concrete architecture (underpasses and shopping precincts appear a lot, if memory serves) and numerous residents providing an entertaining oral history of ‘Bas Vegas’ through their interviews.
9. A Northern Soul (McAllister): Having lived in the city of Kingston upon Hull for a number of years, this film about Steve Arnott’s work during Hull’s UK City of Culture celebrations really struck a chord. At the time of filming Arnott was balancing his job as a warehouse worker with his family duties and a desire to realise his dream of running a hip-hop bus for the benefit of the younger members of his local community; however funding was hard to secure, and financial struggles pervade every minute of Sean McAllister’s smartly political documentary – for here is a man that embodies the very notion of David Cameron’s Big Society while living within a city that has suffered more than most from the actions of various UK governments, and particularly at the hands of the Tories. It was made by a director with similar roots to Arnott’s, and it’s never patronising.
8. Ex Libris: New York Public Library (Wiseman): Frederick Wiseman’s latest examination of a major institution or community (and I guess, in a way, this library can be seen as being a micro-community) is typically bum-numbing, at 197 minutes, but engrossing for pretty much all of that running time. I visit two of my local libraries two or three times a week, on average – they are the last quiet refuges in most towns, now – and to see the intricate workings of one this big was a real treat. Wiseman’s chronicling of high-level meetings is a necessary feature of his documentaries, but I preferred the rest of the assembled footage here, which managed to show the different roles the NYPL performs in people’s lives.
7. Dawson City: Frozen Time (Morrison): Hypnotic essay film about an unearthed cache of celluloid and the story of the town that found it, which expanded rapidly during the Klondike Gold Rush. The score is superb and the choice of footage to illustrate change and the passing of time is exemplary.
6. American Animals (Layton): I wondered whether to put this docudrama on this list or on a forthcoming one that will detail my favourite (non-documentary) 2018 releases, for it could easily sit on either. The story, about a botched heist by four students, is ripe for such cinematic treatment, of course, and its telling here is pretty riveting (the switches from talking head interviews to dramatic reconstructions are incredibly smooth). A subtle examination of modern white male privilege and the extraordinary and damaging drive some people have for new experiences.
5. Black Mother (Allah): A restless, personal documentary about womanhood, Jamaican identity and the country itself that endlessly shifts from one form to another – juddering between 16mm film, digital and so on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, and voices come in and out of the mix to haunting effect.
4. They Shall Not Grow Old (Jackson): I had such a strong reaction to this film when I saw it on the big screen and then, three days later, on TV, that I’m surprised it hasn’t cracked the top three of this list. The colourised archive footage of the First World War (specifically the Somme trenches populated by British soldiers) is startling, and the digital adjustments made by Jackson and his team seemed to me to be made with sensitivity.
3. Free Solo (Chin, Vasarhelyi): Glad I saw this in a cinema; it was a blast. My palms were sweating repeatedly during the various climbs undertaken by Alex Honnold as he takes on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without any safety harnesses, and the filmmakers – who previously made the excellent Meru – do a great job in capturing it all, reducing the main attempt down to half-a-dozen key moments. It’s a fine study into the mental state of a climber – particularly one whose approach is as extreme and dangerous (or as pure, depending on your point of view) as Honnold’s – and the way in which their pursuit of a goal can affect the people who are closest to them.
2. Arcadia (Wright): A journey into the heart of the British countryside that’s often dark and weird, making great use of the BFI’s vast archive of film and a superbly unsettling soundtrack by Will Gregory and Adrien Utley. Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the rural environment, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation.
1. Faces Places (JR, Varda): I had Paul Wright’s Arcadia listed as my favourite documentary of 2018 and Agnès Varda’s life-affirming street-art—rural-celebration-travelogue – which she made with the artist JR – at number two. But Varda’s recent death at the end of March got me thinking about Faces Places again, and how welcome such an optimistic work is at this point in time. It’s a great celebration of people and art, with an emphasis on the act of seeing as well as on the aging process, and the touchingly bittersweet ending will resonate even stronger now Varda has passed. Despite Jean-Luc Godard’s rather cruel snub, Varda’s positive, forward-thinking outlook is irrepressible – nobody can stop the good vibes that radiated from her, and that can be found in this wonderful film.
While watching the first half of this latest film by director J.C. Chandor – who had previously made the kinda-sorta Hollywood outliers Margin Call, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year – I wondered whether he had taken Richard Ayoade’s recent book The Grip of Film as straight-faced gospel, given that book’s amusing obsession with 80s trash action movies, their heroes and the men who played them. On the face of it, and certainly during the opening hour, that’s what Triple Frontier is: a slick, modern take on those hi-octane, ultra-macho 80s flicks (with a slight homage to the more esoteric Sorceror) in which a tooled-up dude or team of tooled-up dudes performs some sort of task or undertakes some sort of journey, usually in a foreign land that the US government has a vested interest in.
The retrograde plot of Triple Frontier involves Oscar Isaac’s former special ops bro putting together a team of other former special ops bros (Pedro Pascal, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund) for that fabled ‘last job’, which will make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams – a story that, quite frankly, has been done to death. Affleck becomes the de facto leader, partly because he was the group’s main man when they were performing nefarious badness for the CIA, US military et al in the past, and also presumably because he’s the most famous actor in the picture, while each of the characters is (poorly) fleshed out with a minimal backstory establishing their motivation (bored with job, daughter’s college fund needed, etc etc).
While the characterisation and plotting early on is as half-arsed as it is regressive, it does at least let you know that each man has given a lot in dubious service to their country without really receiving the kind of above-board fiscal compensation they should have, considering their actions and the risks involved. Having been conditioned to think in a certain way by Hollywood for decades, we therefore hope that each man succeeds in the film’s mission – a daring, non-government-sponsored heist carried out on foreign shores – and will thus be set for life. They crack jokes and seem likeable. They’re even robbing a South American cartel head who executes people and has made a shit ton of cash, just to make sure there’s a recognisable ‘big bad’ with plenty of disposable, killable employees to hang the first and second acts on.
Without wishing to give too much away, Chandor takes ‘that’ film and gradually whittles away at what usually tends to underpin such fare, making a far more interesting and morally complex movie as a result (ie one that’s as fascinating as his first three). The final hour of Triple Frontier still has its fair share of well-shot and extremely gripping action sequences, all of which see our expert team handling things expertly and in a team-like fashion, but suddenly we start to feel differently about them as individuals and a group: we see that they are robbing a family home in which children live; their greed becomes ever more unpalatable, as does their ruthlessness; and soon they’re not just facing Evil Anonymous Cartel Henchmen, but opportunistic (and barely-trained, but still anonymous) farmers or young teenagers who have presumably been pressed into cartel service on account of their poverty (a move which really does suggest the power and the reach that the most sizeable racketeering organisations have). Our empathy drains away, which is very much an ‘anti-Hollywood’ move.
What Chandor has done is worth admiring, I think: on the one hand this is a slick, good-looking ‘heart-of-darkness’ actioner with serviceable-to-good performances (Affleck is probably the standout, Isaac is decent but can be and has been better) and an easy-to-follow plot, and the film can absolutely be enjoyed on that level alone. It’s also rather deft at debunking the myth of the American hero – let’s just say that the mission isn’t a success, some rather nasty things happen in the name of it and very quickly you begin to side just as much with the people whose lives this band of bros are affecting. It’s a shame that the supporting characters are given short shrift and that there’s a terribly cheesy, uplifting coda to emphasise the inherent nobility of the American criminals (after the time spent undermining such cliched bullshit), but overall this is a tense heist thriller that, enjoyably, asks more questions than most other genre flicks. (3.5)
Before I begin, I probably ought to admit that this kind of documentary is like catnip for me. Although some of the things seen or said within it are objectionable, I’m afraid that I do get a little tingle of pleasure whenever I watch anything featuring rich people attending exclusive events or buying expensive things (and, indeed, when said rich people are so brazen and proud and shameless in discussing such matters). And The Price of Everything, a 2018 documentary about art and commerce, features lots of very rich people buying lots of very expensive things, and making sure that you know exactly how much of their money was spent – the bastards!
Made by Nathaniel Kahn and released in 2018, the film mostly concentrates on the American art scene and American-based collectors, though there are some voices from other countries, such as that of a Russian or Eastern European collector living in New York – she cries when discussing the Damien Hirst hanging in her apartment, and it’s one of the few surprisingly disarming moments in a documentary that often feels slightly, but not transparently, cynical. (It’s interesting to note as an aside that we also hear from British employees of auction house Sotheby’s, an American multinational that still trades heavily on its British heritage.) Kahn also focuses on the people – dealers, artists etc. – who benefit directly from the largesse, and whenever any of these interviewees betrays their smugness with a little smirk Kahn is there, leaving micro-pauses so that the moment is noted by the viewer.
Such moves suggest that the director finds this mega-commercialisation of modern art fascinating but disgusting, and that he’s ‘out to get it’, though in truth this is a fairly even-handed examination of ‘big’ commercial art; even those who make huge profits are able to look at the situation objectively and question whether a bubble is about to burst, or whether it’s a healthy state of affairs (of course it isn’t). Kahn devotes plenty of screen time to those who feel that the astronomical prices attached to work by the chosen few (George Condo, Jeff Koons, etc) are damaging for modern culture more generally. Critics and people employed by big city galleries and museums, for example, lament the fact that works purchased by the super-rich are then lost to the world, hidden away in luxurious apartments or ultra-secure basements, as opposed to being on public display. I tend to agree with them – that it is a shame – but it’s also worth saying that there’s something refreshingly open and honest about several of the wealthy collectors here that I appreciated; they’re not necessarily always being boastful, and although one or two of them aren’t particularly articulate when describing the art they have bought and enjoy seeing in their homes, their lack of erudition shouldn’t be misread as a lack of passion, or used to suggest that they’re somehow not deserving of these works. I’ve seen that kind of reverse snobbery in reviews of this film, and it strikes me as being pretty ugly.
It’s intriguing to see the different artists at work. Most are still directly involved in the production of their own artwork, laying paint on canvas themselves, as it were, while Koons is emblematic of the famous artists who have developed a factory of sorts, employing studio-based staff to produce pieces that will later have the artist’s name attached to them. (He is unashamed and open about his methods, explaining that if he did everything himself he’d only be able to make one work a year. I don’t think he is driven by a need to exploit his own popularity for commercial gain, it’s more to do with finding a way to get all of the ideas in his head out into the world; at least – giving him the benefit of the doubt – that’s how I read it. But his working practices do seem crucial to a film that is asking why certain works sell for millions of dollars and why others do not.)
It’s a shame that The Price Of Everything always feels like a gentle, 90-minute discourse into the commercialisation of modern art, as driven by the super-wealthy. It neither fully skewers its intended targets (if indeed there are any) nor reels in horror at some of the practices depicted or the astronomical figures that are bandied about in auctions; so it feels to me that Kahn is at times sitting on the fence a little too comfortably, and that taking a side or having an opinion that is expressed more clearly would have been welcome. Many of the artists featured feel awkward about or bemused by the prices their work can command, though they also cosy up to the commercial movers and shakers, posing for pictures and answering questions in a sort of dutiful manner that I don’t think is necessarily driven by a sense of politeness; more about playing the game. It is a shame that Kahn – perhaps out of politeness himself – doesn’t directly ask the artists who feature about this. But, as a glimpse into a world I’ll never be a part of (and don’t wish to be a part of) this is often fascinating viewing. (3.5)