There is a section of features in this year’s New York Film Festival entitled “On the Arts.” The focus is music and performance, spread across widely distant genres. Becoming Traviata, a documentary about Natalie Dessay’s first production of the opera in France, doesn’t have much of its soundtrack in common with Punk in Africa. This diversity of subject continues outside of the official “On the Arts” section and into the shorts programs, where there are a handful of truly celebratory films about artists and their work. (Perhaps they should have somehow been jointly packaged with the features.)
A Brief History of John Baldessari, A Story for the Modlins, and Up the Valley and Beyond bridge the gap between cinema and the still arts of painting, sculpture, and photography. They’re a motley bunch, two of them charismatic documentaries and the third an eccentric mini-biopic. Yet they have in common a playful sense of style, with which they complement and interpret the work of their subjects rather than simply presenting and praising it.
All three embrace the spirit of John Baldessari’s declaration, “I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art.”
That 6’7” tall conceptual artist is a good place to start. A Brief History of John Baldessari is exactly as advertised, a miniature film that gives a primer on the man’s life and work. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) direct things at a breakneck pace, cramming an entire career into a glimmering six minutes. However, it doesn’t feel the least bit crammed. Bouncy might be a better word, or rushing with a purpose. Tom Waits narrates, his voiceover repeatedly interrupted by Baldessari himself from the desk in his studio. The feel is almost like that of an old Winnie the Pooh cartoon, with the narrator turning the pages of the book while also interacting with the illustrated characters. A Brief History extends that playfulness to every element of the style, rapidly editing around the artist’s office and interjecting examples of his work.
Equally entertaining is Up the Valley and Beyond, director Todd Rosken’s quick-talking biopic of cult sexploitation director Russ Meyer. It opens with a capriciously edited sequence of archive footage, alternating between images of World War Two and 1940s cheesecake movies. Cut to Meyer (Jim Parrack), hard at work on pin-up photo-shoot in Los Angeles and dreaming of bigger things. The short hiccups at first, stopping to unnecessarily clarify Meyer’s heterosexuality and restate his mission before sending him on his way. Yet from there it quickly hits its stride. His quest for the perfect breasts (read: enormous) takes him to Eve Turner (Sarah Jones), a woman with a sense of self-respect as big as her assets. The whirlwind of love, sex, and gruff postwar turns of phrase keeps everything lively.
The last of this trio of artistically-minded shorts is much more contemplative, if equally whimsical and unexpected. A Story for the Modlins begins with the complete opening credits sequence of Rosemary’s Baby, subsequently fast-forwarding through almost the entire film. It stops on the final scene, as Mia Farrow leans in to have a look at her child in its black cradle. Then suddenly we zoom in, as the short’s focus is revealed: Elmer Modlin, an extra in this one scene of Polanski’s masterpiece. Spanish filmmaker Sergio Oksman stumbled across Elmer and his wife, Margaret, when he found a box of their possessions in a Madrid garbage can. A Story for the Modlins is his documentary tribute to their odd lives.
Elmer never made it as an actor, and his one real moment of success is that brief second in Rosemary’s Baby. Margaret, on the other hand, was a prolific artist and sculptor all her life. It does not appear that she ever tried to sell or exhibit any of her work. After hitting a dead end in Hollywood they uprooted and moved to Spain, bringing along their young son Nelson. They become shut-in expatriates. Oksman, of course, has no footage of any of this. All three characters, including the son, are now deceased. The entire story is told through the images he found, photographs and documents and pieces of Margaret’s work. It takes on an almost eerie tone, as we spy into the lives of a family long gone and long forgotten. This makes it even more striking when at the end he finally reveals a brief cinematic look at the Modlins, a home movie he discovered in their abandoned apartment. This is Grey Gardens writ-small, the sort of unexpected cinema that shows how exciting the documentary form can be.