Category Archives: Film

“CAMELOT”— The 1981 Broadway Revival

“Camelot”

The 1981 Broadway Revival

Amos Lassen

This “Camelot” was part of the cable series “HBO Theatre” and is a videotaped presentation of the 1981 Broadway revival of the musical at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. It lasted for only 42 performances and closed in January 1982. Plays on film can be valuable archives of necessarily tenuous live productions yet almost invariably they embody the very least of their two combined mediums. The thrill of watching a live production – the sound of the orchestra, the actual human voice echoing on the stage, and the movement and sheer “aliveness,” of the actors cannot be recaptured on a film or videotaped medium. That indefinable, magical reality dissipates as soon as the cameras roll. As for film, in its infancy, it was locked down tight, and its no wonder that mere reproductions of stage plays were one of the medium’s first subjects. But of course now, the movement of the film camera, along with editing and special effects, can take the viewer to places no stage production could ever dream of recreating.

As we watch “Camelot”, we get the feeling that we’re being short-changed of both medium’s strengths. When it premiered on Broadway in 1960, it didn’t get the raves one might assume that it would. It was a show that the critics found clunky and awkwardly plotted, but which audiences embraced because of the lyrical, haunting songs by Lerner and Loewe, and because of the initial powerhouse Broadway cast of Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet. In 1967 Warner Brothers turned it into the bloated, misconceived film starring Richard Harris. One of the main complaints of the film (and there were many), was the fact that the stars of the film couldn’t sing. It is even more curious to see Harris take up the King Arthur again. Harris on the stage, singing songs he’s not really vocally suited to, is an exercise in professionalism battling with excess here. Further complicating matters is the fact that this revival takes the 1967 screenplay of the film version as its inspiration, keeping among other things the flashback structure of that film (which isn’t found in the original play). This reliance on the screenplay, along with having the star of that ill-fated movie recreate his role on stage, just makes this all the more ill-conceived.

We, however, still have the lovely songs of Lerner and Loewe, and hearing the score is a pleasure. There is something indefinably haunting and lyrical about those celebrated songs, and it’s not surprising that we love them still after more than forty years.

“IN SEARCH OF FELLINI”— A Journey

“IN SEARCH OF FELLINI”

A Journey

Amos Lassen

Obsessed with Fellini, his films, and his storytelling, and having led a very sheltered life under the watchful eye of her loving but over-protective mother Claire, Lucy strikes out on her own and heads to Italy “In Search of Fellini”. This is a film about cinema and the magic of the medium, its deep history and the joy it conjures in those who truly love the moving picture.

The film opens with a dream-sequence that serves as a statement of purpose and we immediately see that this is a film about cinema and the magic of the medium. This also establishes that this is a coming of age story that uses fantasy.

Lucy (Ksenia Solo) is a 20-year-old who has never really experienced adult life because of her overbearing mother, Claire (Maria Bello). After a voiceover that tells Claire’s back-story and Lucy’s origins, the film quickly moves forward to the early ‘90s, when Claire is diagnosed with advanced and aggressive cancer and Lucy is 20. Claire discusses her ailment with her sister and intends to keep it a secret from Lucy, but Lucy finds out anyhow. It is here that we get the coming of age narrative.

Lucy tries to find a job but has no skills. However, she is interested in film, though, and uses that in an application that leads to an interview with a local porn distributor. A few blocks from the failed interview, she quite literally stumbles upon a Fellini film festival. While Lucy grew up lovingly watching ‘50s-era Hollywood productions so this is her first taste of European art cinema. After seeing Fellini’s “La Strada”, she has an epiphany.

Lucy leaves Ohio to fly to Italy to meet Fellini. This is all set up with increasingly funny phone conversations between Lucy and Fellini’s office manager. Of course, viewers wonder how Lucy, a young woman who has never left where she was born, has the money, travel knowledge and passport required to fly to Italy in the early ‘90s but we go with it since we understand that the film is an homage to cinema.

Director Taron Lexton brings back the nostalgia we felt when we each discovered the master auteur who converted us to become movie lovers. “In Search of Fellini” sits on the edge between being hackneyed and worthwhile while reminding us that cinema is an imaginative and transforming enterprise for both its producers and its consumers.

The story itself is beautiful and resonant.It is filled with characters, locations and visual cues to Fellini’s classics such as “La Dolce Vita,” “8 ½” and “Nights of Cabiria.” Fellini used nostalgia to point out something about ourselves; Lexton uses it to remind us of Fellini’s films.

“HAVE A NICE DAY”—- A Southern Chinese City

“Have a Nice Day”

A Southern Chinese City

Amos Lassen

Liu Jian takes us on a colorful journey through a southern Chinese city through warm colors and an exceptional musical score that mixes classical American jazz with traditional Chinese sounds. Several people from diverse backgrounds with different motives enter into bloody conflict in the darkly comedic, animated feature film, “Have a Nice Day”.

A bag containing a million yuan is the focus and greed and selfish motives come into play. The gangster boss claims the bagful is his recalls days from future past while lecturing to a spunky subordinate who claims to be an artist. Some philosophical discourse takes place on what iconstitutes art and who can call themselves a true artist. We then learn that the bag has been lost and/or stolen and a butcher/hitman is sent to recover the bag full of money.

The bag moves from one point to another and various individuals reveal social and moral issues while holding the bag of money tightly in hopes of having a better life. In the end, however, it’s all just fantasy.

Modern China is in a state of flux and a real war for control is filled with violence and dangerous activities. By using animation, director Liu Jian is adeptly able to circumvent and soften some of the more distasteful aspects of this movement toward progress while at the same time heightening and stylizing the mood in China today.

As he does, he adds some subtle Western influences as he develops nuances of character. A great deal has been made about China’s growing economic power and goal of world dominance and, by the film’s end, the Hitman says that “without high-technologies we just can’t win.” The film closes with an earthy mise-en-scene as a large city in shades of browns and grays that sits silently while a long, steady rain fills the screen.

The film causes discussion and analysis regarding the state of things. One of the most telling aspects of the film is the frequency characters express a need or desire to leave for another country, often for better educational opportunities or plastic surgery to fix the botched work .

This is a film about a caper and viewers should not get too attached to any characters, but neither should they count any out, no matter how bad their situation looks. Liu gives the film noir trappings and little mundane details that really ground it in the real world.

“POLLUTING PARADISE”— Havoc and the Ecosystem

“POLLUTING PARADISE”

Havoc and the Ecosystem

Amos Lassen

In the mountains of Turkey sits the village of Cumburnu where a bad decision wreaks havoc on the area’s ecosystem. The protest by the citizens and the mayor have had little impact on the way the people live.

German-born Turkish writer-director Faith Akin traveled to the village that is where his paternal grandparents lived. It is near the Black Sea in northeastern Turkey. He had been there before but as he researched his family, he fell in love with the location. However, he learned that some ten years earlier, government officials had decreed a tip be installed on the site of an abandoned copper strip mine on the hill overlooking a tea plantation and, further down, the village itself. At the time Akin decided to act out of his shock and anger at the project and filmed filming in 2007 in the hopes of intimidating the officials into cancelling the project.

There had been promises of sturdy construction and the efficient treatment of wastewater but what was discovered was sloppy work on-site and questions about the design of the landfill. To the eye it looks like a large pit lined with rocks covered with plastic.

Problems began right away. Wastewater ran down into the village after passing through the tea fields and dogs and birds scavenge the pile of garbage, whose stench becomes unbearable. Led by the crusading mayor, the townspeople begin to pressure politicians and the tip staff and some confrontations become very heated.

Faith Akin is regarded as a filmmaker of determination and passion and that is what we see here all the way through “Polluting Paradise”. He wanted to make sure that he captured the human element and so he taught the town photographer how to use a digital camera and instructed him to film whenever tempers rose. The tapes were then sent to Akin and his long-time editor Andrew Bird, who edited the footage to produce this shocking documentary.

We see the frustrations of the villagers interspersed with talking head interviews with government officials that Akin himself arranged. The film is a fascinating revelation on the extent of the democratic process in the more rural areas of Turkey and a call to arms and to action for all those who believe in social justice.

The tip is still there even though the government has mentioned the possibility of moving it to another location in the near future. Even if they do, the damage to the village of Cumburnu has been done. The pollution will remain there as will this film will remain with us as a document of grass-roots advocacy.

“GUN RUNNERS”— War and Conflict and Running

“Gun Runners”

War and Conflict and Running

Amos Lassen

“Gun Runners” is about the complexities and personal struggles in war and conflict as well as an inspiring story of self-perseverance in attaining a greater sense of self. It is the story about two warriors from rural Kenya who traded their AK-47s for sneakers, allowing them to transfer their survival skills to something much more positive for everyone involved. Canadian filmmaker Anjali Nayar has worked on this film for ten years.

Robert Matanda and easygoing Julius Arile are lifelong friends from a village that is frequently caught between warring factions. Because of economic hardship, they have been forced to steal cattle and worse. However, when a government program offers amnesty, Arile makes the jump and later talks his more hesitant friend into leaving the bush.

Arile is talented and we follow him to New York City and to Prague to run marathons that always find him both excelling and coming up a little short. This is the primary concern of his extended family, including his extremely aged mother, who doesn’t hesitate to remind him of his failures. Some of this comes from his irresponsibility associated with his having a child with a neighborhood girl who committed suicide right after birth. Matanda’s skills are more political, and he has charm that he attaches to a local politician involved in an election filled with irregularities.

The film gives us a look at a part of the world thathas been deliberately hidden making it disappointing to learn that four of the principals featured here died after shooting ceased. What we really see is that change is risky. Director Anjali Nayar’s documentary shows us the mutability within changing one’s life. Nayar followed two ex-soldiers for 10 years and a lot can happen that period of time.

Arile and Matanda, were childhood friends born in rural Kenya who entered the profitable cattle rustling business. Nonetheless, they give up their valuable guns and cattle and enter a marathon-training program. They’re starting their lives over; something that most people in Kenya would be afraid to do.

Arile stays with the program and his potential catches the eye of a trainer. However his injuries and his dislike of other types of training along with the competition from other trainees get in his way. Matanda can’t compete in Arile and the other trainees’ levels and he leaves the program to take on a variety of roles within his community.

This film then adds layers to the idea of change and we wonder if change is effective if a person makes an effort to stay on his new path. The two men then become each other’s counterpoints, but the film makes sure not to take one man’s side over another. It’s difficult to explain the events that happen to these men and the film delicately cross cuts between them to check their progress in their endeavors.

Arile leaves his first wife to train and talking heads in the film also explain how he got into the cattle rustling business in the first place. Matanda, on the other hand, uses a substantial amount of money to run a political campaign and loses. He depends on the next harvest to pay for his kids’ private school tuition fees since that year’s crops didn’t come out as expected.

Director Nayar  empathizes with these men risking everything to make their ambitions and dreams come true. We see how running provides an outlet far greater than the violence and warfare into which the two entered as children. This an amiable tale of lives changed and dreams fulfilled

“KARL MARX CITY”— A Suicide

“Karl Marx City”

A Suicide

Amos Lassen

Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker are the directors of this “Karl Marx City” is a new documentary about the hard-hitting documentary about the suicide of a father, who hanged himself from a tree behind the family home in Chemnitz in 1999. It is co-directed by the daughter of the man, Petra Epperlein, and Michael Tucker. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, the citizens of this town that was then called Karl Marx City, voted to change the town’s name that had been given it under the auspices of the German Democratic Republic.

Epperlein decided to investigate the circumstances of her father’s death and whether he was an informant for the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. As she interviewed her mother, twin brothers, and other survivors of the oppressive methods of the Stasi, she uncovered many insights into the human capacity for betrayal of others and the intrusive nature of surveillance. She also spoke with historians, scholars, and experts on this period of Communist totalitarian persecution.

The Stasi created loyalty through fear and paranoia as it trod on the rights of its own citizens and this involved more than 90,000 official agents and at least 200,000 secret informants. The archive created by the Stasi contains 41 million index cards kept on 70 miles of shelving. In this terrible atmosphere, we learn that “Everyone is a suspect. Everyone is the enemy.” Epperlein began to wonder whether or not her father might have taken his own life after realizing his mistake of working as a Stasi agent.

This documentary dares to show the truth about the dangers of round-the-clock surveillance and the harrowing fallout from the systematic making of enemies. It is also a cautionary account of the dangers that follow when hostility against others is used as a justification for secrecy, suspicion, and the suppression of dissent.

Unfortunately much of the archival footage is banal. It comes from the surveillance records of the Stasi, the East German secret police that conducted extensive domestic surveillance during the Cold War era to get rid the disloyal. The video of public spaces shows the totality of the state’s monitoring of citizens. The extensive level of coverage used to spy on unaware citizens walking around the city is a complete record of lives unperturbed by knowledge of the cameras.

The citizens of Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt under the Iron Curtain), knew that they were being watched, and the paranoia of the age was so pervasive that it effectively ruined the city well past the collapse of communism, from the mass exodus of people following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the long-term drop in birthrate. Epperlein, who was born in Chemnitz, returned after living abroad in order to determine whether her father, who committed suicide in 1999, was a Stasi collaborator. Epperlein’s very personal preoccupations give the documentary its anchor point.

 

The Epperlein family struggled to go through buried trauma and lingering internal suspicions about the family patriarch’s past and this gives us a very personal look at the culture of fear that will never really leave those who lived under it. Epperlein’s personal ties to the subject matter allows for an extended look into the Stasi archive in Berlin where eleven kilometers of documents are files are housed and where curators screen everyone prior to allowing access to materials to ensure that no one can see the files on anyone but themselves and close family. The dominant image of the documentary is of Epperlein roaming Chemnitz wearing giant headphones and with a boom mike larger than her head. She comes to resemble a compensation for the city’s legacy of clandestine surveillance. She has spent decades running from the potential truth that her father was complicity in the state apparatus with a direct, public quest for answers. The climactic revelation of the father’s file has its biggest impact in the reaction of his family reading it bringing to the surface the layers of horror and revulsion caused by living so long under the weight of rumor and insinuation. Their catharsis is the closest thing to healing that we can get from such a brutal legacy.

“THE WAR SHOW”— Women and the Arab Spring

 

“THE WAR SHOW”

Women and the Arab Spring

Amos Lassen

Women played an important and fundamental part of the Arab Spring in 2011, however, until this documentary directed by Obaidah Zytoon, we heard little about them. What we see brings us new hope that important female perspectives from the Middle East will now be part of what happened back then. The documentary focus is on Zytoon and her friends during the civil war that they found themselves a part of. What we sew is an authentic snapshot of revolution that introduces Zytoon’s friends with an understandably emotional nostalgia.

Zytoon was once a risk-taking radio broadcaster who attracted a rebellious crowd and was perfectly placed to capture the spirit of a generation desperate for change. We see the friends championing freedom and gender equality, and fearing only God as they campaign for Assad’s demise. The group is basically made up of “artists and educated youngsters who are strongly united by a hatred of subordination and a love for novel experiences.”. Together they go through a series of rites of passage while their lives become dominated by the tragic events that occur following the uprising. These events are divided into seven sections (“Revolution,” “Suppression,” “Resistance,” “Siege,” “Memories,” “Frontlines,” and “Extremism”), and the film moves through seven stages of grief – all caught on whatever recording equipment was on hand. Because of this the film has a raw quality that makes us feel as if in the middle of what the group experiences.

It is often difficult to follow the story of as many people as Zytoon focuses on (approximately nine people and herself). We can excuse this because the film is so emotionally strong. As we watch the film, we really see how difficult it was for them. Yet this is also a look at defiance and we clearly see how truth (and its representation in the media) becomes one of the very first victims of war. Even more important is that we are in a climate in which Syrians seem limited to choosing between starvation and obedience so the images we see here take on an immensely cathartic quality. We see how people in the film are both equip and arm themselves with ideas, a process that is at once both performative and one that helps them deal with their suffering. We also see a side of Syrian society that is quickly falling into the hands of the ISIS movement.

The call for an overthrow of local leadership has affected Syria like few other places in the Middle East. Resistance has resulted in an ongoing civil war that’s become not only the site of human misery but also of geopolitical machinations. From ISIS to the influence of conventional superpowers, the area has been filled with stories that are often too terrible to even think about. The demand for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside was called for by a generation of Syrians looking for more freedom and tolerance. These individuals love their country but are against their political masters and look for a way to make their nation better for everyone. This is what gives “The War Show” its power. That power comes from individual stories that are part of revolution and repression.

The film is a memoir of the last half-decade that is filled with of despair and destruction that’s often heartbreaking. The film s surprisingly free from being polemical or overbearing and is a captivating, moving document of this troubled region. Co-director Andreas Dalsgaard, along with Zytoon give us the disparate footage edited into a workable whole thus providing an exceptional look at a Syrian generation that’s being obliterated by the ongoing civil war.

“APPRENTICE”— A Job at Prison

“Apprentice”

A Job at Prison

Amos Lassen

Aiman (Fir Rahman) is a 28-year-old correctional officer who lives with his older sister, Suhaila (Mastura Ahmad). He gets a new job at Larangan Prison and there meets the chief executioner, Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), who happened to be the same executioner who hung his father at the prison years ago. Aiman did not disclose that in his job application and he experiences conflicting feelings when Rahim asks him if he wants to accept the job as his assistant.

This is a slow moving film as per the direction by Boo Junfeng who also wrote the screenplay. He also doesn’t, at first, explain why Aiman transferred to work at Larangan Prison right away. Once we learn the truth, we might expect this to become a thriller but that is not the case. Instead the film is unpredictable, profound and human and subdues the thriller elements. We go inside Aiman’s head as he struggles with the tough moral decision of whether or not to accept Rahim’s job offer as assistant executioner.

We see Rahim as a flawed human being doing his job. I will not spoil the film by saying what happens when Aiman confronts and questions his morals. This is prison drama about a hero who serves as the audience surrogate and who learns l the austere, ritualistic code of conduct for governing a world that’s dangerous for most people. The focus here is on Aiman Yusof, a prison officer with a vocational background who’s transferred from the commonwealth to a maximum-security prison with the intention of teaching convicts new trades for rehabilitation. Aiman is compelled by a new profession himself and he is drawn to the forbidden Wing E, where the prison’s chief executioner, plies his craft of hanging criminals in a practice that reaches back to British colonial times.

Aiman as the new executioner holds idealistic pretenses of rehabilitation that are cloaked in doom and we really see this as the camera moves the corridors of Wing E during the preparation for an execution. Most viewers are drawn to the intricacies of process, and director Junfeng lingers on the dehumanizing details of state-sanctioned executions, recognizing each formality as encouraging distance—on the part of the guards as well as the convicts—from the ramifications of death. We see that the way convicts are treated before they are hung is quite important in terms of deciding the length of the hanging rope. We see a telling, teasing glimpse of the gallows: and a trap door on the floor of a warehouse. We also see Aiman in his new office, with barred windows that suggest that he’s as much a prisoner as any of his charges.

This idea of self-imprisonment pervades the film and we get details about Aiman’s life through bits of dialogue and show that he has lived in an intrusive security state with little patience for ambiguity or nuance. Aiman, himself, was once a juvenile delinquent who found comfort in the unforgiving atmosphere of the military. Aiman is a highly sensitive man with a chip on his shoulder that could change his sensitivity into a propensity for violence. Rahim recognizes this and sees Aiman as a kindred spirit and recruits the young man as his apprentice.

Much of “Apprentice” is composed of disillusioned faces—namely Aiman and Rahim’s, which are often partially obscured by their chain smoking. We see the toil that killing takes on the killers especially by divorcing them from conventional society.

The irony and tragedy of the film is that Aiman is acquainted with this sort of alienation before his career change, perhaps through his time at the army but also through a secret connection to Rahim. Aiman’s sister, Suhaila has a life, of which she wants Aiman to be a part, but he retreats and devotes himself to his hopeless job and to exercising—hardening himself. Rahim sees this pain and implicitly offers Aiman a sort of qualified requiem:

Rahim’s knowledge of hanging is shocking and fascinating. I cannot erase how Rahim elaborated on how to tie the rope’s knot, and where to place the knot on the neck. The length of the rope can determine how the convict is precisely killed, whether their neck or spine is snapped on impact, or whether they’re slowly strangled to death. The ideal hanging decisively snaps the upper spine, yielding an instantaneous “humane” death. This is considered as a triumph in Rahim’s profession. Tying these images and descriptions together gives us the sounds of death in motion. The leads’ performances are extraordinarily subtle and heartbreaking performances yet they keep this process tied to a mysterious human element.

“ANGRY INUK”— Nuance as Concept


“ANGRY INUK”

Nuance as Concept

Amos Lassen

Aaju Peter is a lawyer, seal skin seamstress and economic activist. She is also a feminist icon who lives city of Nunavut where she is more than happy to let the men go out into the biting cold and hunt for seals while she has a much more difficult work to do and that is to make those in political power in a globalized world understand the concept of nuance. 

Home is Canada’s Baffin Island that is twice the size of Britain with an endless view of snow and ice. Filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, along with Aaju, her family and her community wants to completely re-think a certain kind of activism in the village she grew up.

Hunting seals for their meat, skins, and other harvested products is the principle industry and trade on Baffin Island. The community eats seal meat as a primary source of food; there are no vegans north of the treeline. And 40 years of zealous animal rights, activism has made towns become a kind of collateral damage; depression, suicide and poverty thrive when a people have their livelihood taken away. 

Arnaquq-Baril convincingly argues that he people need to be able to retail the skins of the animals they eat to pay for the fuel to hunt and live with dignity in the 21st century. Seal bans in the marketplaces of the European Union put a stigma on the product that in essence wipes out its value and utility. 

“Angry Inuk” follows the two women and their small band of anti-activist activists for eight years as they go to Brussels, Toronto, and Copenhagen in an attempt to engage with both the European Union politicians and representatives of various activist conglomerates that have grown dependant on images and ideas that are misleading. Along the way, they both explain the subtle way that Inuit express anger and how it contrasts to western outrage.

The most effective segments of the film allow the audience to go into the intimacies of their own lives. Particularly visual is Arnaquq-Baril, with her toddler son eating meat fresh off a carcass, or a family navigating a rowboat through large, fast moving chunks of ice on the Arctic Sea. The women know their data, social media skills in order to share information responsibly but these modern Inuit are but a few thousand people among billions of others, yet they have a voice.

We see how a culture with an understated anger confronts a group that is exactly their opposite. Arnaquq-Baril has no tolerance for nonsense and she refuses to sit silently from the sidelines. Thank goodness for that. Her anger over the misrepresentations of seal hunting s perpetuated by the media and environmental activist groups nearly reaches a boiling point, but she manages to stay cool as she fights against a campaign that has had devastating effects on her people. We see the perfectly humane act of killing, gutting, and preparing the seal, not just for its fur, but also for the rich and tasty meats that sustain the community. The film has a counterargument for any false image one has seen before.

Arnaquq-Baril plays the dual roles of subject and filmmaker as she takes a close, participatory approach to the women and men of her community and invites them to share their stories about the economic necessities entailed within seal hunting. Aaju Peter central ally in the fight and is a strong-willed seal hunt advocate and lawyer who depends on the sealskins for her livelihood. She demonstrates the art of her seamstress craft, which hardly yields the price it deserves for the effort it takes to produce her clothing and she states the importance of preserving the practice of seal hunting. It’s a matter of sustainability, both on a practical level for basic survival and on a cultural level as the necessary hunt for seals preserves a way of life in the face of cultural erosion.

On one hand, the film presents the easy-going Inuit with their understated anger and their conscious in using every bit of the seals, from their pelts to their innards. On the other hand, the film shows the irate “southerners” with the slogans, campaigns, and ignorance to the cause against which they wage war. One side wants to have a conversation; the other team wants a diatribe. Implicit within the seal hunt debate is the imposition of one culture upon another within the history of colonizing Inuit and Indigenous communities.

What most animal rights organizations fail to acknowledge is how the banning of seal trading cripples the Inuit population that relies on it as one of their sole sources of monetary gain. While most animal rights organizations have no problems with “subsistence hunting” for food, they get nervous and do not speak whenever asked as to why the Inuit should be punished for the hunting and sale of an animal that was never an endangered species to begin with.

There’s a lot to see in “Angry Inuk”. This film is one of rage at a long gestating argument that never gets resolved. As such, her film, is impassioned and sometimes contains the kind of circular thinking that people get when righteously angry about a situation.

When we consider the economy of living near the Arctic Circle and combine that with the millions in resources groups like Greenpeace, PETA, and others get from placing images of crying seals on their shirts, it’s easy to understand why such rage is justified on the part of the Inuit.

“MAURIZIO CATTALAN: BE RIGHT BACK”— A Portrait of the Mischevious Artist

“Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back”

A Portrait of the Mischievous Artist

Amos Lassen

Last night I had the opportunity to see an amazing and fascinating documentary about the artist Maurizio Cattelan. Cattelan has based his career on playful and subversive works that have riled the artistic establishment but that dramatically changed when he had a retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2011 that solidified his place in the canon of contemporary art. Director Maura Axelrod gives us a playful profile that shoes and tells us just who is Maurizio Cattelan aside from being the man behind the Guggenheim Museum’s solid-gold toilet. He has been described as “a prankster, a fraud, an imitator, an innovator, a genius, a xylophone, and “quite possibly the most infuriating smart-ass on the contemporary art scene.” Axelrod plays along with Cattalan’s insouciant attitude vis à vis his own identity and gives us a charming look at the artist.

We are reminded in the film’s its first two minutes that Cattelan’s work sells at auction for $10 million and we see this as part of his uncanny ability to command outrageous prices for work that openly critiques the institution that has embraced it.

We see ands hear an art collector say, “I think he’s one of the greatest artists that we have today — but he could also be the worst.” For more than 20 years Cattelan has garnered praise and scorn for his works that include a sculpture of Pope John Paul II struck by a meteorite, a statue of a praying Adolf Hitler and functioning 18-carat gold toilet. Axelrod takes us back a bit in history and shows us the time when Catellan broke into a gallery, stole objects and exhibited them as his own and this is quite funny as is his huge sculpture of a raised middle finger placed outside a stock exchange. Yet we are awed by his 2011 retrospective, which hung from a truss atop the rotunda of the Guggenheim.

The experts are not nearly as much fun especially when talk about artists as brands and attempts to Cattelan’s past. However, art is the star of the film and director Axelrod features plenty of it. She also takes through Cattelan’s career causing us to wonder if the artist is more of a con man than a genius. We are left to decide that for ourselves.