With so many artists working in video, their percolation to feature films is only a matter of time, or of ambition. We saw a surge in the early 1990s (Johnny Mnemonic, Office Killer), and a similar trend is evident now. This year’s Venice Film Festival, Sept. 2-12, 2009, and the Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 10-19, 2009, boasted new feature-length movies from two celebrated artists -- Pipilotti Rist and Shirin Neshat -- and two other notable features that qualify as independent "art" films. An added bonus was the probing documentary about the Barnes Foundation, examining one of the troubling art controversies of our time.
Pipilotti Rist’s Pepperminta
Venice held the world premiere of Pepperminta, the feature film debut of the accomplished Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist. It’s a psychedelic fantasy tale in hypnotic primary colors, in which a redheaded young woman in a red costume, clearly kin to both Pippi Longstocking and Pollyanna, brings girlish good will and a determination to live without fear to an uncomprehending world.
We watch Pepperminta from a toddler-eye view, as the camera bumps into people, trees and everything else. If that level of tactility weren’t enough, Pepperminta experiences the world with her tongue, licking everything, including doorbells. Conflating the experiences of seeing and touching, Rist takes you through fields of flowers and bodies of water in balletic scenes that drift from innocence to eroticism and back again.
Visitors to the Museum of Modern Art got a preview of Pepperminta last winter in the museum atrium, where Rist’s Pour Your Body Out video installation wowed the crowds. That production starred Pepperminta’s Ewelina Guzik, nude, as I recall, crawling through vast beds of brightly colored tulips on a huge screen, all funded by the Swiss banking giant UBS. It was the luscious apex of Rist’s pitch-perfect adaptation of abstract film, rock-concert light shows and music videos.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs
Approaching the notion of art film from the commercial cinema side is the French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Alien Resurrection (1997) and Amélie (2001). Jeunet’s new film, Micmacs a tire-larigot, premiered at the Toronto festival, and takes its esthetic cues from his first feature, Delicatessen (1991), a much more esthetically minded movie, in which a neighborhood store turns out to be an infinitely expanding universe of wondrous ephemera and trash.
In Micmacs, Jeunet returns to that kind of subterranean, baroque arte povera world, when a video store clerk is hit in the head by a stray bullet and finds his way to underground passageways filled with all sorts of waste. The inhabitants of this umbral zone are outsiders like himself. In the course of his story, these outcasts uncover an international arms conspiracy, and foil it. Jeunet’s sweet-hearted tale is an answer to the army of louts in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, only more visually inventive -- and arguably more likely to send the imagination soaring than Pepperminta.
Shirin Neshat’s Women without Men
More restrained is Women without Men by Shirin Neshat, which played in Toronto, and in Venice, where it won the festival’s Silver Lion for Best Director. Set in 1953, when Iran’s government was toppled by a coup backed by Britain and the U.S. -- the country’s leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, planned to nationalize its oil industry -- the film adapts the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, which follows the fates of five women as the military seizes power. Neshat dedicated Women without Men to "the memory of those who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy in Iran -- from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the Green Movement of 2009."
As always, Neshat works with gestural compositions -- figures silhouetted against the sky, beguiling patterns in architecture and the shadowy moonlit gardens where women can slip out from under the male boot. The garden is the symbol of the Iranian nation, under siege from ambitious interlopers. It’s also a metaphor for the fate of the characters, women whose futures are cut short by events out of their control.
As Neshat sets her story in the 1950s, her images are rusticated, weathered to replicate the Iranian melodramas of that era and the then-emerging style of Neo-Realism. She is adept at telling a story in pictures, so adept that the power of the images fills in the blanks for viewers who know neither Iranian history nor the novel that she’s bringing to the screen. Think of Women without Men as a transitional work, an experiment with a long form to tell a series of stories, each of which might have been the subject of a portrait in an installation. One can only wonder what Neshat might have done with a camera had she been on the streets in Tehran in June.
My Dog Tulip
Not much is left to the imagination in My Dog Tulip, an animated adaptation of the novel by J. B. Ackerley about an aging man and the uncontrollable dog that he adopts. Toronto held the premiere of this latest film by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger.
Paul Fierlinger is known among fans of animated films as the creator of Drawn from Memory, his memoir of the miseries of growing up first in the U.S. during World War II and later in Czechoslovakia, where his father, a government official, was purged from his position. The film was a milestone at a time when few imagined that animation could deal with much more than the entertainment of children. (Fierlinger also knows a little bit about that field, as the creator of Teeny Little Superguy, the character on Sesame Street.)
My Dog Tulip offers more than its title seems to promise. Ackerley’s autobiographical novel starts out with a man who isn’t a dog lover adopting a dog who isn’t loved. It’s a strange cocktail, but somehow it gets both parties committed to a longer and more genuine relationship than you tend to find among humans. As Ackerley put it, "Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs." In other words, "Life’s a bitch," in more ways than one.
The story has its misanthropic side, as Ackerley learns to expect more affection from a dog that he will ever get from people. The movie also has a Swiftian aspect, as it meditates on dogs and their copious shit -- all depicted with wit and self-mockery. And yes, Ackerley does try to breed her.
The drawing in this film is something special altogether. The Fierlingers have put their animation in the service of the story -- spare, wryly clever, and full of restrained but real emotion. They’ve even created a more austere parallel style to accommodate the interior monologue of the novel. Don’t be put off by the simplicity of the drawings, or by celebrities like Christopher Plummer or Vanessa Redgrave, who are reading the characters’ lines. This one is drawn from the heart.
The Art of the Steal
My Dog Tulip came and went at Toronto, despite its celebrities. The film about art that really garnered widespread attention at the festival was The Art of the Steal, Don Argott’s documentary that traces the contentious evolution of the Barnes Foundation from an eccentric institution in the wealthy Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pa., to its current reincarnation as a nascent facility on Philadelphia’s central Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (As a journalist who has covered the Barnes for two decades, I make an appearance in the documentary; for further background, see "Behind the Barnes Bonanza" in Artnet Magazine, Apr. 7, 2006, and "Now Museum, Now You Don’t" in the American Prospect, June 19, 2005.)
The Art of the Steal borrows its title from John Anderson’s aptly named book, which clearly takes a dubious view of the moves made by Philadelphia’s elite, including the Annenberg Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, to "save" the Barnes from the many disputes that plagued it since the death of its founder in 1951. After years of fighting in the courts to modify and then completely overturn Barnes’s will, the collection is due to be reinstalled on a site where a juvenile prison once stood, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Barnes had been one of the last places to view such a wealth of master paintings in a contemplative setting, away from the conveyor-belt approach of most museums. Barnes’ will had been written to preserve the place. The notion that the new facility can replicate the old galleries is laughable; Philadelphia’s elite and Albert C. Barnes were at odds for decades, a battle that Barnes lost only long after his death. See the film, and watch a treasure erode before your eyes.
DAVID D’ARCY is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper, a contributing editor at Art & Auction and a regular critic on the "Front Row" program on BBC Radio.