Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 4

Dear Dan Fogler,

I saw your film Hysterical Psycho this afternoon, and wanted to talk directly to you about it. You see, it seems to be very much your baby, at least based on the credits; you’re in it, you directed it, you executive produced it, some of your family was in it. And you also have this credit: “Written and created by Dan Fogler.” I’m not sure what that even means (if you wrote it, shouldn’t we presume you created it?) but either way it goes, Hysterical Psycho is clearly your film. And Dan, I don’t even know where to start with your film.

To start with, why is it so ugly? I’m not talking about the subject matter (though that’s not the most inaccurate descriptor). I’m asking, why is it so hard to even watch? A few of the outdoor shots look good (black and white exteriors are pretty hard to screw up), but the indoor lighting is terrible, and the camerawork is downright obnoxious—the clunky handheld camera is always zipping around into someone’s face. And here’s the other problem: I couldn’t make out huge chunks of dialogue, due to poor audio recording. And the music—I don’t mean to sound like an old fogey (I’m 33, for God’s sake), but why is your movie so loud? All of the performers seem to be screaming their lines (even when they’re not lines where they’re screaming), and scene after scene ends with you slamming in a loud, “thrill” music cue, presumably to create the illusion that something is happening, or to wake us all up. I’ve never complained about volume in a movie before, but seriously, it felt like this movie was raping my ears. Between the pushy camerawork and the screeching sound, your film gave me an ice cream headache.

Of course, none of this—the full-volume performances, the wafer-thin characterizations, the shoddy camerawork—none of it would matter if Hysterical Psycho was funny. But it isn’t. I realize that humor is subjective, and not everyone finds the same thing funny. But your movie is so crude, so puerile, that I can’t imagine who would find it funny; and I’m not sure how funny you think it is, since you basically give up on the humor in the third act and try to make it a straight horror movie or something. Unfortunately, it’s not scary either.

I don’t mean to be mean about your film, Mr. Fogler. I’ve made a few of these things myself, and let me tell you, my first film is no treat either. But I have to be clear on this: In its current form, Hysterical Psycho is unwatchable. It’s like going into a theater to watch a YouTube video that you want to click away from two minutes in. Better luck next time.

Your friend,
jason bailey

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You can’t help but go in rooting for Serious Moonlight, particularly if you know its back story. It’s an incredibly likable movie, and it’s a slick, professional job. But it’s a little too clean and easy, and it doesn’t quite manage to pull off the delicate balancing act of off-beat charm with dark undertones that Waitress (the previous film by its writer, the late Adrienne Shelly) did. Its opening scenes are not encouraging; the jazz music, upper-class location, and presence of Meg Ryan have us worried that we’re entering Nora Ephron territory here (it proves better than that, although that isn’t much of an accomplishment). But there is some good material in here, though much of the film is a little too controlled and constructed; it feels theatrical, somehow stagey, and while the best of the dialogue has a nice, natural ring, a lot of it feels written instead of spoken.

None of this is the fault of Ryan, who here gives her most robust performance in years (not a surprise—if you can get past all the weird stuff she’s done to her face, she was actually quite good in last year’s dreadful remake of The Women). It’s a fizzy, spirited piece of work, and her line readings are just sharp as a tack. Timothy Hutton (or “Tim Hutton,” as he’s inexplicably billed) doesn’t quite match up with her. His performance is passable, but Ryan’s just acting circles around the guy, and by the midway mark, she’s so exhausted that she starts acting down to him. It’s not entirely his fault; his role isn’t written as well as hers. When his big moment comes, he tries to underplay it, but it comes across as stilted; he’s just saying lines here. And no young actress projects fierce intelligence as effortlessly as Kristen Bell does, so it’s kind of sad to see her wasted in what’s essentially a nothing, young-and-dumb role.

I will confess to being blindsided by what happens when Justin Long pops in (don’t read the summaries on imdb if you’d like this surprise preserved), but he certainly gives the picture a jolt of nasty energy. It takes a darker turn, and suddenly there’s some spontaneity; the movie’s outcome is up in the air, and our interest perks up. Once the ending arrives, it’s a little on the corny side (though a cop with a bit part scores one of the biggest laughs in the film), and the epilogue is a little too nice and neat, though it tries to remedy that with a final beat that doesn’t play at all.

Serious Moonlight has a little more flavor than the vanilla chick flicks that Ryan made her name on (and that it probably will be marketed to resemble). It’s a little too put-together for my taste, but it has some decent performers and a few solid chuckles, even if it evaporates by the time you’re out of the theater.

* * *
Well, people certainly have their opinions on Mark Kostabi, and several of them get a chance to share them in Michael Sladek’s documentary portrait Con Artist. When asked about his reputation in the art world, one replies, “In the art world, I’ve never heard anything good about him.” Another likens his work to Applebee’s, and then corrects himself: “Applebee’s aspiring to be Olive Garden.”

The purists have plenty of reasons to loathe him, even if only on a professional level. Early in the film, when introducing some of his pieces, he says, “I made these paintings… with some help.” That’s a bit of an understatement. What he does (shown in a beautifully constructed reveal) is take Warhol’s “Factory” concept and pushes it to the absolute limit: he employs idea people, who come up with the painting concepts, and then hand them off to his artist employees, who paint them. When they’re done, Kostabi signs it. That’s it, that’s all he does. Many of his employees have never seen him paint. The thing is, it’s no secret—it’s what he’s known for. “Modern art is a con,” he said during his heyday, “and I am the world’s greatest con artist.”

He became known less for his art than for his “marketing personality”—basically, his feeling was that the power of celebrity was such that if he became a name, even if it was a name as an egotistical blowhard, that would drive up the price of his pieces. He made ridiculous, hyperbolic statements and presented himself as the bad boy of the scene. Exactly how much of this is a put-upon persona and how much of it was his real personality is up for debate (“I don’t think that’s an act,” says one critic. “That’s below his act”)—and there is, of course, always the possibility that as he became more and more famous, the persona became his real personality.

Kostabi remains a savvy salesman; we see him trying to manipulate his image in the film, advising Sladek that a shot is “good B-roll,” telling an employee, “I want to argue with you for Sladek’s documentary,” reportedly coaching other interview subjects. Sladek seems to get the last laugh by including these and other cringe-inducing moments (like his painful public access TV appearances), but he also inexplicably leaves out one of Kostabi’s most notorious scandals. In a 1989 Vanity Fair interview, he said, “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the eighties. Now they’re all dying of AIDS, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.” This happened right before his fall from grace and subsequent bankruptcy in the early 1990s, but Sladek’s film doesn’t mention the uproar, blaming his rough patch in the 90s on the bursting of the Tokyo art bubble.

That’s about my only major complaint with Con Artist, however. It’s well-cut and well-paced, and if Kostabi remains somewhat impenetrable, I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the film—it may not even be possible to know this guy. At one point, he seems to get genuinely emotional about his current lot in life, and asks plaintively, “Do you think it’s insane? To desire to be loved?” In any other person’s interview, we might read this as a penetrating, insightful moment. With this guy, who knows?

* * *
Here's what tomorrow’s all-documentary slate looks like: the incredibly timely economic tale American Casino, the late-70s NYC underground film doc Blank City, and Burning Down The House: The Story of CBGB. The documentary selections thus far have been among the more reliably good films, so I’m looking forward to this triple feature.

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