“Beautiful Losers” is a movie, a book, a gallery and a movement about a certain iconoclasm of the Nineties -- the breaking up of assumptions that people held “sacred” as given truths eternal in the universe. The grandiosity of such assumptions is always in danger and youngest visionaries have the guts to take on the task, because assumptions are shells with the real and fertile future down in the center somewhere -- assuming the Roosters of the Galaxy have done their job every time the hens bend over.
So this particular group of people at the stage where brains burst into flame if they can get enough air had all migrated to New York City -- not because Manhattan is where the Mandarins live or even in search of the Village, which is an old pickled dive bar egg in a counter jar -- but because when you put that many eccentric and damaged people into a tight space, all constructed and barely policed, it amounts to critical mass. So the kid who wasn’t even a nerd at his home town or in his school setting -- just a loser, maybe one that even the rad retro teachers wouldn’t take on -- is suddenly connected.
The people in this movie are pre-computer and internet. The urban fabric of squats, paving, and rail cars was their canvas. Their brushes were often spray cans. Their transportation was skateboards. Their music was punk and hip-hop. Their philosophy -- they’d laugh at that idea -- was a sort of fatalistic wonder. We’re all gonna die, maybe soon, but -- hey, dust to dust, man. Somehow they found each other just by walking around and pretty soon there was a precipitating crystal -- hey, let’s put on a show!
Next thing you know they were being celebrated and flown to Japan as heroes deserving of bundles of cash. It really happened, but what DID happen? Was this the achievement of success? In the middle of the triumphs one of the women became pregnant with both a baby and cancer and had to leave, denying treatment, successfully giving birth before dying. What was that? Some of these kids -- in the time the movie was shot more like young adults -- would say friendship is all anyone has anyway and the only thing that can survive death.
A generation later. Maybe two. This morning the SmashStreetBoys video was about going fishing on a peaceful alpine lake, an utterly idyllic location, the pure pursuit of a jeweled and golden fish. It’s in classic black-and-white except for that fish. The beautiful boy in his solitary rowboat is at last safe. Or is he? Dark descends on the mirrored icon.
To go fishing on Lake Francis, here where I am, means being out on an irrigation impoundment stocked with a certain kind of lake fish -- not trout -- in the midst of a flotilla of people, mostly old guys getting sunburned. The kids here have only one idea: go fast. Jet skiis, motorboats, not much waterskiing. Beer tends to destroy your balance and judgment. The dead cottonwood on the tiny island where herons nested has either fallen down or been cut down. It made trouble anyway. Arguments about protecting the birds and all that. The trees on the verge of the water are only weedy poplars, sometimes drowned.
I don’t know where the “Beautiful Losers” around here hang out. This is prairie, not city. I used to recognize them in the rez classroom -- you’d walk down the aisle to see if they were working on their essays and they’d be drawing, sometimes beautiful things but often obscene graffiti -- or both. Defiance and desire, mixed. Haunted by massacre, stalked by hunger, fueled by arrogance. A recipe for survival.
The artists aren’t on the computers at the library where bearded Hutterites looking for good buys in heavy equipment sit next to little Blackfeet kids playing map games. This librarian does her best: when I went by last week the kids had made a troll house out of a cardboard box, inhabited by “trolls,” stacks of smooth stones with puppet eyes. Around here I don’t see smart phones or tablet computers anywhere, not even in Great Falls coffee shops. It’s not the devices -- it’s the infrastructure that’s too expensive to be built out yet. Communication is still word of mouth, powered by rage and longing and too easily fizzling into paralysis. Despair would be better. I’m not in touch with it. My generation was different and it’s thinning quickly now. Three bitter enemies died this last week, but they were not really my own enemies anyway, so they’re thrice removed. The person they hated was Bob and he’s been dead for a dozen years.
By the time an art movement has gelled and defined itself as much as the “Beautiful Losers” -- Street Art? The Nineties People? it has already been co-opted by the commercial forces who always want to commodify the young. The outrageous sprayed onto an alley wall has become a Coca-Cola ad, an icon, a shell. This egg thing is always a good metaphor but lately has been used in terms of the gestation of eggs: first just a little germ cell, then a more defined pre-chick, then yolk/white/cellblob, and so on until a whole egg pops out under the hen’s tail. What’s remarkable is not the egg itself but that the conveyor belt inside the chicken starts a new egg and then another new egg and then another . . .
Sometimes a chicken’s body can’t handle it and sort of explodes at the rear end. A woman who raised chickens used to bring those damaged egg-makers to us to feed the pet fox. It was her idea -- we didn’t ask for them. She wanted to feed the living bird to the fox herself so she and her kids could watch, avid as any art aficionados. Once we registered that, we asked her not to come anymore. By then we were hitting the Cowboy Art big time. Already the foxes ran galleries and demanded a steady stream of art, though they preferred their artists dead -- or at least compliant.
Public schools cut art from their formal curriculum long before they touch athletics. Music survives in part because the “religion” of games demands a band. To many, the loss of decent art training is tragic, but to others it is much better to be “free range,” to not learn except by watching and doing. The taboo on being less than fully formed as defined by some authority who’s never been where you are is harder on the viewers of art than on the artists. Hack artists won’t be changed anyway unless they decide to imitate something that sells better.
The beautiful losers, the chaos-eaters, can’t be neglected or suppressed because their work surges up through them, the same as the immanent sacred comes up from the core of the planet, moving the plate tectonics of culture and fate until there are mountains and deep rifts where water collects into lakes where the trout dwell, where boys swim -- shrieking, cannonball diving, risking their lives.
“Beautiful Losers” (2009) streams on Netflix.