The computer that runs the Netflix algorithm has decided that I like art -- and also nudity. They sent me four movies. Okay, I picked them, but they sent me a limited list of streaming films.
“The Thomas Crown Affair”
“The Artist and the Model”
“Interior. Leather Bar.”
These four films bear no resemblance to each other whatsoever except that the computer evidently noted they are about art and contain nudity. Everyone knows that real art is about nude people.
STANDARD ALL-AMERICAN SCHLOCK
“The Thomas Crown Affair” is about an art thief played by Pierce Brosnan as though he were still James Bond. The insurance bounty hunter is Rene Russo, very “Vanity Fair,” very "Vogue." They go through glorious shenanigans evidently guided by a travel agent who likes warm climates. It’s all nothing. Posing. Money. A child’s notion of what being rich might be like. Also a child’s notion of how grownups have sex. It’s all a matter of who can fool whom and who’s tougher than the other.
Budget: $48,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: £916,452 (UK) (20 August 1999)
Gross: $69,304,264 (USA) (11 February 2000)
ART HOUSE FRENCH EXISTENTIALISM
“The Artist and the Model” is at the opposite pole of the spectrum. Black and white, French (mostly), about an ancient sculptor married to Claudia Cardinale (you might not recognize her) and waiting for WWII to end. A fleeing resistance fighter, a pretty young woman, is taken in by them and becomes his model. She knows NOTHING about art. The old man treats her like an object while he makes old-fashioned plaster statues of her that, as she points out, don’t look like her. But they grow together into a relationship that includes the leaf-filtered sun, another resistance fighter, a Nazi officer who loves art, and a disapproving old woman.
Opening Weekend: $16,900 (USA) (2 August 2013)
Gross: $107,300 (USA) (6 September 2013)
DOCUMENTARY ABOUT A REAL ARTIST
“The Woodmans” is a straightforward documentary about an actual young gifted photographer who committed suicide. The parents are an odd couple linked by a passion for art. Both their children were artists, but the girl in particular was gifted, impatient, always pushing the limits. Until she literally went over the edge. Her parents, brother and friends talk to the camera quietly with much honesty and insight. We see a great deal of her work, which is often of herself, nude, in tricky contexts like under fragments of wallpaper or lying on a sifting of flour. Her journal is always present. Her father, who was more attuned to her, leaves his abstract art to do photography rather like hers. Her mother, a ceramicist, has success in her work but cannot solve the riddle of her daughter.
Opening Weekend: $5,874 (USA) (21 January 2011)
Gross: $38,330 (USA) (26 August 2011)
STAGED DOCUMENTARY CALIFORNIA IMPERSONATION
“Interior. Leather bar.” is another “documentary” about a forty-minute section of “Cruising” that was cut because of censor's ratings. It was considered too obscene. Not even Al Pacino in the role of a cop who is undercover in the SM scene can persuade the censor. So this is supposed to be an account of an attempt to recreate those censored minutes, after a lot of time has passed, and a young actor (Val Lauren) has been hired to “be” Pacino. He is flattered, eager, philosophically on board, and so are the other young men who have been hired as background. They have not really been made aware of what might happen and they are nervous. They ask each other, “Have you ever played a gay before? Have you ever kissed a guy? Are you straight?”
The point is supposed to be, in part, what impact this short scene has on the actors and on the viewers. The director makes an impassioned speech about being open and actors accepting all human experience, and so on. As it turns out, there is explicit sex but we’re assured it’s between two committed guys, maybe married. There’s no real SM, just leather accouterments. Some spanking and boot-licking.
Opening Weekend: $5,218 (USA) (3 January 2014)
Gross: $40,862 (USA) (11 April 2014)
Let’s be real. Movies are supposed to make money. Scandal is one way to make money. Doesn’t matter much whether the scandal is about the actors, the director or the subject. The REAL scandals about the world at large generally go unremarked.
Let’s look at the art. Thomas Crown’s “art” is all Impressionists in museums. We learn nothing about the value of art or why the Impressionists are still all the rage (so is Thomas Kinkade) or the necessity of protecting fragile paintings. I flinched when the thief folded the admired masterpiece in half, which would be likely to flake a lot of paint off. But the paintings are pretty, familiar, and certainly sell for a LOT at auctions.
The sculptures in “The Artist and the Model” are pretty standard -- faux Malliol. The idea that one specific piece is a life-fulfilling masterpiece is a little bit bogus, but at least it’s based on the idea that a piece of art has integrity and value for itself. The idea and execution of a work of art has meaning to the artist himself and, in fact, is drawn from his experience of life. The Nazi fan reminds us that even the most objective people can understand this value and study it in a second-level experience. The model keeps the focus from leaving real life, the sensorium that is the source of art.
“The Woodmans” is two artists, married, talking about their artist daughter who committed suicide. Her work was self-photography, usually nude and sometimes on video. The art is shown to us and explained. Many people think that being an intense artist is a kind of psychopathology: the first thing you know, the artist is cutting off his ear. But by the end of this film (it sneaks up on you) the obsession is not with the art, but the success of the art. And the real scandal might be that no one paid attention or valued Woodman's work until she committed suicide. At one "jump" she became valuable and so did her art.
“Interior. Leather Bar.” is not the same thing. It is a xerox of a xerox of a xerox, each version imprinted with the ambitious narcissism of young men focused on sexuality. There’s a lot of talk about freedom and reality, etc. but in forty minutes of fiddling around -- always keeping us aware that we’re seeing a simulacrum -- it doesn’t look like anything much is revealed.
These kinds of value judgments can’t be made by a computer, no matter how elegant the algorithm, because the algorithm IS a simulacrum, a derived reduction. It has no sensorium, no empathy cells behind its forehead, limited ability (making lists of what to mail out and to whom), and only the wildest guess about what its programmers thought would make money for THEM (Netflix) rather than the film makers.My preferences and sympathies should be obvious by now. I’ll watch almost anything, but big blockbusters attract me the least. I prefer my French impressionism “straight up” as in the movie about the old sculptor as both his life and WWII end. As for the "Leather Bar" movie, It’s clear that taking on a dark category of underground people while employing safe vanilla actors, is courting ridicule, even if you accept them as artists.
But it is the actual lives and work of artists as understood -- or misunderstood -- that can break your heart. So, I watch.