Friday, November 06, 2009

“(Untitled)” Skewers the Modern Art World


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo: Adam Goldberg and Marley Shelton in (Untitled). Copyright © 2009 by Untitled the Movie and Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The New York art world might not seem like the likeliest target for a satirical movie — you may go in wondering what director Jonathan Parker and writer Catherine DiNapoli, who worked with him on the script, could possibly have to say about it that would make it look more ridiculous than it already is — but if you let that discourage you from seeing (Untitled), you’ll be missing a remarkable and quite charming film. At first, seeing avant-garde composer Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg, the closest this movie has to a “name” star) stroll the mean streets of New York’s arts district, see a small but promising group of people waiting outside the hall where his New Music Ensemble is about to perform, then see a bus pull into the frame and pick all of them up, you might expect the young Woody Allen to show up any minute.

But (Untitled) isn’t a 1970’s Woody Allen re-tooled for the present. It’s an expert skewering of a group of people who seem locked in an unwitting contest to top each other for sheer pretentiousness. The great virtue about (Untitled) — the parentheses are part of the title, which refers to the name a gallery usually slaps on a work when the artist hasn’t given it an actual title — is it makes fun of everybody: the fiercely independent I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-an-audience artist; the commercial painter whose works get bought by the yard for offices and hospitals; the genuine talents and the wanna-bes, the conceptualists whose work treads on the thin edge of not being art at all; and the rich people whose own mixed motives for buying art — from wanting to be accepted as connoisseurs shaping the destiny of the cultural world to seeing it as just another investment they hope will make them a profit — finance much of the show.

(Untitled) is an unusually well constructed (for a modern movie) story centered around two brothers, high-strung “artistic” composer Adrian and commercial painter Josh (Eion Bailey), whose institutional sales are keeping the Madeleine Grey gallery in business and allowing Grey (Marley Shelton) to pose as a resolutely noncommercial gallery operator, mounting self-consciously avant-garde shows in the front room while sneaking Josh’s paintings out the back as if they were contraband. Josh, who deals in safe abstractions — washes of color with a few strategically placed circles on each canvas — desperately wants a gallery show in Madeleine’s front space. He also desperately wants Madeleine’s body, but it’s Adrian who gets her in a relationship that seems to be about little more than sheer lust.

What about Adrian’s music? It’s self-consciously avant-garde, all right, played from scores that look more like schematic drawings of new computer designs than anything one usually thinks of as sheet music. Adrian himself falls against his piano, elbows it, plays dissonant tonal clusters that sound like Cecil Taylor on crystal and resolutely avoids anything resembling a melody. He also occasionally kicks a bucket — literally — and employs chains and other seemingly random noisemakers. His group consists of a woman playing bass clarinet (she’s identified in the dramatis personae only as “The Clarinet” and is portrayed by Lucy Punch), and a percussionist with an array of drums, gongs and “found” instruments that add to the general cacophony. The people who attend his concerts — at least the ones who don’t walk out in the middle — find his performances so disorienting that only the sight of the musicians bowing gives away when the piece has actually ended and they may applaud.

Nonetheless, Madeleine’s case of the hots for Adrian leads her to invite him to her loft — filled with works of art just as bizarre, if not more so, than the ones she shows in her gallery (my favorite was a painting with big block letters reading “NO YOU SHUT UP”) — and for her to invite him and his group to perform at the opening of the big show by British artist Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones). Barko, a character the writers obviously based on real-life British avant-gardist Damien Hirst, shows pieces consisting of stuffed animals in grotesque poses mounted in installations with inanimate objects. He also makes the expected pass at Madeleine and, when she brushes him off, turns his attentions towards “The Clarinet” — who appears to have an unrequited crush on Adrian but who also gets herself involved with Porter Canby (Zak Orth). Canby, who made a fortune from “something with computers,” wants to be accepted as a culture maven. He also wants to buy Barko’s work because he thinks it’s “underpriced,” but in the topsy-turvy world of art he first has to prove himself aesthetically “worthy” to purchase it — which Madeleine suggests he do by spending $25,000 to commission a new work for Adrian’s ensemble.

What makes (Untitled) work is the writers’ cool efficiency in setting up their targets. It’s a movie in which everyone is fair game, mainly because they’re all drowning in pretension. One of the film’s best running gags is how the people viewing the shows at Madeleine’s gallery are tempted at first to say in plain English whether or not they like them — until they realize that that would be breaking the rules; their comments have to be crouched in the convoluted, high-falutin’ language of Artspeak. Eventually Madeleine discovers and insists on showing the weirdest and most pretentious artist of all — an emotional basket case called Monroe (Ptolemy Slocum) who comes off as a high-functioning autistic and whose pieces bear names like “Post-It Note on a Wall,” “Door Partially Propped Open by a Doorstop” and “Thumbtack Stuck in a Wall.” (Madeleine titles his show, “MONROE: Something from Nothing.”) On the day of his opening — which causes a breakup between Madeleine and Adrian because Monroe is too “out there” even for Adrian’s taste — Monroe signs a whole stack of “Certificates of Authenticity.” It turns out that when you “buy” a Monroe work you get the ingredients, a set of instructions and a certificate to document that you bought that thumbtack for a multi-figure sum from a real Artist instead of just picking up a pack of them at a 99¢ store.

Along with the satire, (Untitled) touches in a light-hearted way on issues that are major subjects for debate in the art world. What exactly constitutes a work of art? What is the artist’s role? Does one have to create a material object to be an artist, or is a “concept” enough? (Did the fact that Andy Warhol used his considerable skills as a draftsman to paint photo-realistic depictions of Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes make him a more legitimate artist than someone who just signs his name to a real Campbell’s soup can or Brillo box and exhibits it as “art”?) Does the artist have to create personally every aspect of the work to claim it as “his,” or can he entrust part of the work’s manufacture to others? (This comes off in the film when Madeleine takes Porter to Barko’s workshop and they see his assistants working on the piece she’s trying to sell to Porter — and it comes out that Barko has never actually stuffed any of the animals in his work. But it was also raised in connection with as acknowledged an Old Master as Rembrandt, who at the height of his popularity as a portrait painter employed a whole studio full of assistants who did a lot of the actual application of paint to canvas on “Rembrandt’s” works.)

(Untitled) won’t make you scream with laughter the way a more rambunctious, less intellectual comedy would — but it will keep you in a state of sustained merriment. One gets the impression that Parker and DiNapoli genuinely love the world they’re making fun of, and that makes the humor warmer and richer. What’s more, they’re adept at creating characters we genuinely care about — we may laugh at them but we also root for them and hope they get what they want out of this crazy game with its mixed-up rules. Parker’s casting is near-perfect — Marley Shelton in particular nails both the artistic and the sexual (she doesn’t seem genuinely capable of actual love) pretensions of his character. Adam Goldberg and Eion Bailey not only look enough alike we can believe them as brothers, they’re good enough to convince us they’ve had a long-standing rivalry going and each of them envies the other’s position in the art world. Perhaps the best performance is Ptolemy Slocum’s as Monroe; he’s so convincing he makes us ache for the way this poor semi-functional man is being exploited by the art world, with his very uncommunicativeness and utter lack of people skills hailed as yet more signs of his “genius.” There’s also a wonderful turn by Ben Hammer as Morton Cabot, a nonagenarian composer whose works — just as percussive as Adrian’s but a good deal more lyrical — convince Our Hero that it’s O.K. to try for beauty in his pieces.

As director, Parker picks a few oblique camera angles but mostly tells his story straightforwardly and with a deserved confidence in the ability of his and DiNapoli’s script to make its points. With production designer David L. Snyder, he’s nailed the different environments in which the characters work, live and function — particularly the grungy hovel in which Adrian creates as opposed to the antiseptic gallery and concert spaces in which he performs and the dark brown cocktail lounge where he plays background piano to support himself. Parker also wisely hired composer David Lang to score the film with music at least superficially similar to — though less aggressively ugly than — what Adrian performs in the film. (Untitled) is a charming farce, created with love and a willingness rare in this generation of filmmakers to make us identify with the characters emotionally rather than view them as if they were lab rats and we were researchers running experiments on them. Whether you’re an habitué of modern-art galleries and concert halls or you don’t know which end of a modern painting is up, you’ll still enjoy (Untitled).

(Untitled) is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 819-0236 for showtimes and more information.