To say that 2012 was a great year for art films isn’t just a reference to the kind of foreign and American-indie narrative features, like Amour or Your Sister’s Sister, that are too thoughtful to play the multiplexes.
There are plenty of those out there. But ever since Rivers and Tides, the 2001 documentary about the British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, became a surprise indie film hit, we’ve seen more feature documentaries about artists and the art world in general.
I think 2012 was the best year for such art films since the Rivers and Tides breakthrough. Not only is the subject matter fascinating but the filmmakers — inspired by their subjects — are taking risks to make sure the movies themselves are adventurous. It helps that the subjects are still-active contemporary artists who let the filmmakers into their process.
Here are five that I saw in 2012 and highly recommend, starting with one — Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story — that will have a screening at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 4 at the Contemporary Arts Center. (Go here for more information.) The spry, funny and empowering documentary by Neil Berkeley has a real natural in the eccentrically countercultural graphic artist/puppeteer White.
He grew up in rural Tennessee where his artistic inclinations were encouraged by family, secondary school (except for one principal) and college. That doesn’t mean he had an easy time of it, but after a spell with poverty in New York he was hired as an artistic designer for the surreal set of the landmark Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
After Pee Wee’s demise, White has slowly carved out a career as a kind of conceptual puppeteer/performance artist/visual artist. This evolution, which was not easy, is chronicled in the film. His stage shows, mixing music and monologues, are hilarious. And his two-dimensional artwork — he paints marquee-title slogans, like “Beauty is Embarrassing” over thrift-shop landscape canvasses — is both funny and moving.
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters: Crewdson is simply an amazing still photographer — and the term “still photographer” doesn’t really do him justice. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Crewdson, who mostly works in small-town New England, approaches his large-scale photographs as if he were creating motion-picture sets (and sometimes he is). He has a crew, uses actors and raises funds for his shoots, which have the mysterious, moody complexity — the romantic sense of unease — of a Hopper painting or one of Hitchcock’s 1950s masterpieces. This documentary by Ben Shapiro looks at the painstaking way Crewdson puts together his photographs, but also investigates why he does it. This film was presented for one night last year at CAC.
Gerhard Richter Painting: Corinna Belz’s documentary about Richter is a joy because the still-active 80-year-old German artist lets her observe him at work as he creates his colorful abstracts, confidently working the thick paint with squeegees. He shows how he can make art out of chaos, yet also reveals that the process is itself an eternal mystery to him. It’s now available on DVD.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present: This gets my vote for 2012’s best documentary, period — about an extraordinarily powerful artist whose performance pieces seemed weird and edgy when she started in the 1970s but have proven enduring. Refusing to slow down in her sixties, the Serbian-born Abramovic allows filmmakers Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre to follow her during her 2010 MOMA retrospective, where she sat silent for a more than two-month duration while visitors were invited to sit opposite her and stare. As we watch the effect her vigil has on others, many of whom emotionally respond to her presence as they might a religious visitation, one senses her greatness. It debuted on HBO and has played theaters, but not yet here.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: Alison Klayman’s film about the world-famous Chinese conceptual artist who has dared to challenge his government’s authority, and has paid a price in police harassment, won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and is now getting national release. With Weiwei’s participation, along with interviews from others, we see how family experience — his father was a poet victimized during China’s totalitarian Great Cultural Revolution — has shaped him into the courageous, politicized artist he is. Incidentally, Indianapolis Art Museum is opening an Ai Weiwei retrospective on April 5.
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