Stealing the Scene

Laurie Simmons, My Art, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes. Ellie (Laurie Simmons).

WHEN LAURIE SIMMONS’S new film My Art was screened at the Whitney Museum last fall, the artist and now movie director accompanied it with a talk in which she remarked on how few films had gotten the business of being an artist right. Indeed, so many films which have gotten it wrong come to mind—we probably all have our own cheesy favorites—that the prospect of a movie on artmaking by a feminist artist of Simmons’s standing, and one that she not only directed but wrote and stars in, seems likely to draw murmurs of “At last.” Certainly when the film finds a distributor—it plays at the Tribeca Film Festival starting April 22—New York art audiences will find much to reward their viewing, but they will also, I think, be surprised: This is not the revealing look behind the scenes one might have imagined, but instead a kind of romance.

The film is about Ellie, an artist of a certain age—her sixties, she tells us at one point—who we first see roaming the Whitney’s new downtown building, looking at the large and canonized artworks on the walls, including a painting by Simmons’s real-life husband, Carroll Dunham. She soon bumps into a former student, played by Simmons’s real-life daughter Lena Dunham, who gives one of her usual bravely unsympathetic performances as a young artist whose career has surpassed her old teacher’s and whose every word masks condescension under false camaraderie. These opening scenes, which continue with Ellie’s end-of-semester pizza party for her students and with a visit to a more successful friend, Mickey (Blair Brown), are subtly dystopian, infused with gentle but cold observations of the life of a woman artist at a plateau of age and career. The mood changes dramatically, though, when Ellie leaves town for the summer, heading upstate to house-sit for another more successful friend. The mansion where she ends up (which I’m told is Simmons and Carroll Dunham’s own home in Connecticut) comes equipped with a studio, where she will produce her next body of work. Equally to the point, it has a beautiful garden.

Laurie Simmons, My Art, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes.

There is a literary genre, the pastoral comedy, exemplified by Shakespeare plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, that follows a general pattern: a beginning full of tension and stress in the city; an escape to the country (“Well, this is the forest of Arden,” as Rosalind helpfully tells us in As You Like It); a period of delirious confusion, with much theatrical play, gender-switching, posing and pretending, and trying on and taking off the social roles on offer; and finally a return to the city, whose order, having been upended and put back together again, is now more beneficial and accommodating to its human inhabitants. Rather to my surprise, as I watched the rural scenes in My Art, I kept thinking of those plays, and perhaps a little more to my surprise, when I asked Simmons about this, she confirmed that she’d been thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as modern cinematic pastorals including Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and the musical and film Steven Sondheim based on it, A Little Night Music (1973/1977). The pastoral link arises through the nature of Ellie’s work, which she describes as “stuff about memory and longing, nostalgia,” and which turns out to involve dress-up and the re-creation and filming of iconic scenes from well-known movies. Ellie begins alone in her borrowed studio, mimicking the tuxedo-wearing Marlene Dietrich of Morocco (1930), but before long she enlists people she meets locally, including Frank (Robert Clohessy), the gardener on the estate; John (John Rothman), the father of one of her students back in New York; and Tom and Angie (Josh Safdie and Parker Posey), characters recalling Puck’s “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under Ellie’s direction, in various combinations, the crew starts to reenact scenes from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), among other films. They have a wonderful time—Ellie records it all—and what do you know, a dealer offers her a show.

Yet Ellie’s return to New York—despite the success of her project, and despite her clear solidarity with other women artists—feels somehow sad and depleted. The scenes upstate, on the other hand, are magical, full of music and a liberating fluidity of identity, though not without a little danger and risk to give the proceedings weight. (A wonderful touch involves Ellie’s aging dog Bing, who one night vanishes down the dark lawn toward the sound of what Ellie calls a “coyote party”; we are enormously relieved when he comes teetering back.) In this way, My Art frames itself as an examination of an artist’s social condition, its tensions and contradictions and dissatisfactions—all of which are redeemed, though, in a statement of an artist’s love affair with making art.

My Art plays April 22, 23, 27, 29, and 30 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.