PRINT Summer 1994


the Most Moving Pictures

WHICH MOTION PICTURES move the art world—art house experiments? Hollywood blockbusters? ’50s weepies? We asked artists, filmmakers, an actress, and a museum director which screen gems rocked their sensibilities.

Those quizzed reeled off their favorites. Indeed, the telephone responses were not only animated but surprisingly off-the-cuff considering I’d never met most of those interviewed before. Film serves as both intellectual and social common ground; everyone, it seems, loves to talk movies. Tastes varied, but certain favorites made repeat appearances. Andy Warhol showed up three times. Whitney Museum Director David Ross, who made the Warhol-esque claim that he’ll not only watch virtually anything but that he values all films equally, cited the artist as “one of the great cinema geniuses of our century”; artist Paul McCarthy credited him as a seminal influence; and painter Julian Schnabel revealed that Gary Oldman may well play the king of Pop (Dracula as Drella) in his own film of the life of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Richard Linklater’s Slacker scored with both Ross and downtown-performance-diva-turned-film-star Ann Magnuson, cementing its status as the zeitgeist feature of the ’90s. Surprise picks included Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon; though it bombed at the American box office, the film found its way into the canons of both Schnabel and filmmaker Christopher Münch (The Hours and Times). Finally, virtually everyone (if you count the outtakes) seemed to concur with our expresident from Georgia, who confessed to have screened Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind six times during his tenure at the White House.

While our respondents shared some rarefied enthusiasms that might well test the attention spans of lesser esthetes, the immediacy of their responses would seem to confirm Susan Sontag’s contention that “most people still go to the movies in a high-spirited and unpretentious way.”

CHRISTOPHER MÜNCH (film director): Among the films I love most are Days of Heaven by Terence Malick, Buster Keaton’s The General, and a number of Bergman’s films, especially Persona and Winter Light. These I see over and over. Love Streams by John Cassavetes really puts one in another world; sometimes I watch it when I’m ill, don’t ask me why. Sunday Bloody Sunday never stops astonishing me, ditto Sidney Lumet’s film of The Book of Daniel. Satyajit Ray’s Asban Sankett (Distant Thunder) and Antonioni’s La Notte are much loved but seldom seen. The poetry of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is hard to beat—a fact of which I often remind myself. When I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a young man, it really enthralled me, though I can’t say that it affects me now in the same way.

A few of my favorite moments from other films include the candlelit dance scenes in Ray’s Jahlsagar (The music room), the scenes in Blow-Up of the windswept meadow in Maryon Park (which really sounds that way), the scene in Barry Lyndon of the hero’s son on his deathbed, the Villa of the Suicides in Fellini’s Satyricon, and young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II singing to himself in his Ellis Island quarantine room. In fact the cameraman Gordon Willis has inspired me as much as any director—something about the way he finds clarity in everything he shoots.

JULIAN SCHNABEL (artist): The Godfather I and II. These films are beautifully acted, beautifully photographed, beautifully directed. They kind of succeed on every level. The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo. The Mystery of Kasper Hauser (Or Every Man for Himself and God Against All) by Werner Herzog. Pixote by Hector Babenco. The 400 Blows. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Lolita. Accattone! by Pasolini. 1900 and Last Tango in Paris by Bertolucci. Shoeshine by Vittorio De Sica. Raging Bull by Marty Scorsese. Marty’s a great director. There is always something to learn from his films. Luis Buñuel is one of my favorite directors, especially for Los Olvidados and Viridiana. And Bertrand Blier—Get Out Your Handkerchiefs and Going Places. Luis Buñuel was an artist. Man Ray made films. Some of the most beautiful images I’ve seen in a film were from Joseph Cornell.

As I start working on my own film, which deals with the relationship of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, I see images—for example, this image of Union Square filmed by Joseph Cornell comes to mind. In my film, Jean-Michel might be riding across Union Square on a bicycle, going from, say, his place to Andy’s. (I think Gary Oldman’s going to play Warhol). He looks up, and for a while you just see these sparrows flying around, and they don’t really light on any of the leaves. They just kind of flow with the wind; you don’t know where you are. The style of the column in the middle of Union Square Park makes you think for a moment that it might be Rome, but then, as the camera pans around, you see the Mays sign and you know you’re on 14th Street.

I love the movies. There are some films that have done as much for me as any painting, as much as the Rothko Chapel or the Capella dei Scrovegni of Giotto, in Padua.

DAVID ROSS (director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York): I have a particular attitude about films—I love watching them, yet I hardly distinguish between good and bad ones. I’ll watch just about any film and I enjoy them more or less equally. They’re so much a part of my life that when I’m asked which film influenced me most, it’s like being asked, What was your favorite meal? Or, What bath do you remember most fondly?

I guess one film that did take up a lot of my life—I saw it a number of times, thought about it, talked about it, wrote about it—was Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s seven-hour epic Our Hitler. It marked an important turning point for me because it dealt with the implications of evil and the way our world is constructed, not necessarily by the heroic actions of individuals, but by the evolution of a sensibility within a people, within a civilization. This may seem like an odd choice coming from someone who likes to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, but the way that show allows us to engage really bad B- and C-grade movies and understand the way they reflect late 20th-century culture says a lot about my approach to films generally.

Another film I liked a lot is Assault on Precinct 13, by John Carpenter. I assign it the same sort of exemplary status people frequently do Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I believe it stands as the definitive film about American xenophobia.

More recently, Richard Linklater’s Slacker impressed me. At first Slacker seemed to have absolutely no formal or narrative logic. There was a kind of wandering informed by some internal notion of desire, from narrative space to narrative space. But when you step back, you realize that the pattern of the city has emerged.

We’ve just closed a retrospective at the Whitney of Warhol’s films. His movies have often been considered less important than his painting, but I’m convinced he was one of the great cinema geniuses of this century.

Yvonne Rainer’s A Film about a Woman Who is right up in my top five. I’d put Richard Serra’s Railroad Turnbridge on my list too.

BARBARA KRUGER (artist): Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the first one), Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge, Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. . . , Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap; these are all movies I remember. Some of my favorite directors are people I remember for the entire body of their work, like Fassbinder, Fuller, and Hitchcock of course. Did you see River’s Edge? It was incredible. A film like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing fills the bill; I think he’s an important American artist. I look for powerful collisions of pictures and words; I look for films about love, death, sex, color, power, and money—you know, what it’s like to be alive.

PAUL MCCARTHY (artist): In the late ’60s and ’70s, I was really influenced by experimental films. I was interested in the Stan Brakhages, the Peter Kubelkas, and the Kirk Krens; also Godard. I was very influenced by Warhol’s films—Trash, Flesh, also Empire and Sleep. I still like them; I show them at UCLA.

I also admired Michael Snow’s films—Wavelength, the spinning-camera film The Central Region. But in some ways, video kind of replaced the experimental-film world of that time. Now when I go to see movies, for the most part it’s Hollywood stuff. But in the late ’60s and early ’70s you really felt like you were seeing something new; that work was important to artists then.

I think Fassbinder was an interesting—maybe the most interesting—filmmaker. I like the way he was involved in what he was doing—the way he mixed his life and work together. Warhol’s early films were interesting in a similar way—a strange mix of life and art. I was looking forward to Jeff Koons’ movie, but I don’t think it was ever made.

I like to watch the process of films being made. The surrealism of the set, which is so convoluted and disjointed as an environment, exposes the facade of media, but is so mundane and matter-of-fact to those involved.

ANN MAGNUSON (performance artist, actress): This is like that desert-island-disc question. My mind turns to Jell-O. A kazillion of them—the usual suspects: Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Children of Paradise—everything you saw in Film School 101. There are some films I’ve caught on television over and over: All About Eve, Midnight Cowboy, The Magnificent Ambersons. Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!—all the usual kitsch fare that everyone loves. Dr. Strangelove. A Clockwork Orange. Once upon a Time in the West. Rosemary’s Baby was amazing. Also all the early films of Godard. Taxi Driver too.

I don’t see many new movies lately, because they all disappoint me. Ninety-nine per cent of the time, once I’ve seen the trailer, I figure Why see the film? At least with renting you can fast-forward. Larry Johnson has a pithy line he delivers à la Noel Coward: “I’m sorry, I don’t follow dominant cinema.” He says it with a wink, but my boyfriend Brad and I have adopted that attitude a little.

Virgin Spring—there’s one you can call an art movie. It has such a simplicity and beauty to it. The films of Charles and Ray Eames are also magical, very inspiring. And Ray Harryhausen—films that capture (I’m starting to sound like an ad for PBS) “Films that capture the imagination and teach us something about the human condition.” The Piano, on the other hand, is a commercial film parading as an art-house picture. Even with Schindler’s List people say, Oh, Spielberg didn’t use those tracking shots, he didn’t use all those little tricks he’s used before, therefore it has more artistic validity. I don’t necessarily buy that. I love Close Encounters. I loved The Trip. I love movies that I don’t even know the titles of—all of these really cheeseball movies you see on cable.

Slacker I liked. I’m a big documentary fan. Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven, about the pet cemetery, was fantastic. Rent it. I laughed my butt off. Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola’s documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, was pure genius. It’s better than Apocalypse Now! Gray Gardens was another brilliant documentary. I was thinking, Wouldn’t it be great to do a TV sitcom? Me and Joan Collins or Faye Dunaway. (Her show didn’t work.) We could play the holed-up mother-daughter pair.

Jeffrey Slonim’s column appears semiregularly in Artforum. He is a contributing editor at Allure and Interview.