PRINT May 1998


High Art and Pecker

MOVIES ABOUT ARTISTS and their demimondes are notoriously unreliable. We’re not talking old-style Hollywood productions about the titanic geniuses of yore; such fare as The Agony and the Ecstasy, often screened on Ted Turner’s invaluable American Movie Classics cable network, has seen me through many predawn insomniac hours. More contemporary efforts focusing on artists, dealers, or collectors—e.g., Legal Eagles, 9 1/2 Weeks, Wall Street—have been miserable failures from the standpoint of art-world reality. (True, only those who are at best naïf go to any movie in search of la vérité, and I don’t mean four-hour Frederick Wiseman documentaries.) In recent years, Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat perhaps came closest to a believable re-creation of a certain milieu at a particular moment. In the early ’80s, the art world was taking off as a mediagenic cesspool of money-grubbing, drug-addled crazies, and given that so many of the real-life models for Basquiat’s principals flirted with or wallowed in autoparody, the extravagant high jinks seemed more credible than usual.

Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art and John Waters’ Pecker are the latest attempts to depict a recognizable sub–Fourteenth Street scene filled with eccentrics, geniuses, and opportunists. Cholodenko’s effort features Syd (Radha Mitchell), the archetypal overworked and underpaid editorial factotum at Frame magazine. She apparently lives in the East Village, where she discovers one day that her upstairs neighbor is the formerly famous, now underground photo-star Nan Goldin—oops, I mean Lucy Berliner (in a nice touch, she’s played by Brat Packer Ally Sheedy, famous from The Breakfast Club, War Games, and St. Elmo’s Fire). Of course, one thing leads to another. Syd helps relaunch the somewhat reluctant Lucy’s career at Frame . . . their collaboration inexorably moves beyond the strictly professional . . . desire, loss, heartache, etc. The movie’s art direction and lighting consciously imitate the style of Goldin’s photographs, and faux Goldins produced by JoJo Whilden (listen up, Chelsea gallerists) stand in for Lucy’s work. But whereas High Art openly traffics in identifiable personas, Waters insists his film is “not about Nan Goldin, or Jack Pierson, or anyone else you think you know. It’s about the problems of being the subject of modern photography, and other people’s expectations of the artist.” If anything, Waters’ protagonist seems to have a Richard Billingham–esque cast: “A blue-collar kid from Baltimore takes pictures of his broken-down family,” he explains. “He gets discovered by a New York dealer, and suddenly is transformed into the latest New York art star.” With his finely tuned ear for perversity, Waters may be the ideal director to capture the true local oddities of the art world and its habitués.