Artists' Dream Machines: The Films of Longo, Salle and Clark
Dike Blair

This year saw the release of films by Robert Longo (Johnny Mnemonic), David Salle (Search and Destroy) and Larry Clark (Kids), and next year will see Julian Schnabel's biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat (Build a Fort, Set It on Fire) and Cindy Sherman's slasher film (yet to be titled). With the exception of Longo, who has made a handful of music videos and a small-budget film, all these artists are trying their hand at directing for the first time, all are roughly of the same generation and all acquired near celebrity status during the 80's art world bonanza. Many artists have made films that circulate within an art world context and which, at their most successful, find their way to the art-house and college circuit. These films are quite different. They are produced by the film industry instead of the artist and they are made for release to the general public. As such they constitute a new relationship between the artist, the audience and the medium.

Robert Longo's film, Johnny Mnemonic is a big-budget (although not by sci-fi-action-film standards) studio-produced movie. The screenplay was written by William Gibson and very loosely based on his short story by the same title. Johnny (Keanu Reeves) is a courier, a sort of human floppy disk, whose silicone-augmented brain gets loaded with sensitive information that clients don't want to trust to the phone lines. Johnny gets loaded with secret data (the cure for NAS--Neural Attenuation Syndrome--an AIDS-type plague) that certain powerful interests (a drug corporation and the Yakuza) don't want revealed. So Johnny is hunted by nasty assassins (Dolph Lundgren) and protected by colorful underground types (Henry Rollins, Ice-T and Dina Meyer). Johnny has uploaded beyond his capacity and has only 24 hours to download before his head explodes.

Johnny Mnemonic is not only the biggest budget (roughly $26 million) of the artist/director films it is also, in many ways, the most ambitious--for the simple reason that Longo set out to make a Hollywood movie instead of an auteur film. Longo's tales of creative disputes with Tri-Star are as old as the Hollywood hills, and more harrowing than the plot of his film. I had the opportunity to see two different cuts of the movie so I saw just a few of the changes forced upon Longo--changes distinctly for the worse. The small budget independent production that Longo and Gibson had originally conceived would probably have resulted in a more interesting film; but despite their oft repeated tale that it is easier to raise $25 million than $1 million, it is clear that both Longo and Gibson were seduced by the possibilities offered by the money--and not all of the film's problems can be blamed on Tri-Star. This is the first of Gibson's works to be realized on film but over the last decade and during the seven years it took Longo to get the film made, his novels have been ransacked for inspiration and imagery by every science fiction comic book artist, TV writer and film maker. It seemed as if Longo and Gibson wanted to ignore this and so, with some exceptions, the texture of the film, sets, costumes etc., have a clich├ęd dystopic look. Longo's static work has always referenced pop culture. The challenge here was to create rather than quote and he gave us very little in those terms. To be fair, Hollywood has borrowed from Longo (remember the stasis block in Return of the Jedi) but Hollywood can do this sort of thing effortlessly. The scale and bombast of Longo's creations, his signature in the art world, are the norm in almost any Hollywood production. Gibson worked closely with Longo during the whole film which was promoted more on Gibson's reputation than on Longo's, but the press has been very hard on Longo while leaving Gibson unscathed. Although I am a fan, Gibson's dialogue, which is adequate in the novels, works terribly on screen. His trademark sympathetic, small-time, anti-hero hustler is missing as well. Johnny is so flat (OK, he has had half his brain removed) that there was little that Longo and Reeves could do to make him sympathetic. It's worth noting that in the recent film, Strange Days, director Katherine Bigelow and screenwriter James Cameron succeed in capturing Gibson better than he does himself.

There are some inspired moments in the film--especially the incorporation of special effects. The opening sequence which follows the delivery of a wake-up call through the switchboard into Johnny's retina is really smart. When Longo's art is re-interpreted by the special effects artists, then a really interesting feedback loop between Longo's art and film is established. Also, Longo's use of violence is fresh and direct--and one of Gibson's creations that hasn't been ripped-off is a very cool molecular knife that Longo uses to good effect. In the end the film is a success by studio standards (it will make money) and even though it deserved the bad reviews, Longo did succeed in making a large film that played to a mainstream audience.

David Salle's Search and Destroy is a dark comedy adapted from the Howard Korder play of the same name. It is the story of the mid-life crisis of a small-time media guy, Martin Mirkheim (Griffin Dunne). He owes the government a large chunk of money in back taxes, his marriage has gone bad and he feels need to scratch his name on the door of life. His search for meaning and a solution to his frustrated ambition have put him under the spell of a televangelist/confidence artist, Dr. Waxling (Dennis Hopper). Martin's big scheme is to produce a film based on Waxling's motivational novel "Daniel Strong," but he doesn't have the cash to give Waxling for the rights--his search for money is the engine that drives the rest of the story. Martin links his ambitions to those of Waxling's receptionist, Marie (Illeana Douglas), who is also trying to produce a film--hers an ultra-gruesome horror flick, "Dead World." Martin and Marie's search for production money leads them to a shady businessman (Christopher Walken) and a hyper-active drug dealer (John Turturro). From thereon, the film is reduced to a string of scenes that progress from mayhem to murder and, finally, a suitably happy ending.

In New York, Search and Destroy had a small release but a long run. It got mixed reviews but everyone agreed that the "look" of Search and Destroy was one of the best things about it. Salle's experience with set design translates well to the screen--his low-budget solutions to location problems are ingenious and visually striking. The films-within-the-film are very funny and Illeana Douglas's performance is great. However, the film is often pretentious and actors' performances ridiculously theatric. The over-the-top acting by Turturro and Walken beg for a firmer directorial hand. As the film devolves into absurdity and chaos so does the cinematic syntax and, although I would guess that it's a calculated formal device, it doesn't work. To make an unfair comparison, Scorsese's (the executive producer of Search and Destroy) King of Comedy does it better. In Salle's painting, the meaning is always in question; the juxtapositions are intellectually promiscuous, random and detached--almost as if Salle himself has little responsibility for the interaction of the images he so fastidiously directs. At times it seemed as if, after determining that he had the actors to act the screenplay, Salle just let chance have its way.

Of the three artist/director films, Salle's is the most intellectual and most reliant on being considered as an auteur film. Martin's confused ambition, Waxling's charlatanism, Walken's cold calculation and Turturro's hustle are all facets of Salle's art world persona, and the underlying irony and aloofness that flavor the film are all part of his aesthetic. Salle's early paintings always reminded me of Peter Handke's stories and Wim Wenders' films, they provoked a beautiful psychic nausea. His later works are more evocative of writer/director Quentin Tarantino--they have become more mannered and cynical, wilder and bigger--I wish this was more evident in his film.

This brings us to Larry Clark's Kids, the most successful of these films in terms of matching vision with scale. The plot line is simple and takes place as we follow a group of teenagers over a 24 hour period. 14-year-old Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick) is obsessed with deflowering virgins. What he doesn't know is that one of his conquests, Jenny (Chloe Sevigny), has just tested HIV-positive and she hasn't been with anyone but Telly. Jenny searches for Telly to inform him he is HIV-positive while Telly is actively seducing his latest pursuit, Ruby (Rosario Dawson). Kids is the story of how a group of New York City teens, neither poor nor affluent, spend a summer day (like more traditional teen vacation-movies, Clark's kids are free of the clutter of family and school). We follow these kids as they look for recreation during summer in the city--smoking pot, skate boarding, stealing, drinking, fighting and fucking.

The camera work in Kids is simple and fluid; and is much less reliant on the static tableaus to which Longo and Salle were over-prone. It's shot in the fake docu-drama style of many current TV series and advertisements, with camera wobble and jumpy cuts. Clark's wobble and edits, however, aren't as gratuitous--his budget was low and he was chasing teenagers. The screenplay, written by 21-year-old Harmony Korine, has the authenticity of current urban teen vernacular. Clark also got incredible performances from very young actors and non-actors alike.

Clark and the film's distributors were smart enough to exploit a lot of free publicity generated by a ratings dispute and problems between the distribution company (Miramax) and its parent company (Disney). To an art world audience, particularly those familiar with Clark's photos, video tapes and collages, there is nothing particularly shocking or scandalous about his obsession with adolescent sex and drugs. To a mainstream audience, however, who think a teenage film is something to be "understood" like some sort of John Hughs childrearing manual, it was. Even though Clark has stated that he "wanted to make the Great American Teen-age film" Kids is really an auteur film. Kids is more a product of Clark's obsession with adolescence than a film about adolescence--Clark's kids are as typical of teens as Clark is typical of middle-aged film makers. My problems with the film have something to do with honesty. Clark creates documentary-style fictions in his collage work and the kids of Kids are not much different from those in Tulsa or Teenage Lust--but something about the film's pseudo-documentary style, its self-conscious provocativeness, Clark's descriptions of being down with cast and the marketing of the film rang false. That reaction, however, is partially due to things outside of the film, to the controversy that became larger than the film itself.

The main ingredients of all three films reduce to those of the artist/director's static work. Longo is preoccupied with scale and media-dynamics. Salle organizes an amalgam of images that are simultaneously tasteful, detached and disturbing. Larry Clark offers up his edgy adolescent obsession. Although I can't speculate as to the actual content of the Schnabel or Sherman film, I am sure they will reduce to the following; Sherman's film will deal with identity and the relationship between the perceiver, the perceived and the medium. Schnabel's will paint the mythic heroic artist in romantic and grandiose strokes. Small films now stand just as much chance as large ones to become runaway hits. No longer is the "interesting failure" cut slack because it is a small production--all productions are playing for the same stakes. I think that the three artists films already released are, to varying degrees, interesting failures. It can be taken into account that they are first time attempts, but they should not be excused because they are made by artists. Unlike the art world where an artist can maintain a hostile stance toward his audience, the film world requires paying customers. The unpredictability of this heightened, market-driven criticism should be greeted with enthusiasm by the art world.

So why do films directed by artists, pretty much of one generation with little, or no, previous experience in film-making, all appear at once? The answer to that kind of question, especially in America and especially in the entertainment industry, is money. The aforementioned financial and critical success of small, auteur-type films (beginning with sex, lies and video tape in 1989, to last year's Pulp Fiction) has led to a proliferation of small independent companies which are actively churning out films. Independent companies that used to make action adventure knock-offs are also seeking legitimacy by getting "artistic." After all, it's just about as easy to make a knock-off of Pulp Fiction as it is of Die Hard. This moment will probably not last long. A similar phenomena occurred when the music industry got stagnant in the 70's--small labels and amateurish bands flourished briefly before being absorbed by the majors. Independent film companies are now being co-opted by the big studios and remain independent in name only. But, for now, independent films are hip and profitable, so in the search for worthwhile projects to develop, gambling relatively small amounts of money on artists becomes sound business. In an industry where almost every decision is collaborative if not corporate, there is great mystique attached to the notion of the solitary artist who calls his own shots. This mystique can be a factor in getting top talent to offer their services cheaply. Dennis Hopper and Martin Scorsese were fans of Salle's paintings before they considered him a potential collaborator. When both got behind the project, Salle was able to assemble a remarkably big name cast for his low-budget production. Longo tells a story of gaining greater cooperation from Keanu Reeves after Dennis Hopper told Reeves that he should consider himself lucky to work with one of today's 10 great artists.

Money alone doesn't explain what is happening--it only provides opportunity. These artist/directors belong to a generation that cut its teeth on Marshall McLuhan and Andy Warhol. In the 80's they entertained a romance with communication technologies and the possibility of reaching an audience beyond the hermetic 70's art world. Each artist has their own very personal agenda, but they are all media savvy and actively reference, criticize and exploit the media--especially the cinema. Longo brings sci-fi and noir into the white box. Salle injects sophisticated imagery into a pop-collage format to get an effect that is cerebrally cinematic. Clark's early photographs could almost have been stills from Warhol films--his newer River Phoenix obsessive work is directly connected to Hollywood fanzine. Sherman is almost as well known for her earliest film stills as all her later images. Even a case like Schnabel, whose success was reliant, in part, on the backlash against the media's eclipse of painting and painters, used his ambition and charisma to become a media star--a romantic caricature of the artist. The industrial age image of the unrestrained artist replays with great success on the post-industrial age's marquee. Almost all these artists practice what Warhol preached: the fastest way to America's heart is through celebrity.

Americans' new appetite for the independent film corresponds not only to their boredom with the Hollywood formula but also to their ability to identify with the smaller dramas spun out by smaller dream machines. The small film was something that an audience liked because it was small, a secret for those in-the-know. Identification is the key to a products' popularity so consumer America has marketed the notion of exclusivity--everyone can exclusively identify with products like micro brewery beer and "alternative" rock. One device that allows an audience to identify with art is the narrative. Modernism repressed the narrative in plastic art so the audience had to go elsewhere to find stories (or they reveled the "story" of the artist). Artist/director's films and the resurgence of video art are eruptions of narrative expression in the art world that is probably healthy for the artist and audience alike.

In our electronic age everyone is potentially a participant, whether confessing a sexual kink on a talk show or designing ones' very own home-page on the World Wide Web. The shift is on from zombie to player, from observer to actor. This creates more need for directors and editors. Over this century a certain kind of artist (I invite the reader to label artists like Longo, Salle and Clark) has progressively assumed the roles of director, editor and critic. It is common for an artist to have a number of collaborators for the production of their works. Directing crews and managing the distribution of their work has replaced much of the craft formerly associated with art-making (traditional forms of art-making don't die but the language becomes increasingly specific and coherent to a constantly diminishing audience). Editing groups of images, pre-existing or not, is as important as the making of single images. The theme of the group show overshadows the contributions of the individual artists--although most curators deny it, they are functioning as artists. These are reasons why, it has always seemed to me, Disney is a more significant artist than one like Picasso (noting that arguments about high vs. low become progressively meaningless with the passage of time). Since what Longo, Salle and Clark have been doing all along in the art world matches the job description of the auteur film-maker, it's only appropriate that they finally get to say, "Cut and Print."