If DVD is responsible for any real change in the motion picture landscape, it's in the area of marketing and distribution. Where once the major studios controlled the availability of content (with a few outsider VHS companies desperate for some retail attention) the new technology and format has seen a seemingly endless stream of independent and homemade product hitting store shelves. Most are sloppy horror films or the kind of skate rat stunt shows that make Jackass look like genius. A few are actually fine, informative features. Perhaps the biggest boon has come in the realm of the documentary. Where once this viable cinematic genre was left to discovery by the arthouse and college crowd, DVD now provides a broader, more mainstream audience. As a result, subjects that would otherwise go unnoticed finally get the due they so richly deserve. Ron English is such a topic. This 'artivist' (part artist, part activist) has created a classic and controversial portfolio of ideologically impressive work. Sadly, without the digital format, his sensational story may have gone untold. Thanks to Cinema Libre Studios, and their release of POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English, we get an in-depth look at this good-natured advertising 'revolutionary'.
Considered by scholars to be a "culture jamming and billboard liberating" spokesman for the individual, Ron English has spent most of his adult life in the visual mediums of painting and photography. Yet it's only in the last few years that his public awareness really blossomed. With his art featured as part of the famous Absolut Vodka ad campaign, and his efforts gracing the cover of the Dandy Warhol's Welcome to the Monkey House, English has endeavored to spread his self-proclaimed "agit-pop" style of expression to as many people as possible. A perfect example of this approach can be seen in Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. English contributed a collection of visual images that skewered McDonald's and its surreal spokesman, the creepy clown Ronald McDonald. In fact, most of what English does is directly aimed at the advertising community and their corruption of communication for the sake of a sale. English is like a creative consumer advocate, painting responses to well known campaigns and using corporate icons as a means of modifying what he sees as a fraudulent and flawed media end. The results are always contentious, and tend to get him in trouble especially when he commandeers local billboards and puts his own efforts on top.
If Madison Avenue ever had a true diabolical nemesis, his name would be Ron English. An incredibly talented painter and photographer, able to capture the essence of pop art perfectly in his commentary-filled canvases, English is a man on a mission. Hoping to act as a benevolent buffer for all the bullspit being spewed by the media and its most mediocre marketing ploy the commercial poster English envisions a world where truth sits side by side with hype, allowing consumers to judge the validity of both for themselves. With targets as famous as McDonalds and as infamous as the current war-mongering governmental regime, this prickly protester enjoys stirring things up. His typical approach to self-expression finds him "stealing" private property, "hijacking" an already rented billboard and placing his own homemade placards in place of the advertising already at hand. More times than not he gets away with it. Sometimes, he spends a night or two in jail. There have been situations, however, where battling the big boys has cost him more than his liberty. They have undermined his faith in the First Amendment and the ability of expression to be truly and unadulterated free.
English's images, overloaded with finely honed reflections of the modern merchandising mindset and recognizable pop culture imagery, just beg to be confronted. After all, this is a man who posits Ronald McDonald as an obese proto-pedophile, playing on the nutritional naivetι of its target pre-teen audience to sell them everything from fake dairy shakes to processed chicken part nuggets. He dismisses war as the work of power hunger politicians who only consider their fat cat friends when determining battle plans, and enjoys contrasting opposing imagery (life with death, pain with pleasantry) to underscore the importance of an issue. Perhaps his most famous talent tirade along with his continued attack on Mikey D's is his lung-killing look at Joe Camel and the tobacco industry. Turning the butt toking dromedary into a nicotine addicted adolescent, English eradicated the ridiculous ruse of the products proposed target audience adults and, instead, illustrated how "cool" only plays to the prepubescent. His relentless artistic ambushes, plastered on billboards all over New York and New Jersey, lead to all manner of responses gawking, agreeing, anger. In fact, it's safe to say that, without the reaction, English's art is just pure personal party lines. By creating a counterpoint to the mainstream positions taken on politics, on iconography, on misrepresentation, and on full fledged fraud, the artist creates an indirect communication. And it is through this forged contact that the real aesthetic purpose of his labors can be achieved.
Hats off to director Pedro Cavajal and his guerilla style of documentary filmmaking. He captures English in his element all accomplishment, all ego and all exposed. English does not shy away from the tough issues, and we get to hear how he feels about his "crimes" and his family's reaction to his regular arrests. There is also a hint of self-righteous indignation in what this man does, especially when he has to defend the defacing of other people's paid-for property. One can easily see the big picture that the artist is on about, but thanks to Cavajal's fly on the wall approach, we often witness situations where the grandeur of seizing as sign more or less overwhelms the rather obvious message English has manufactured. Indeed, some of his ideas are shoddy and outrageous for the sake of their own inherent shock value. Many might even dismiss his concepts as the reactionary rantings of a man only creatively capable of using other people's imagery to manufacture his own. Still the substance is so powerful, and the contravention so pointed, that it's hard not to fall under English's influence. While we see other maverick groups who use similar tactics to undermine the Establishment message, none do it as well, as wantonly and as wickedly as Ron English. If his art is indeed a crime, than it is a felony that everyone with half an intellect should commit on a daily basis. If they did, this world would be a better place or, at the very least, a less brainwashed one.
Presented in a pristine 1.33:1 digital image, the transfer of POPaganda is terrific. The authenticity offered via this personalized presentation, the 'you are there' element of involvement, really works in this film's favor. Certainly there are times when the archival footage lets the visuals down (especially in a sequence taken from the old Morton Downey Jr. Show from the late '80s), but overall, this is an excellent off the cuff creation.
Just as good as the video, the aural elements here are equally admirable. The Dolby Digital Stereo mix is occasionally hampered by ancillary sonics picked up by the internal microphone of the hand held camera mostly wind, traffic noises and various urban street sounds. Still, it doesn't distract from the conversations or discussions. The music is also amazing, a collection of English's own tracks including work with the trouble pop troubadour Daniel Johnston. The tunes help to emphasize the playful mood of the movie, and add just the right note of musical mischievousness to the subject matter.
Overloaded with added content, the bonus features included are practically another movie in themselves. There are about a dozen deleted or extended scenes, focusing on aspects of English's life and career including working with the Dandy's, a recent trip to the Middle East, and a music video for his collaboration with Johnston, "Tommorrow's Child". There is also an art gallery featuring a series of English's paintings, accessible DVD-Rom material, and some Internet exclusives. Perhaps the best extra offered is a clever, cutting commentary by English and the editor of the film, Kevin Chapados. After a slow start, both participants really get into the swing of things and start dishing dirt and dropping names. It's an amazing listen and a considered complement to this already engrossing film.
From his terrific trick photography at the start of his career to his continual obsession with subjects as strange as his cartoon character versions of Picasso's "Guernica" (one featuring the Simpsons is just sensational) English is much more than just a billboard bandit with a penchant for screwing with corporate consumerism. Thanks to this Highly Recommended documentary, we see that there is much more to this antagonistic artist than making fun the nutritional value of fast food or the cancer causing agents in cigarettes. In fact, if that is all there is to English's legacy, then this film and its director have not done their job. Sure, English is a serious foil to all the false securities sold to us in the advertising presented as part of capitalism's commercial concepts. But he is also a pure cultural critic and a visionary unbound by the normal means of communication. His canvases are not just complex, they're cries for recognition. The sooner we see what he does, the better off will be
or, at the very least, that's what English, and POPaganda are trying to tell us. Or is that SELL us.
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