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Guest of Cindy Sherman
What happens when a starfucker gets dumped by the star he's glommed onto? He makes a movie, of course, and screws that star some more.
Guest of Cindy Sherman is a documentary that has a split-personality, but that ultimately engenders a very specific reaction. On one side, it's a legitimate story of an art fan and amateur journalist who finds love with a major artist; on the other side, it's self-aggrandizement at its worst. Paul H-O is a video addict. In the early 1990s, he started his own cable access show in New York. "Gallery Beat" lasted nearly a decade, with Paul and his comrades interviewing artists and filming gallery openings and art happenings. It's here that Paul developed his addiction, his need to constantly be in front of the camera--a contemporary malady, this deluded belief that each and every thing the afflicted does is worth documenting. The show is also the way Paul met Cindy Sherman, one of the most reclusive artists in the world. Sherman had made her career photographing herself in different scenes and outfits, effectively obliterating her own identity by creating a multitude of other identities.
Surprisingly, Sherman opened her studio doors to Paul, and the two of them hit it off. He filmed her multiple times, including getting footage of her at work. A relationship developed, and he moved in with her. Over the first half of Guest of Cindy Sherman, Paul and co-director Tom Donahue not only detail this relationship, but they also give a quick history lesson in Sherman's career. Commentators range from admirers and fellow artists, including Robert Longo and John Waters, to the principle cast of Cindy's movie Office Killer, and also Paul's parents and Cindy's brothers. It's affectionate and insightful, and as a crash course in Cindy Sherman, it manages to inform the viewer about her accomplishments while also exposing her personality to the world.
Then Guest of Cindy Sherman takes a sickening turn. It stops being about this love story and the joint pursuits of the central couple, and it starts to be about Paul H-O's bruised ego. The guy who we saw get giddy because he met someone famous begins to blame that person for being more famous than him. It turns out that this whole movie started because Paul was traveling on a story about a seating card at a dinner party where he no longer had a name, he was "guest of Cindy Sherman." How dare he not be acknowledged for who he is!
Here the documentary becomes a self-reflexive exercise. Paul talks about making the movie and how it ended up causing Cindy to become estranged from him. Why wouldn't she? I can't imagine anyone watching Guest of Cindy Sherman and not siding with the absent artist (she smartly does not participate in the project). Paul is a freeloader who, unhappy with his helping of recognition, decides to grab for more at the expense of a person he professes to care about. To justify his feelings, he even ropes in other male "wives" of well-known entertainers--Elton John's husband David Furnish and writer Panio Gianopoulos, who is married to actress Molly Ringwald, one of the stars of Office Killer. They share their own stories of feeling unimportant next to their spouses. I suppose it's to his credit that Paul also shows footage of being raked over the coals by a pair of radio DJs whom he turned to hoping they'd validate his tantrum; instead, they call him out of for his obvious sexism. Judging by how little significance Paul gives their views, I'm guessing this is him and Donahue taking the obvious step in the editing bay rather than any honest self-examination, a default concession to giving the alternate point of view its equal time.
I realize that this review has a precarious balance on the line between critiquing the movie for what it is and staging a personal attack on the filmmaker. This is the weird conundrum of our times, when reality is a scripted experience and anyone with access to a camera can be subject of their own programmable channel. Where is the division between Paul H-O the documentarian and Paul H-O the subject? Is not Guest of Cindy Sherman a personal journal presented as a glorified self-portrait? I'd argue that Paul has dropped any artifice and is putting his life on our television screens and computer monitors and asking us to be a part of it and form our opinion. Though I am sure he is really hoping we will join his pity party and tell him he's right, such a plea comes with the risk that we will disagree. There is some irony to the fact that Cindy Sherman has made this film possible, and yet it's exactly the opposite of the kind of art she would produce herself. Her work is all about burying one's own self in the subject; Paul H-O is the only subject, and he stands right in front of his art, eclipsing it with his massive ego. (Is there some significance to the fact that the last photography collection Sherman put together while with H-O was on the subject of clowns?)
It's amazing to me how quickly my opinion about Guest of Cindy Sherman changed. At its start, it was a quirky, seemingly fun documentary that wore its amateur status on its sleeve as a way to break down the wall between the snooty art world and the more down-to-earth existence of the average art consumer. Paul H-O's "Gallery Beat" began in cable access, and it was very much of the same spirit and totally laudable for being so. The cheap production values lose their charm, however, as it becomes increasingly clear that the film's intentions are just as cheap, and then it just gets icky. I imagine this is how Cindy Sherman felt as her relationship unraveled: it began as cute and harmless and full of possibilities, but now it's clear that was a naïve impression and it was a mistake to ever let it get started.
The widescreen image (1.78:1) of Guest of Cindy Sherman reflects its lo-fi origins. The quality of the filmmaking is all over the place, and there is no consistency to how interviews are lit or shot. So, not all problems with the video presentation are errors in how the disc was put together, one has to consider the source material; that being said, this isn't a very high-end DVD. The picture resolution is extremely soft, and there is lots of interlacing and jagged edges. It's not unwatchable, and honestly, I didn't think the film deserved any better care, but for those who are sticklers for A/V presentation, Guest of Cindy Sherman is not a good looking disc.
The sound mix is a low-key and centered, and the simplicity helps keep the audio clear even when the source material is wonky. (Some of the more mumbly bits are helpfully subtitled.)
Once you get through the rather Spartan and un-appealing menus, you will find a ton of extra features. Unsurprisignly, up first is a 17-minute focus on "The Filmmakers," which begins with a defense of the film's intentions and, surprise, more info about Paul H-O. If you aren't already annoyed by the time you get here, you very well might be once you finish watching this featurette.
Other extras include a bunch of interview snippets from the cutting room floor: two scenes with Carol Kane sharing stories of working with Cindy on the movie set, including one with Jeanne Tripplehorn and one of Kane looking back over photos that inspired her performance; individual extra bits with performers/filmmakers John Waters, Eric Bogosian, and Danny Devito; and also more with artists and art commentators Robert Longo, Sean Landers and Michelle Reyes-Landers, Eric Fischl, Cecily Brown, and Roberta Smith.
There are two clips from the "Gallery Beat" series: just under 7 minutes of Spencer Tunick's first appearance on the show, shot at the UN; and 5-and-a-half minutes of the intro to the very first episode of the program. Ironically, in that intro, H-O tells his viewers that some interviewees won't be identified...because he can't remember their names. Maybe those folks should go make a film about how unimportant they feel.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.
Also included is an 8-page booklet with photos, chapter listings and an extras guide, a Salon.com review, a director's statement, and a list of places the movie played. The packaging is a cardboard book with a plastic tray for the DVD and a pocket for the booklet. The chapters are also printed on there.
I can't in good conscience suggest you do anything but Skip It. To support Guest of Cindy Sherman seems akin to lending one's support to someone's bad boyfriend who refuses to go away. This documentary that purports to be about the relationship between an art fan and one of the world's most famous modern artists is really just a vehicle for that fan to create his own mythology. It left me feeling sick. If this were a reality television show starring an empty-headed heiress or a fading pop singer with a sex tape, it would be instantly rejected as being a shallow celebration of lowered ambitions and expectations; don't let its association with a legitimate artist cloud your assessment of this movie. Guest of Cindy Sherman is a vanity project, pure and simple--and yet one that has nothing of substantial value to feel vain about.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
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