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ARTPIX Notebooks: William Wegman Video Works 1970-1999

Other // G // March 9, 2006
List Price: $40.00 [Buy now and save at Microcinema]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted May 25, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
Casual art fans may not know William Wegman, but they most certainly do recognize his famous weimaraner, Man Ray. Born with a deadpan expression that would make Buster Keaton jealous and so photogenic that cameras did more than adore him - the lens literally found itself lost in the dog's deep, soulful expressions - Man Ray was supermodel material. In conjunction with his canine, Wegman created classic images that both perfectly spoofed and flawlessly captured the subject he was staging, from a traditional fairy tale to a comment of modern social norms. But while the still image intrigued him, Wegman was also interested in the advent of the latest in moving picture technology - the video tape machine. Owning one of the original reel to reel examples, he began crafting short films, experiments in content and context. Now, thanks to prestige label ARTPIX Notebooks, fans around the world can enjoy over four hours of Wegman's amazing works. Like many medium innovators before him, Wegman translated the language of magnetic tape and defined the parameters of its artistic abilities. His efforts here are funny, original, and on occasion, deeply profound.

The Plot:
Beginning In 1970, William Wegman used a wealth of imagination and a Sony CV ½" open reel to reel video tape machine to record a series of short films. This DVD, representing 11 reels, 29 years and 130 visual sketches, is a completely comprehensive look at Wegman's creative catalog. Since there is not enough time or space to list every installment here, let it be said that the two DVDs divide up the works, presenting six reels on Disc 1 (1970 - 1975), and five reels on Disc 2 (1975 - 1977, 1997 - 1999). A good place to learn more about the artist is via his website: While you will not find a listing of the available videos there, you will discover the wide ranging interests and mediums that this incredibly gifted man works in.

The DVD:
William Wegman was a true video pioneer. Though his efforts may have been disguised as the eccentric flailings of a far more accomplished artist, Wegman worked out many of the critical kinks to give the non-film facet a place in the visual world. An innovator and inventor, Wegman wanted to explore the outer reaches of the fledgling medium, looking beyond the obvious point and shoot scenarios to find the creative core of the technology. The closest individual one can compare him to is that savant of the '50s idiot box, the earnest Ernie Kovacs. Using the limits of the camera and the often problematic playback, Wegman worked simple jokes, surreal still lives, and crazed canine antics with his beloved dog Man Ray to establish the aesthetic criteria of video. Along with way, he found insights into the human condition, nods to the whole of cinematic language - from silent slapstick to dialogue-driven drama - and some previously unknown talents in his friends and family. At the very least, Wegman worked the ordinary and the typical into outrageous examples of humorous happenstance. At his worst, he was an onscreen researcher, letting his triumphs and his failures play out on the seemingly never ending reel of magnetic tape.

With over 130 works to wade through, it's difficult to deliver a verdict on each and every entry. Some obviously work better than others, while a few fail outright. A perfect example of Wegman's style can be found on the first DVD, the first chapter, the very first offering. Entitled "I got…" we see a pair of naked feet submerged in a standard cooking pot of water. As the unseen narrator lists the various material objects they own, the camera stays focused on the feet, never leaving them as they splash and play inside the liquid. Finally, the punchline is pulled - the voice makes it very clear that he has everything…except a swimming pool. The joke jolts us, since it doesn't make sense at first. But then we realize that we've been watching a relatively rich man using a pan of water as a spa substitute, and the humor hits us, hard. Many of Wegman's works affect us in a similar manner. They are tied to perception and linked to how we often unexpectedly fill in the blanks when ideas come at us solely based on visuals. When we see the artist tossing a coin, and then spinning his dog around (seemingly at random) we don't immediately make the connection between the hound's position and the result of the flip. After a while though, the recognition factor leads to the clever, winking comedy Wegman wants.

There are several brilliant examples of this strategy here. Man Ray makes the perfect foil for his master's concepts, since he's a creature of instinct. His reactions are honest, basic, and forged out of a genuine untainted curiosity. We see the dog trying to decipher the central conceit in the piece, and along with the animal, we too are draw into the scenario. There is a kind of juvenile pleasure in watching a puppy chase a microphone-laden stick, or carry around a light fixture in a completely darkened room. The idea here is that Wegman wants to challenge our acuity, to twist the way in which we see things to fit a premise that is particular to his designs. Talking directly to his canine comrade, explaining in great detail the various words the dog misspelled on his vocabulary test is classic, because it plays upon our preconceived notions of how said scenes usually play out. Then it adds the dog's flawless reactions as the ironic icing on the comic cake. Wegman works in words as well as images here, and sometimes his verbal acumen is less than successful. Little skits where individuals (both played by Wegman in mouth-only close-ups) discuss their opinion of bad movies, or some meaningless man on the street exchange, just don't resonate as well as the purely visual pieces. Indeed, when he relies on language to sell his satire, Wegman's works come up short.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this DVD presentation is that it functions as a voyeuristic view of Wegman's creative process. Not every piece here is perfect and polished. We see multiple takes in some instances, and at other times, Man Ray is put through his paces until he does the required action. All throughout the two disc set we see the artist trying things out, getting a feel for the medium and making headway into its unexplored aspects. When he does get a good handle on it, the efforts are spectacular. Other times, it's all bedlam and build-up before we get to several sensational payoffs. As he progressed, Wegman went from reel to reel monochrome to color cassette and then to mini-DV. There is a large gap here, over two decades (1977 to 1997) where, apparently, Wegman put down the video camera and picked up a Polaroid. In those twenty years, he became a legend. So it's interesting to watch the later pieces and compare them to his first forays. Sadly, they don't have as much staying power, playing like retreads of previously attempted ideas. There are more people than pooches and an over reliance on scripted scenes. Still, it puts a clever cap on the otherwise evocative world that Wegman created long before anyone knew what a VCR or VHS/Beta tape was. William Wegman's art may defy easy description, but his efforts are sublime simplicity to digest. Thanks to the digital domain, we have his work preserved for future fans to enjoy.

The Video:
Culled and remastered from the artist's own personal collection, the 1.33:1 monochrome images included as part of the first three quarters of the DVD presentation are excellent. When there are problems or flaws, they are almost always purposely done to forward Wegman's designs (like when he uses the electromagnetic signal from a hand mixer to screw up the tape imagery in one particular piece). While the black and white is more shades of gray than strict light and dark, and the details are fuzzy and poorly defined, we can still get the genuine gist of what Wegman was trying to do. The final third of the package is his later period work, and the digital camera transfers are practically pristine. The 1.33:1 image has excellent color and very controlled contrasts. It's interesting to see how the modern material pales in comparison artistically while it shines over the older material technically.

The Audio:
For many, the sound concepts employed by Wegman will be the most aurally problematic. He experimented with overmodulation, distortion, sonic shrillness and random recording gaffs. He let Man Ray mangle the mike to capture the cacophony of a dog devouring metal. Even his occasional musical interludes lack real ambience, and the technological limits of the medium make for the rare instance when we lose valuable verbal information. Still, the Dolby Digital Stereo is cleaned up and cared for as much as possible, the result being a professional, if often irritating, decibel dynamic.

The Extras:
While it would have been nice to have more input from the artist on his works via an interview and/or commentary, ARTPIX Notebooks at least includes a 21 page booklet with the discs. Inside, you will find a complete Reel by Reel breakdown of the video pieces offered, as well as a wonderfully detailed essay about the artist by Kim Levin. It is a must read, especially for those coming to Wegman from his more commercial works (he has created shorts for Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live, among others). While it would have been nice to see some additional supplementary material as part of the DVDs proper, these ancillary extras really flesh out the nearly four hours of video works offered here.

Final Thoughts:
When it comes to art, William Wegman walks a fine line between performance and plebian. After all, is there really something masterful about filming a dog drinking milk from a glass? Does showing how one's bellybutton looks like a singing mouth make for a valid visual statement? Is there aesthetic insight in a canine's reaction to a ringing alarm clock, and do we learn more about the human condition from surreal stories about diving board accidents, t-shirt styles and the various ways the video medium manipulates marketing? Typically, the answer would be "No", but William Wegman defies all standardized responses. His work is both magical and meaningless, insightful and slight. He finds the laughs in the lame and the splendor inside the silly. Viewed in total, this two disc DVD becomes a beacon of human talent and individual tenacity. It easily earns a Highly Recommended rating, and guarantees further jumbled joys upon repeated viewings. Wegman's efforts today may play more like a cerebral celebration of the camcorder nonsense created by crass cretins like Andy Milonakis, yet to mention them in the same breath runs the risk of deflating the pioneer's wild wonders. Where the post-modern mindset wants to celebrate what's in front of the lens, Wegman wanted the device to be part of the design as well. It is clear in every reel of his amazing oeuvre.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here






Highly Recommended

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