Skot Armstrong 2006 beta version


The first time that my apartment in Hollywood got tagged, I was informed by a neighborhood crazy three floors below. With much enthusiasm, he pointed to my building and crowed: “You live in art! The toilet guy signed your building.” As I pondered his reading of graffiti, “Marcel Duchamp, so much to answer for” became my coping mechanism whenever a new tag appeared.


Thus it was with muted enthusiasm that I decided to check out a new documentary on graffiti art. A big motivation for checking out this one was the filmmaker, Jon Reiss. If you think you don’t know his work, perhaps you have recently caught Better Living through Circuitry. Or maybe you glimpsed the banned Nine Inch Nails video. He was also the brave soul who documented the work of Mark Pauline. If you don’t know Pauline’s work, it includes explosions and giant menacing robots, with appendages that might feature a whirring saw blade or a flame thrower. Pauline lost part of a hand building one of these. Reiss has a knack for knowing where the action is, and he never does things half way. So if he expends the effort to document graffiti, one is likely to learn something new. And “Bomb It! The Global Graffiti Documentary” delivers the goods.


The world of street art is as diverse as the world of proper galleries. (In fact many practitioners hold dual citizenship) Reiss starts us off with a history lesson. Tagging as we now know it is thought to have originated in Philadelphia with a fellow named CornBread in the mid 1960’s. His work was nothing fancy or calligraphic. He simply wrote his name on any surface that he encountered. Before long he had a sort of local fame. Other people got inspired by his efforts and started writing too. Soon they were aiming higher than merely scribbling their name, and the familiar visual vocabulary of graffiti as we know it evolved.


Reiss manages to get a camera crew to five continents, where he interviews local taggers. We are allowed to follow crews with night vision cameras to forbidden places, where a lesser filmmaker would fear to tread. He then seeks out the law enforcement officials in each city. Their response is as varied as the culture where the “writing” takes place. In South America, a policeman takes the word of taggers who tell him that they have official permission. Fine with him, as he has real criminals to chase. The scariest person in the whole film is the anti graffiti vigilante, whose neighborhood is graffiti free.


Perhaps the greatest revelation is a tagger named Blek Le Rat who has been stenciling his art all over Paris since 1981, and whose trademark symbol is a spray painted rat. If this guy isn’t Banksy, then he has a great case for identity theft.


Whatever your take is on graffiti, you are likely to pick up a few fun facts that you didn’t know. Reiss is a very capable filmmaker with a curator’s eye and a generous vision.




One of the first art theory concepts I was exposed to was:
Life is art. This caused me to seek out the company of eccentrics,
when I should have been networking The Art World. In the course
of this journey, I came to appreciate the hermetic worlds that can
surround a really good eccentric.
My first exposure to Crispin Hellion Glover was when he appeared
on the David Letterman show (back when Letterman was still edgy).
He managed, with a well-placed platform shoe, to wipe the smirk off
of Letterman’s face. Seeing the fear on that face convinced me that
Glover was genuine, someone to watch.
He had sort of fallen off of my radar when I learned he had released
an unclassifiable record. The Big Problem soon became a favorite and
remains in my top ten to this day. A friend showed me a handmade
book that Glover had presented at LACE. It consisted of color Xerox
pages in plastic sheet protectors held together with three metal rings.
As I turned the pages of Rat Catching, I realized that one of the cuts on
the The Big Problem had been his interpretation of an altered book
from a previous century. When more of these books appeared, now
professionally bound, I was officially a convert.
Glover’s latest offering is billed as a slide show and a film that I
caught at the Cinematheque. The sum of its parts (when you throw
in the post screening Q&A) is a transcendent multi-media experience.
The evening begins with Glover on an elevated platform in front of a
screen, onto which his books are projected. He reads them to us in the
manner of an overwrought 19th century actor. It is as if we are in
Deadwood watching a magic lantern show. Then comes the film, starring
a cast of actors with Downs Syndrome. Throughout the film which includes
salted snails, naked women with animal heads on an opera worthy set,
assault with a shovel in a graveyard and an actor with Cerebral Palsy
being pleasured in a giant oyster shell — the only thing that is played
for shock value is the image of Shirley Temple. As I adjusted to the
Downs rhythms of speech and pace, I began to sense an otherness that
the stills of Matthew Barney films can only promise. In the Q&A which
followed, Glover offered to address any questions that the film might
have raised. As the audience began to ask about the various shapes on
the Rorschach test they had just seen, I came to really appreciate how
well the evening had been conceived as a whole.
Crispin Glover will be touring a new film this winter and recreating
the “slide show and film.” Bring a performance art mindset. That will
give you a better context in which to enjoy this, and a better excuse
for leaving the bunker.

There is an old saying that takes the form of a question: “Wouldn’t it be nice if desperation made us more attractive?” Of course it doesn’t, but sometimes it makes us more entertaining, whether or not it is intentionally so. A lot of confessional performance art falls into this category. Some performances are so difficult to categorize, that it becomes hard to tell what emotional response is appropriate. That is certainly the case with a new release called “Jack Wrangler: His Own Story”.


For those who might be unfamiliar with Mr. Wrangler, it is an interesting story in the right hands. Born John Robert Stillman, in 1946 to a Hollywood producer and a Busby Berkeley dancer, he began his career in show business at the tender age of nine in a religious family show that won multiple Emmys. He did some theatre and appeared on minor television shows in the 1960’s. At about the time that the Stonewall riots occurred, he reinvented himself as Jack Wrangler and began go-go dancing in gay clubs.


He soon began appearing in gay porn films. None of the over-eighty of these that he made included sex on a bed. His iconic appeal soon led him to start appearing in straight porn films as well (he claims to have lost his heterosexual virginity with the cameras rolling). In 1976, while appearing in a “one man erotic show” he was spotted by Margaret Whiting, an actress and pop singer twenty-two years his senior. It was apparently love at first sight for both. When he brought up the small obstacle that he was officially gay, she is said to have remarked “only around the edges”. They have been happily married since 1994.


After they got together, he gave up porn for his first love, musical theatre. Until recently there has been little filmed documentation of that love. Now thanks to a company called Bijou Classics, we can revel in this love too.


In 1983, a company called Male Entertainment Network (M.E.N. for short) was formed to “document gay life in the 1980’s”. In 1985 they turned their cameras on a gay resort in Michigan, where Mr. Wrangler was “loving” musical theatre before a paid audience. The result is jaw dropping. If this character had been invented by a performance artist, its veracity might be dubious at best. The setting is an outdoor “stage” where patrons can get as close to their favorite porn star as they dare. (and dare is the operative word, when he starts to take off his clothes to show the audience some L-O-V-E) As I watched him in this setting, an uneasy familiarity settled in. The “stage” perfectly evoked a carnival midway. And the audience had come to gawk.


So what exactly happens during the 40 minute running time of this little gem? Jack displays more enthusiasm than talent, in a raw exhibition of desperation to please. Depending on ones ambitions, this piece is either a goldmine of kitsch or a cautionary tale.


(Sheet metal chic from Polly Magoo)

(Delphine Seyrig rallies the FREEDOM troops.)


One of the questions I am frequently asked is: how on earth do you find these things? My short answer would be curiosity and luck. Case in point: I found my favorite superhero movie, while searching ebay for photos of Delphine Seyrig. It did not compute that the star of Marienbad and Pull My Daisy would be posed in a revealing leotard with a red afro. Searching on the title of the movie that the shot was from, I stumbled upon a stash of gonzo stills that also featured Serge Gainsbourg on a set that looked like a Residents video, featuring actors in costumes looted from a sporting goods warehouse. The search for the title also turned up a Japanese DVD (all regions). Having gleaned that Mister Freedom had been made by an American ex-pat artist in 1967 France, I began to search on the director. Rabbit Hole!


William Klein was born in New York in 1928. Fourteen years later he was attending college. After two years in the military, he stayed in France to study painting at the Sorbonne. His most influential teacher was Leger, who announced that galleries and museums were obsolete, and encouraged his students to take their art to the streets.


Having married a French woman, he decided to remain in France and paint. A show in Milan and a collaboration with an Italian architect, caused him to explore the use of photography. Going into the medium with a painter’s sensibility, he was soon blazing trails in film technique. His perception of his photographic work, as studies in anthropology, blazed trails that are today being stampeded.


When he returned to New York for a visit in 1954, he took his photographic sensibility out into the streets and produced a body of work as shocking in it’s time as Larry Clark’s was in his. He couldn’t find a publisher, but Vogue Magazine hired him to photograph fashion in France, and paid for a number of unusable experiments. His take was that Vogue was his art patron, and he worked with them from 1955 to 1965. In 1966 he decided to bite the hand that had fed him with Qui etes-vous Polly Magoo. It is the fictional account of a young girl model, who encounters a world as insane as Alice’s Wonderland. It also features his best production values and cinematography. As the film’s fashion campaigns grow more and more bizarre, one might invoke the names of Jodorowsky and Fellini with a straight face.


This film is available from a company called Arte Video in France. The copy I purchased on ebay says (in French) NTSC all regions. It comes with a bonus documentary of Klein’s work that can be jaw dropping. Candid footage of St. Laurent backstage at his make or break show one minute, and naked people covered in cut out magazine letters and wire the next.  Klein has two films officially in print in the United States, but Polly Magoo and Mister Freedom are worth the extra effort.


When most people are asked to name underground filmmakers of the mid 20th century, Ken Jacobs is seldom among the first names that spring to mind. No two filmographies for Mr. Jacobs seem to exactly match. The more one explores his oeuvre, the more difficult it becomes to categorize him. In the strict category of film, he is perhaps best known for Blonde Cobra. (One of those films that you are more likely to read about than to actually see) If one is lucky enough to attend a Jacobs screening, it will probably entail multiple projections which ideally occur in a room of a certain darkness, where even the temperature of the projector bulb is a crucial factor. (It has an effect on the color). Mr. Jacobs loves to explore the nuances that can be dragged out of found footage, and will manipulate it (repetition, projection speed, brightness, direction, etc) in ways that underscore his training as an abstract expressionist painter. Unlike the pure experiments in form of Stan Brakhage, the illusion of film conveying a narrative always stays somehow just out of reach, teasing our interest.


Jacobs has just officially released his first film on DVD. Fifty years in the making, Star Spangled to Death weaves a portrait of the American psyche out of mind boggling found footage carefully inter cut with scenes starring the underground legend Jack Smith. For those whose only exposure to Smith is Flaming Creatures (for such a beloved figure, there is very little else of Smith to be found on film) it is a revelation. Using the simplest of found objects, he creates tableaux that foreshadow the later pop art of Rauschenberg and Warhol. Jacobs films these in such a way as to make every frame of this film a painting unto itself. He will occasionally overlay paragraphs of text, which are so dense that they cannot be registered as subliminal messages. One actually has to stop the DVD to read them. This conscious decision by Jacobs to include an interactive feature that only DVD can accommodate, illustrates how carefully he considers every single frame of the film medium.


You won’t be tripping over this four disc 440 minute opus at your local chain store. You are also unlikely to find a copy for rent. One should approach this set as a work of Art. Compared to most video art, the seventy dollar price tag is a relative bargain. You also get for your money, a library of incredibly rare clips. This is the sort of culture jamming that often gets very collectible. It is hard to know how long it will stay in print (or if it will still be offered in such a beautiful package in years to come) Should anybody ever attempt a lawsuit over found clips, this film could redefine the legal definitions of Fair Use.


This is a perfect gift for anybody home schooling their children. And it’s the perfect way to spend your next 4th of July.






Bunker Vision 2006

Science Holiday SHORTBUS review

The Tristan Project

Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him

© Skot Armstrong 2006

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