Tag: documentary

Waldemar Januszczak: Telling Stories Of Art “In Ways That Connect With People’s Lives”

Waldemar Januszczak, art, Michelangelo, Sky Arts, writer, broadcaster, host, documentary, culture, The Times, Polish

The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel was broadcast on Sky Arts in April 2021.

Among the many unexpected delights of lockdown life has been the opportunity to connect with people from the worlds of media and culture, and sometimes, the two combined in one. Waldemar Januszczak is art critic for The Sunday Times as well as a documentary maker with numerous television specials to his name. Those programs, which have been produced for over two decades, reveal immense curiosity for the ever-evolving, all-encompassing universe of culture, and each is presented with humour, gusto, and incredible if equally approachable intelligence. Waldy, as he’s known online and through his entertaining podcast with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, first came to my notice in 2015; though I’d read his work for years, it was Waldy’s four-part series on the so-called Dark Ages that caught my attention. Broadcast on a local channel across four Monday evenings at the height of summer, the series (from 2012) came at a particularly challenging time that year, having lost my mother in July and endured severe illness and multiple surgeries on my own before and after that. The nagging questions, in both personal and professional spheres, of who I was without the central figure of my music-loving mum loomed extraordinarily large; I would stare at the works of Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo in books and online for hours, trying to glean some sense of order (beauty seemed too far-off and impossible to hope for), some sense of understanding, to a world rendered hazy, tilted, skewed, strangely airless. I would go to my own easel and try to draw or paint; I would sit at the computer, and no words would come. Who was I, outside of being this person’s daughter? Who was I, outside of this prison of a body I felt trapped in? Who was I, with these hands, which held my mother’s as she passed away, which held pencils and brushes, which typed out so very many words-words-words that seemed to affect no one and nothing at all?

Waldy’s work – his friendly presentational style, his enthusiasm, his clear thirst for knowledge – helped provide some clues. The full  of the series (The Dark Ages: An Age Of Light) was precisely the feeling imparted through the experience of watching the series at that point in time. It was as if a great spotlight was being shone on not only early Christianity and the Middle Ages, or indeed its related iterations, forms, and expressions, but along the way I, myself, was experiencing history and related notions of darkness, light, and all manner of shade and shadow between. By showing a new way to look at the past, the series, and Waldy’s work more broadly, provided an inspiring way of perceiving present and possible futures. The approach the writer/filmmaker takes to his work (one which, as I said at the start, blends smarts, humour, knowledge, and approachability) makes him a natural storyteller. Starting out at the University of Manchester as a student in art history, Waldy went on to become art critic, and subsequently arts editor of The Guardian. He worked in a variety of capacities across the BBC, and has, according to his own (quite humorous) biography, “since popped up pretty much everywhere where a radio dial can reach.” In 1989 he became commission editor for arts at Channel 4 (a time, which, he explains, was immensely fruitful in terms of providing future inspiration to his own broadcasting pursuits), and in 1993 also was put in charge of music at the channel, and subsequently began annual broadcasts from Glyndebourne – not to mention a little festival called Glastonbury.

That same year saw him become art critic for The Sunday Times, where he has been ever since. Twice voted Critic Of The Year, he co-curated a show at the British Museum in 2008 where modern and ancient sculptures were shown side by side, inspired by his own series on sculpture from four years earlier. Making films since 1997 with his own company, ZCZ Films, Waldy’s artistic explorations have been wide-ranging and ambitious: countries (Japan, Kazakhstan, America), concepts (politics, night), artists (Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo), religio-historical depictions (Mary Magdalene), and eras (the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo). Along with writing about contemporary art issues, including pieces on art collectives, the creative and spiritual meeting in abstraction (specifically the work of Hilma af Klint;  both March 2021), the Turner Prize, the symbolic power of a show focused on textiles (both May 2021), and how COVID has changed the art world (January 2021), Waldy has also written touchingly personal pieces – about the father he never knew, and about his battles with weight. Those writings are sincere and visceral, but they bear no trace of the sort of overwrought sentimentalities which so often characterize such works in the digital era; rather, they are the rich and (more than occasionally) spicy ingredients which constitute a person who is unafraid to be his own culture-loving, knowledgeable, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, unpretentious, immensely real self.

Such qualities may go a ways in explaining his presence on this website, for while Waldy does not work in opera, he embodies the very qualities so vital to the classical world, especially at this point in history. I referenced his work last year in an essay, and I’ve come to feel in the time since that his is a presence and a talent wholly needed, as various cultural worlds move away from lockdown status and toward some kind of normalcy. For while brilliance  does indeed hold a place in the classical world, authenticity, compassion – humanity – matters more, in this, our brave (and hopefully better) new world. We connected on Twitter (very brave new world indeed), over what I seem to recall was my love of the work of performance artist Ulay. (If you know of and/or like the work of Marina Abramović but have never heard of Ulay… please amend; his work holds extraordinary significance and beautifully poetic power.) Amidst the variety and ambition of Waldy’s pursuits, it seemed important to ask him, first and foremost, what he thinks of himself as: writer or broadcaster? His answer wasn’t particularly surprising, but his warmth and good humour, which carried throughout the course of our near-half-hour exchange, was a welcome and hopeful sign for post pandemic culture, and the people who love it.

You balance writing with broadcasting and documentary-making, but I’m curious what you call yourself.

An art critic, that’s what I’d like written on my grave. But right from the beginning, I’ve managed to do two things at once. When I was younger I was a student in Manchester, and I did this thing for radio, a student’s hour – I got roped into it – and someone at the BBC heard it, so I got working on the BBC doing a radio program when I was still a student, and it was out of pure luck. At the same time I was writing for Time Out; I’d do things for them and someone from The Guardian came across it and asked me to apply to them, so to cut a long story short, I’ve always done broadcasting and always done writing and the two have managed to keep going in parallel all the way through. I’m very lucky, and I made a step into television, but what I really like is looking at art and writing about it, which is what being a critic is – it’s not about being right or wrong with your opinions; you simply want to look at art, and to write about it.

Your integration of education and entertainment feels natural without being reductive.

I’ll put it simply: I’m an art lover. From my earliest memory, anything joyful involved cutting out pictures of famous paintings and pasting them, in my little cubby hole I had under the stairs – I’d paste stuff on the wall. I’ve always taken great pleasure from looking at art. I don’t understand why everyone else in the world isn’t that excited about art – it baffles me. In the UK we have these nature programs and people are happy to watch two frogs having sex or see beautiful butterflies in the air, or whatnot, for literally hours on end – millions will watch that – but put on something about a Raphael painting, which is also a thing of great beauty, or something about a sculpture by Bernini, or some great piece of architecture, and they tune out in the millions. I just don’t get it. It’s been this battle, always for me, to try and bridge that gap, to try and share this idea that art is interesting, exciting, and above all, a human achievement. It is my mission to try and tell stories of art in ways that connect with people’s lives. That’s all I ever tried to do. I don’t set out to be an original thinker necessarily, or to be necessarily different, I just set out with the firm belief that everybody should be able to talk about art in ways that involve or interest them, and that communication about it is what counts.

I like how you pull things away from being purely academic into a very direct and often sensuous relationship with art. I might be daunted by the artists and their related histories but watching your stuff, I don’t feel daunted at all.

That’s a real compliment, thank you. I’m so glad to hear that, because that is what I want to do. Many years ago now I did have a job in formal television, I was the commissioning editor for music and art programming at Channel 4. So for the eight years I was there, I commissioned other people to make art programs, and I watched what they did and how they did it. And I became more and more determined and experienced in the field myself, and determined to not do what they did. The thing I least like in any kind of writing about, or making films about art, is what you’re talking about, this sense of art being something difficult, some kind of homework, that not everybody can get or understand. A lot of the language of documentary filmmaking emphasizes that aspect, with these added tropes: the music that isn’t very cheerful or it is atonal and difficult; there is speaking about stuff in ways that don’t really mean anything – if people don’t know what they really want to say, they usually use twenty words instead of one, because it creates an illusion of knowledge, authority, and experience. So when I gave up being a manager of other people’s work and began making my own documentaries again, I made rules; there were things I knew I wanted to do, and those rules are all to do with this thing you’re talking about. I want people to learn stuff and enjoy it – I’m not there to preach or look down on them if they don’t know something. It’s been the experience of watching other people do this that has driven me to that.

But you combine this knowledge with your strong personality – I wonder how much that draws people in, so it’s not solely “Oh, a doc about the Renaissance” but “Oh, Waldy is presenting a doc on the Renaissance…” 

I think one of the things is, I’m Polish, I’m not English, as you can tell from my name, and we’re a different breed you know? Polish people are not like English people; we have a different way of speaking and expressing ourselves. And in television and the BBC especially, there’s a very specific type of person that works there, fits into that culture, and succeeds, and someone like me comes along, and I’m the other, I’m different in almost every way. One of my sins is I like eating, a lot, so I’m chunky, and in television, especially these days, you don’t see chunky people, they go for the slim, pseudo-intellectual from Cambridge, so I stuck out there, because I am different and I’m not afraid. And, I think I’m confident in my knowledge. That’s one thing I can say of myself: I love art so much I’m constantly researching it, seeing it, loving it, and if you’re confident in your knowledge there’s nothing to be afraid of. So I try to find new ways of delivering material. I’ve always wanted to do that.

What I’ve noticed is that people remember things from the films, and what they remember surprises me often. In one of the things I made years ago, about the Baroque, there’s a scene where I’m looking at a ceiling in Rome, and I decided to do the camera shot lying on my back, because that’s the only way to look at it. If you want to see it properly, you lie on your back. It was a BBC series, and all the BBC people said, “You can’t lie on your back, you have to stand up and look authoritative on television!” So there are these funny things that do tend to bother some people but they’re not done for gimmicky reasons, I do them because I want to convey my excitement and experience in looking at stuff.

But that humanizes the art in the process, and that’s what is so often needed in the culture world. But it’s questionable if that style is supported by the people in charge…

That’s the point, yes – and arts programming does not get enough support anywhere. It’s a hard graft, getting the commissioning to do stuff. You know, I can’t tell you how many programs I’d love to be making right now; we don’t get the numbers to compete with the shows like reality television or the cooking shows, we don’t get the numbers they do because partly, in the past, arts programs have presented themselves as this thing you referenced, and that put a lot of people off. That’s a hard history to shift – a lot of people remember this sense of being talked down to, boringly, and they don’t want to see that. Of course what we want is everybody dying to turn on the television to watch, but it’s a tough ask because of that history; when you say something is “arty” there’s’ an awful lot of people who turn off, immediately. That word alone puts them off, and it’s one of the battles.

But do you think that tide might change now?

I’d like to hope so. I don’t know! I’ve not had a chance to find any evidence yet, but I do think the pandemic is having and will have a profound impact on the future, and I think it will be very hard to unlearn the joy of being at home and to not be imagining things for yourself. The pleasures we’ve had from this situation – as terrible as it’s been – have been things relating to people being in the position of having the time to examine the basics. And they’ve found new outlets for their attention, whether through television or podcasts or whatever. My own podcast, we only did it initially to do something during lockdown, but loads of people have said they’ve enjoyed it, so there is hunger for art, and an opportunity to take advantage of that hunger, but whether broadcasters will help us out with that is another question; they are not interested in changing the way people think about art, they have other fish to fry. But I’m optimistic.

One good thing is that my work has reached a much wider audience and that’s not to do with Covid, but the way television has gone everywhere with the preponderance of satellite channels. It used to be the only people who recognized me in the street were people who watched the BBC, but in the time when things eased between lockdowns last year, I remember going out and there were about sixty South Korean people who came rushing toward me in the street shouting, “Hey Waldemar!” They’d seen me on television there. So the international aspect of all that (interest) was very encouraging. I have a theory that in every country there are a million people who might be interested in art who, years ago, you had no chance of speaking with, but now there’s a chance, so add a million people up in every country – and that’s a lot of people interested in art. That’s encouraging.

And you have an audience on Twitter

I love Twitter – you hear other voices there. And the best thing about it is the reactions! For all we know, no one will ever read what I write formally, but on Twitter, people get back to you, and I love a good argument; I’ll argue with anyone, anywhere, on Twitter or elsewhere for that matter. So I’ve found (social media) fruitful. Some things I’ve done have been so pleasing. During the lockdown I ran this art thing with kids; people did homeschooling when the schools were closed, and, well, what could be more homeschooling-esque than art, really? People were drawing away, and so I’d set them little tasks, and there were these fantastic responses, they were really pleasing, these kids, 8, 7, 6 years old, drawing away and sharing their work. The other day we had David Hockney on the podcast and he said something wonderful: “why would anybody not want to draw? Try telling a 3 year-old kid not to draw!” It’s a thing we all have; everybody has that instinct, and so I had this forum where kids could express that during lockdown.

I loved that series (as did many), especially as someone without kids. That series was actually the point where I lost my patience with people who dismiss social media; for some of us, that’s the only way we can see that kind of thing. It’s our window on a different world.

Well gosh, you’d be horrible not to like this kind of thing, and to just dismiss it because of where you saw it! And it’s worth remembering that so many artists have nourished themselves on memories of childhood as well, and that Twitter is a great vehicle for expressing and sharing that sort of stuff. If you’re someone who comes up with lots of ideas, it can be a great forum for expressing them, and for promoting them. I find it very alive. With all these hours of daytime we had because of the pandemic, a lot of times in the day, you’d be in the office, alone, twiddling thumbs; you’d go on Twitter and find someone to talk to. I’d see these nice people writing in from Scotland and Australia and New Zealand, and that (experience of communication) was liberating and very pleasing.

It’s how we connected too! I want to feel reading your various exchanges makes me a slightly smarter person. 

You’re pretty smart as it is, so don’t worry about that! I’m so pleased we’ve connected, and with others too, I’ve done so much during lockdown. It’s nice to talk. That’s what it’s about.

How has all this connecting online changed your approach to your work, or… has it?

I don’t know how much it’ll change my approach in terms of my bread and butter work with The Times – with that, I do what I always do: see shows and write about them. But I have made a lot of new friends. One thing that Twitter is really good at is supplying you with information: you ask a question, you get a lot of responses. I had a film about Michelangelo on Sky Arts out recently and posted something relating to obscure arguments about biblical translations – the kind of stuff no one is into except me and a few biblical scholars, or so I thought! – and got so many responses from so many people. It was such fantastic information! You have to be really in the world of bible studies to know about these things, but it was so exciting to learn these things. So it can be a fantastic forum for education, for all of us, and more broadly, I think it’s given lots of silver linings to this terrible, terrible time, which we are now hopefully coming out of.

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Heart And Intuition

Earlier tonight, I heard Steve Jobs talk about the first time he learned of his cancer diagnosis. It was at a commencement address at Stamford University six years ago. Watching it was, for me, not so sentimental as it was invigorating. Jobs’ tone was a mix of poe-faced acceptance and angry defiance. It was good to came across this speech, when there’s so many choices swirling inside and out.

“Within You Without You” could very well be my theme right now. The man who wrote it faced some scary choices, as the first part of George Harrison: Living In The Material World (aired on HBO tonight) showed. The episode explored the personal and professional sides of Harrison, with contributions from a variety of sources, both archival and recent. Sir Paul is featured, along with Ringo, Astrid, Pattie, Yoko, George himself (taken from older interviews), producer George, and Eric Clapton (and weirdly, little to no John). The Scorcese-directed work is like a massive jigsaw of odds and sods about the Beatles’ guitarist, portraying him as complex and yet “black and white”, isolated and yet social, spiritual and yet practical. The first part ended with the strains of Harrison’s beautifully mellifluous voice singing about his guitar gently weeping.
Harrison was always thought of as “The Quiet Beatle“; I thought of him as a gorgeous, thought-heavy (/heavy thought) man who composed tuneful melodies and had that troublesome wife. He was many things at once, which is what makes him such an endearing (and enduring) figure to so many. Harrison didn’t possess any of the traits the general public perceived about the bands’ members; he didn’t have John’s mouthiness or Paul’s bossiness. Indeed, Harrison didn’t have any kind of identifiable public persona one could look at and plant a flag beside. But that was his charm. His very opaqueness, one that perhaps hid a perceived sensitivity and delicate curiosity, twinned with an iron will and steely resolve, make him a beloved figure who has floated past the creaking shackles of rock and roll nostalgia.
I thought back to my first night in New York, when I had my face-to-face with Yoko Ono; the mischievous smile she had hid an innate kindness. I thought back to seeing Paul McCartney at Yankee Stadium, and the deep shock that sat in the pit of my stomach as I heard his unmistakable voice jauntily belting out the words to “Magical Mystery Tour.” I remember many years ago when Ringo Starr took his seat two rows behind me at The Met. New Yorkers barely noticed, but those who did offered an outstretched hand.
The Beatles were and remain as ubiquitous to culture as Apple computers. My best friend growing up was a Paul (named after Macca), and grew up consistently using Macs. (He is, to this day, an Apple devotee.) When the huge metal boxes with the tiny screens first appeared in elementary school, I joined the club devoted to exploring and learning more about them. I was the only girl in that club. Years later, I remember the butterflies that flew around my stomach as I got my first (but not last) Power Mac, and later, my first Apple laptop, and finally, an iPod (I still have my first generation model), iPod shuffle (which I won), and iPhone (the first version of which was stolen in New York City, in fact). Apple products have become so seamlessly integrated with my daily life so as to be inseparable from its functioning. When The Beatles finally had their work made available on iTunes, it felt like something -gravity? -had shifted completely. One great cultural touchstone was finally connecting to another. The meeting felt natural, good, and right.
Harrison and Jobs may’ve not had much in common on the surface, but they were stealth figures shaping and moulding a new language in modern culture. And their names are forever linked, however contentiously. Tonight I flipped on CNN to hear Jobs delivering these words in 2005:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out what you really want to do. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition; they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is truly secondary.

Amidst tonight’s protests, announcements and memorials, one thing rings clear tonight: life is so short. So very short. Remember. Cherish. “Within You Without You” — there’s a tune, and it keeps playing, on and on.

We were talking
About the love that’s gone so cold.
And the people who gain the world
And lose their soul,
They don’t know, they can’t see –
Are you one of them?

When you’ve seen beyond yourself,
Then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there.
And the time will come
When you see we’re all one,
And life flows on within you and without you.

George Harrison

Pondering Pakistan

For a long time now I’ve wanted to write about my interview with Duane Baughman and Mark Siegel. The two men were in Toronto this time last year for the screening of their film, Bhutto, at the annual Hot Docs Film Festival, following their world premiere months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. The Toronto screening came and went, life moved on, and I never seemed to properly make time to sit down and write – until now.

I visited Ground Zero last week, less than 12 hours after President Obama’s historic announcement about Osama bin Laden’s death. With news reports filled with pertinent details and reports that paint a damning portrait of Pakistan and its possible role in harboring terrorists (or not), the screening of Bhutto tonight feels like a slow, patient untying of a complex Gordian knot. That’s not to say the movie is slow -it isn’t – but it is layered, the way any documentary worth its salt should be.
I discussed this in my chat with Duane and Mark last year on the radio:

Independent Lens is broadcasting the timely documentary tonight on local PBS stations (check yours here). Baughman, its Director, and Siegel, Co-Producer, present a complex, if deeply vital portrait of both a woman and a country that we, here in the West, have a lot of preconceptions around -especially since the news of Osama bin Laden being killed May 1st.
With numerous interviews (including fascinating input from The New York Times’ John Burns and vitriolic assertions from Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece), fly-on-the-wall footage, and a thorough, if compelling history lesson (not to mention a pulsating soundtrack by The Police’s Stewart Copeland), Bhutto is a riveting look at a country that’s been painted in far too broad strokes by a Western media eager for villains. Truth be told, there are no clear villains in Bhutto, but (hint hint) General Pervez Musharraf doesn’t come off very well; he visibly squirms, as the camera casually lingers on him, providing glib answers and a ton of silence. The effect is awkward, as it’s meant to be, though his inclusion in the documentary might seem questionable. In fact, when Siegel was on The Daily Show just months after Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West came out (a book he co-authored with Benazhir Bhutto), he took host Jon Stewart to task for having the former Pakistani leader as a featured guest. Siegel had just finished working with long-time friend Bhutto on Reconciliation when she was assassinated. “She prayed for the best and planned for the worst”…
Even if you still have questions around Benazir Bhutto and her approach to Islam, her handling of government policy, and those troubling corruption charges, you will most certainly come away with a more thorough, nuanced undertanding of the machinations of politics and terrorism, and the place where the two meet, in one tragic explosive moment. Watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

Shoot Me

Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame
That burns your change to keep you insane

David Bowie

There’s an interesting moment in Teenage Paparazzo, where the precocious teen of the title takes a look at himself onscreen, his eyes wide. It’s arguably the most poignant moment in the film, where the shooter becomes the shoot-ee, and the house of mirrors crumbles away in one awful, shattering thonk.

Fame, and its variable spinoffs, is the theme of this documentary, which made it debut at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Teenage Paparazzo tells the story of 13-year-old Austin Visschedyk, and actor-director Adrian Grenier‘s evolving relationship with him. The two met when the precocious youngster snapped the Entourage star one day in Los Angeles more than three years ago; that particular shooting had a psychological effect just as much as an imagistic one, and it launched Grenier’s desire to explore the twisted relationships between celebrities, corporations, and the hoards of paparazzi who can -and do frequently -make or break our public heroes.

Grenier understands this house of mirrors very well; he made his name in a television show that details the life of an actor who’s on a successful TV show. There’s a real irony at work as he films Austin hard at work following leads, trying to finish homework (he’s home-schooled), rushing around the city of Angels on his skateboard or scooter, visiting the camera store, and interacting with the salty old pros who are more than twice his age. Inadvertently, he winds up making Visschedyk a petulant wannabe-star with a reality show in the pipeline, and oodles of toxic attitude leaking all over his fast-fading youth. That’s after the actor becomes a pseudo-shutterbug-come-celeb-stalker himself, though he initially finds the paparazzi who used to trail him are less than open to being exposed themselves. The Hunter getting captured by the game has never seemed so skewed, or weirdly delicious.

Massive Attack – The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game feat. Tracey Thorn by user5776126

With so much going on on so many levels, it’s easy to get carried away, and yet Teenage Paparazzo maintains a fine focus and an above-board perspective that exploits neither its young subject nor the camera-toting ilk he’s part of. Instead, it maintains a smart balance between Grenier’s personal relationship with Austin and his explorations into wider societal ideas around fame and celebrity. Divvying up the film into titled chapters, Grenier takes this hall -make that labyrinth – of mirrors and lay some lines along the ground to make sense of it -at least enough sense to show his young friend that relating is more important than shooting. Likewise, the many interviews Grenier conducts add nice spark to what could be a dreary exercise in self-indulgence; they include candid yacks with stars like LiLo, Matt Damon, and Eva Longoria, along with academics, authors, photographers (yes, some of they do eventually open up), Hello! magazine‘s editorial board, and members of Austin’s family. What’s notable is how the film doesn’t judge any of them, but allows their own voices and actions to speak for themselves, adding subtle influence and subtext to the drama unfolding between pseudo-famous boy and firmly-famous man.


Perhaps most surprising is how the recently-busted Paris Hilton comes off; her impressions and ideas around fame aren’t nearly as vacuous as you might assume. Less helium-voiced ditz and more throaty maven, Hilton conveys a total understanding her celebrity, its demands, its image-upkeep (seriously, does anyone think cocaine possession will harm it?), and its absurd, if utterly enjoyable nature. She neither criticizes nor condemns, but accepts, puts on a smile, and plays up whatever role she’s chosen to play that day, knowing full well the paparazzi will eat it up, editorial boards will make it up, and the public will buy it up. There’s a brilliant scene involving Hilton and Grenier staging a series of appearances together in order to create, from scratch, a feeding frenzy among the paparazzi and itinerant gossip-mongers; it appears the public will buy anything so long as there’s photographic proof.

Thing is, as Grenier smartly points out, that trusted photographic proof can be staged, and, as Alec Baldwin wittily, wisely notes, the same circle of large companies control the outlets around the star anyway: magazines, movies, TV, internet sites all exist within the same massive, chugging machine. Paparazzi may be, true to their name, pests, and they are undoubtedly intrusive, but their connection to the corporate entertainment machines isn’t incidental at all. There’s a huge public thirst around the honey their buzzes give, and, as Visschedyk learns, a huge buzz from being around the honeys. At one point his mother laughs off girls coming to see her son at all hours of the morning, though when Austin is shown with his young catches, he shyly ducks the camera. The last vestige of an awkward youth, or the first inklings of a celebrity?

Adrian Grenier offers no easy answers, neither in the film nor in person. I was in attendance at a special screening of his film last week here in Toronto, and I found that the Byronic-looking Entourage star comes off thoughtful, well-read, and deeply insightful. In interviews, he’s spoken of his deep curiosity around plumbing the depths of the superficial world he occupies. To a few insipid, self-aggrandizing questions from his old-school print journalist interlocutor, he politely smiled, responding with care and consideration. But at one point, when he was thrown a hoary “T. S. Eliot/Wasteland-what-is-the-deep-meaning-here” quote (surely the mark of smarmy pseudo-intellectuals everywhere), Grenier slyly quoted Socrates as a response -and, it should be noted, without a hint of malice (though certainly with a playful spirit; I could’ve sworn I saw a twinkling of the eye). With one foot firmly in the “old” world of books, art, and classic celluloid film (he cited Werner Herzog as a favorite filmmaker and influence), and the other in the high-tech, fast-paced world of pop culture and the internet (he said more features and an adjunct, interactive site to TP is in the works), Grenier is certainly more than a pretty face, and I’ll be very curious to see what he offers in his next film.

For now, he’s firm about keeping his private life… well, private. That includes his friendship with Visschedyk. The wide-eyed boy of Teenage Paparazzo, staring at his precocious, arrogant self grows gracefully into a more thoughtful teen, as we see at the film’s end; it’s interesting to hear him talk about respecting the privacy of the people he used to make money off of, especially in light of his adventure with LiLo last fall. Less interested now in celebrity than in being a confidante, Visschedyk has, at least partly, Grenier to thank -or damn, depending on your viewpoint.

But you probably won’t look at those tabloids at the checkout quite the same again -or the ads in and around them, or indeed, the people buying them. Even if those people happen to be friends, lovers… or you.

Photo credits:

Top photo still from La Dolce Vita, 1960, Federico Fellini.
Photos of Austin Visschedyk and Adrian Grenier taken from the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

The Face In The Mirror Won’t Stop

A few nights ago, I watched a special on The Doors that aired as part of the excellent series American Masters. When You’re Strange, written and directed by Tom DeCillo and narrated by Johnny Depp, explores The Doors’ meteoric rise to fame in the late 1960s. The piece featured footage of a bearded, shambolically (and possibly shamanically) hot Jim Morrison bombing through the American Southwest in a badass Mustang as flashbacks of the band’s history and most memorable (and infamous) moments were detailed.

Watching it, I was transported straight back to my teen years, when I worshipped Morrison’s flow of words and The Doors’ peculiar, Weill-tinged, carnival-meets-jackhammer-like sounds. I dreamed of the day I’d go to Pere Lachaise cemetery and throw myself dramatically over his grave, all tears and brandy breath, mounds of black velvet and raccoon-kohl eyes appropriate garb for the sighing romantic leanings of late teen-dom. In retrospect, I don’t think The Doors were meant to last. As Depp intoned in the documentary, Morrison was a “trapeze artist” -one who, alas, couldn’t fly as well as he or any of us (past or present) wished. His military-man father, both shockingly unimpressed by his son’s ascent and strangely prescient of his demise, was launching squadrons of fighter planes in the Vietnam war as people stared at the dark, Greco-Roman beauty that suddenly emanated from the dull, puke-coloured walls of the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

Looking at him in his “later” years (his 27 seemed more like 57), the iconic singer/poet seemed amused by his fame even as he was appalled by it. The constant demands it made -on appearance, as well as creativity -were ones that, in his eager immaturity and self-conscious mythology, were ones he seemed singly ill-equipped to deal with. It’s interesting to note how the doc’s narrator, Johnny Depp, has escaped such notions but, in the process, has also accepted the reality that his grave may very well have “yarrr” scrawled across it. I suppose living in France -the land of Gitanes, good cheese, great wine, and better conversation -probably helps.

De Cillo eschews using talking heads in When You’re Strange and instead opts for narration, unseen archival and personal footage, and basic storytelling. He also has written Depp’s lines in the present tense, so we’re experience Morrison “in the present”, as it were. “Both innocent and profane, he’s a rock and roll poet… dangerous and highly intelligent,” continued Depp, “no one’s had this exact combination before.” True enough. But if Morrison’s sneering rebellion against his fame was to grow a beard and gain a beer gut, it didn’t quit work. It increased the mystique around his quasi-poetic leanings, and as the documentary points out, just before his death, Morrison was ready to return to America to start recording with his abandoned, vaguely churlish bandmates. But it wasn’t meant to be. Jim joined that great “feast of friends” that would include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Keith Moon and John Bonham.

But let’s not be predictable here and place him, leather-panted and head permanently tilted, in the pot-smelling pantheon of the Young-And-Tragically-Dead Rock Stars. Hooey. I think of the late “trapeze artist” the same way I think of Arthur Rimbaud: young, beautiful, dangerous, peevish, stupid, reckless, and damnably gifted. Tom DeCillo’s documentary underlines the leanings to poetry, art, music, and this constant drive to live-live-live even as the trip to the desert ends, the music’s over, the resurrection subscription is canceled. Wherever he is, Jim is smirking: he’s always and forever resurrected, thanks to a million different thrills, from photos to Youtube to the appalling streams of tours with lines of earnest, if absolutely wrong lead singers.

“Nevermore!” cackles Jim from the great beyond, before adding, in that famous woozy baritone, “Is everybody in?

Yes, of course. Some never left. We just got older, an inevitable reality that, like screaming fans, singalongs, and autographs, requires patience, fortitude, and grace.

Making Docs Hot


I have a little movie confession to make: Hot Docs is my favourite film festival. Sorry, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), don’t get jealous. The problem with TIFF is, despite its marquee appeal and oodles of excellent, beautiful content, it still feels chalk-full of sparkly, starry hype; it’s like putting ten cans of frosting on one cake. I kind of like cakes on their own, actually, with a nice cup of tea. And Hot Docs (running April 29th to May 9th) is just that.

There’s also a certain timeliness to the Hot Docs works that come to Toronto every spring. For instance, the documentary coming to Hot Docs about assassinated Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto, has a true resonance, especially as the country is rapidly becoming a fixture on the nightly news, and there is more coverage than ever -even give years ago -with a diverse array of topics on Pakistan, including (incredibly) fashion. The film, Bhutto, by filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, had its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Feature competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and is making it Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs May 1st.

On to another kind of powerful woman: the one who serves you food. Dish: Women, Waitressing, and the Art Of Service, by Maya Gallus, explores the world of the female-dominated service industry. The full spectrum of the waitressing experience is documented, with the film moving from gritty truck stops to “sexy restos” and even Tokyo maid cafes. Gallus recently won a Gemini Award for Best Direction In A Documentary for her feature-length film, Girl Inside, which premiered at Hot Docs and launched the 2007 season of The View From Here on TVO. Her film Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality premiered at TIFF in 1997 and was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. This interest in female stories makes me think Dish is going to be less dishy and more dramatic, in that good, involving, I-want-another-plate way.

Now, having served, and danced, and even done some mad combinations of the two (oh, those wild Dublin pub nights), the screening of A Drummer’s Dream intrigues, for its dance-y possibilities. The beat of not food but skins sits at the heart of this NFB work, written, produced, and directed by Canadian John Walker. Drummers who’ve kept the beat for Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Carlos Santana share their knowledge with forty students during a week-long retreat in the Canadian wilderness The film features the talents of celebrated drummers Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio “El-Negro” Hernadez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow, and looks like big ole’ noisy celebration. I would imagine this is one of those inspiring stories that makes one want to shimmy up the aisle exiting the theatre. Or start banging on pint glasses with a spoon.

Lots more Hot Docs coverage in the weeks leading up to the fest’s kick off on April 29th. Stay tuned. And TIFF? Stop pouting. You have plenty of time to make it up to me before September rolls around. Get busy on that cake.

Docu-Drama

I always marvel at the ability to be able to write strictly for voice, building narrative and shaping tone through sonic means alone. The power of sound can’t be underestimated. It’s something I was reminded of lastnight when I received word that a radio documentary I’d made in 2006 is going to made available online.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I made a trip overseas to see my father. I made a documentary about my experience that aired later that year across Canada on CBC Radio One. It was a part of Outfront, which focuses on personal stories.

“Lanyod” (Hungarian for “daughter”) has been chosen as being among the best of Outfront documentaries, and I’m pleased to announce that it’s available for download at the program’s website this week:

http://www.cbc.ca/outfront/podcast.html

The documentary’s taken on a different meaning for me since my father’s passing this past December. The power of sound has taken on a whole new significance, too. I may never write a radio drama -but then, I’m reminded with “Lanyod,” that I was already part of my own real-life one.

Enjoy.

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