This work of art did not work for Judge Bryan Byun.
"It's just sort of a masturbatory, like, exercise in stupidity."—Julian Schnabel
It's a relationship that sounds like the premise of a wacky romantic comedy. Meet Paul, surfer, sculptor, and host of GalleryBeat, a goofy, irreverent public-access cable TV show that aspires to be the TMZ of the New York City art scene. Meet Cindy, a quirky, eccentric artist whose brilliantly original photographs have propelled her to the top of her field. When Paul scored an interview with Cindy for his show, the last thing either one of them expected was to fall in love. But will this improbable romance between a queen of the art world and a lowly commoner be a work of art—or just a colorful mess?
Guest of Cindy Sherman chronicles the tumultuous relationship between art world hanger-on Paul Hasegawa-Overacker (a.k.a. "Paul H-O") and superstar artist Cindy Sherman. Sherman, best known for her "Untitled Film Stills" photographs, in which she poses as characters in a series of stills for imaginary films, is one of the most successful visual artists of the last several decades. Paul H-O's claim to fame is being a minor gadfly on the fringes of the 1990s New York art scene. As often happens in relationships where one partner is vastly more successful than the other, Paul found himself lost in the shadow of his famous girlfriend; it was their undoing, and ultimately the basis of this documentary, co-directed by Paul H-O and Tom Donahue.
As both a journal of Paul's relationship with Cindy Sherman, and a portrait of Sherman, an enigmatic and media-shy artist, Guest of Cindy Sherman feels like an awkward melding of two very different documentaries. One is a fairly conventional overview of Sherman's work and rise to stardom in the 1980s and 1990s, with the requisite talking-head interviews with various art world figures—artists, gallery owners, art dealers and critics—and celebrity art aficionados like Danny DeVito, Carol Kane, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and John Waters. The other is the story of Paul H-O and his public access show GalleryBeat, which had Paul and his cohorts haunting gallery shows and art events while commenting irreverently on the proceedings.
Paul and Cindy met and fell in love when he interviewed her for Gallery Beat, which affords the viewer a fascinating opportunity to watch their relationship begin and progress on camera. In contrast to the many abrasive, pompous artists we encounter in this documentary, Sherman comes across as funny and charmingly down to earth, and the same luminous presence that makes her self-portraits so captivating is in evidence in person as she flirts with an unabashedly starstruck Paul (who looks and sounds eerily like a cross between Al Franken and a Hawaiian surfer boy). It's to Paul's credit that this post-breakup film doesn't attempt to settle scores or make Sherman look bad; he clearly has enormous affection and admiration for Cindy, and as a showcase of the artist it's quite compelling.
Unfortunately, that's also the fatal flaw of Guest of Cindy Sherman—while Sherman is a worthy and entertaining subject for a documentary feature, the same can't be said for Paul H-O and his personal woes. After over an hour of watching scenes of Paul's glib, relentlessly inconsequential TV show and his frantic scrabbling for art-world notoriety, well-larded with self-congratulatory commentary on his own imagined significance, not only am I hard pressed to care about his whining over his loss of identity and coming to terms with his emasculation by the mere fact of having a more successful girlfriend, but I can't believe someone as perceptive and apparently together as Cindy Sherman could possibly fall for this guy.
Guest of Cindy Sherman fails on almost every level. As a portrait of Cindy Sherman, it offers little insight into her work or what motivates her as an artist. As a dissection of the NYC art scene, its desire to be taken seriously renders it unintentionally ironic—it's no minor feat to skewer an artist like Julian Schnabel, a monumentally pretentious egotist, with such shallow flippancy that Schnabel actually emerges as the more sympathetic figure. And as a relationship post-mortem, any interest I might have in the topic of unequal power in romantic relations is defeated by Paul's charmless shallowness and self-absorption.
What clearly undermines the effectiveness of the film is Paul's role as co-director of a documentary of which he is the subject. Without a detached perspective that would give Guest of Cindy Sherman another layer of examination, the film ends up being little more than a whiny personal diary by someone with a painfully limited capacity for self-awareness. Paul begins the film as a thwarted fame seeker hanging around the edges of celebrity, and ends the film in much the same situation. It offers a compelling case for why someone would fall for and want to be around Cindy Sherman, but doesn't offer many reasons to object to her unfamous boyfriend being shoved to the sidelines.
For those with an interest in the New York art world, Guest of Cindy Sherman brings a plethora of eye candy—lots of glimpses of well-known and not-so-well-known figures of the community (including Eric Bogosian and Jerry Saltz, who was recently a judge on the Bravo reality show Work of Art). The DVD features over two hours of special features, including interview outtakes with John Waters, Danny DeVito, Carol Kane, Robert Longo and others, and a making-of discussion with Paul H-O and Tom Donahue. Any still-living fans of the erstwhile GalleryBeat will appreciate the excerpts from its first episode included on the disc.
Long on self-pity but short on any real insight, Guest of Cindy Sherman is entertaining and lively when it focuses on Sherman, but turns grating and dull when we're asked to follow Paul down his long and whining road of self-analysis. The obvious, underlying question that the film ultimately fails to address: would this film even be made if the roles were reversed, and it was a successful male artist and his less-successful female partner?
The court finds Guest of Cindy Sherman guilty, and sentences it to a
life sentence of well-deserved obscurity.
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