Our review of Naked States, published August 23rd, 2007, is also available.
America's in for a nude awakening.
Spencer Tunick is a relatively unknown photographer with a great idea: photograph naked people in every state. Naked States is Arlene Donnelly's first feature film, a documentary about Tunick's epic road trip, capturing the numerous challenges that sit in the way of great art. The film, released by Docurama, won two film festival awards and added to Tunick's great acclaim. Is the DVD an adequate showcase for this artist and his endeavors?
Facts of the Case
Several dozen naked people lay in the streets of New York City. Before long, cops show up to arrest the organizer of this big show of skin, Spencer Tunick. He's been through this before; with multiple arrests in his past, Tunick and his lawyer are used to going to court. But the question of his free speech is just a footnote to Spencer's quest. Naked people in Central Park is not enough for him; photographing a naked person in every single state is what he's really after. His van is packed, his cameras loaded. His goal is to have his own gallery show and a mention in every art magazine, most of which won't return his phone call.
Donnelly follows Tunick and his clan—his producer, assistants, girlfriend Krissy Bowler—from state to state, sometimes interviewing the subjects themselves. One woman finds posing nude cathartic after suffering a rape; another woman in Fargo, ND, can't wait to throw off the shackles of her conservative small town and break out from conformity.
Occasionally, Spencer's diva-like whining ("I don't want to be in tabloids!" when he misunderstands a reporter's description of the Boston Herald as a tabloid-size publication) and the often begrudging support of his insecure girlfriend (um, does Krissy know she's dating a gay guy? Sorry, my gaydar just wouldn't shut up the whole time!) offer a bit of personal flavor to this artistic journey. Long nights, sleeping in a van, and trying not to get arrested are all taking its toll. This artist, however, is focused and determined, enough to achieve his goals—photographs from every state and an art show.
This film could learn from such focus—it swings wildly from Tunick's personal aspirations to subjects' personal stories, to the often-tedious routine of convincing subjects to pose. At times, the film seems more a manual on how to photograph nude strangers than an emotional, cultural, and artistic showcase. Sure, it was a kick seeing lots of naked folks run around, but I need some substance behind the skin!
The subjects reveal it all, at least physically; perhaps Tunick is not revealing enough, censoring his temper and artistic angst. The subjects are not allowed to tell more of their story and perspective beyond a few sound bites. Because of this sense of barely exposing the players, Naked States occasionally falters. It still is a kick seeing lots of boobs and hoo-hahs fly in front of your face every ten seconds. It's kinda like Showgirls but, you know, with class. I just wanted a bit more story behind the art.
There is one emotional through-line in Naked States here that pops out: Tunick's emergence as an artist. In the beginning, art journals ignore him; once the project is completed, he's featured in several, even popping up on the cover of one or two. Such trials and tribulations of an artist make for fascinating viewing.
The photo subjects also provide a wealth of untapped material. Posing nude meant a great deal to them, and they all have wonderful stories that could form a whole new documentary. These stories give Naked States a human feel that helps this film connect to the audience.
Interspersed with and diluting Tunick's artistic agonies and subjects' heartfelt testimonies, we get slapdash encounters with his various destinations—a pointless foray into the desert festival Burning Man, slow-going documentation of recruiting subjects. Without a major theme to go on, the movie is uneven and not as gripping as it should be. Naked States is still worth a watch to see Tunick's unusual journey unfold, but I would not recommend it as a purchase.
Aurally, the Dolby Digital 1.0 mix was just fine. You don't need much here, but it is a documentary, so I was wary of background noise or dirty sound. But dialogue was crisp and clear, there was very little buzz or hissing, if at all, and background noises rarely got in the way of dialogue. The sound here was rarely muddled or uneven, a surprise considering documentaries can be rife with last-minute production issues.
Visually, Naked States is full screen. A documentary mostly shot on video doesn't necessarily look bad on full screen. However, much of this film is spent on the road, in cornfields, exploring the vastness of America. The full screen presentation was claustrophobic. As far as the 1.33:1 full frame transfer goes, it looks great. There are some shots that are murky, shot on the fly, in bad light—but that's what documentaries are about: the imperfection of reality. Visual quality is likely to fall short at the expense of capturing the moment. I judged the transfer by the well-lit, carefully set up shots, and nary a speck of grain or flaw could be found in those. Colors were rich and true, especially the Midwestern sunrises frequently caught on tape before early-morning photo shoots. With what they had to work with, Docurama did a fine transfer on this film. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
Extras here are great. The weakest link would be the short film (approximately 13 minutes), Strawberry Fields. Strawberry Fields documents the photo shoots of crowds of nude New Yorkers by the Strawberry Fields John Lennon memorial. It's mostly more tedium of watching Tunick bark out orders and direct nude bodies like traffic. The film finally comes alive at the end when subjects are asked how it felt to run naked in the NYC streets, and their natural surprise and wonder is worth the watch.
Bios of Donnelly and Tunick give greater insight into their work; Donnelly was a former commercial and video director, and as mentioned before this is her first feature. Tunick's bio reveals at length his court victories, which again deserved more mention in the film itself.
Naturally, a documentary DVD about a photographer would not be complete without his photos. Here is where we get a feel for the beauty of Tunick's work; a handful of stunning nude photos are available. To me, these photos convey more meaning about his work, more simply and with more impact, than the actual film. Plus, they are well-organized, their thumbnails arranged on the left side of the screen, the enlarged views taking up the right half. Also, they're all NAKED. A definite plus.
A surprisingly fun addition was the plug for Docurama and their catalog. "About Docurama" is a description of the DVD company that focuses on, you guessed it, documentaries, and the catalog is, for lack of a better word, really cool! I know I know, it could be gratuitous, gauche advertising—but documentaries need all the exposure than they can get, and what better way to view a DVD catalog but on a DVD? The nice thing about DVDs is that you can CHOOSE to view these things. If you find a catalog disruptive—you can just leave it unviewed, a mere button on the menu screen. Remember videotapes when you were forced to fast forward through promos?
In a clear, colorful design, you can page through over 20 documentaries on DVD. Descriptions are given and most also come with trailers. I'm a trailer addict. Like most movie fans, I can sit enraptured through 20 minutes of previews at the beginning of a movie and not complain, "When's it gonna start?" Here I had at least ten trailers, all for my viewing, many which grabbed me from the first few seconds. A very organized, tasteful way to advertise Docurama's repertoire.
Credits round out the extras, all displayed in the clear, modern menu set up. The use of cool blue and orange and neatly arranged buttons make it easy to navigate this disc; a thoughtful design by Docurama.
Very intelligent choice of extras, slick design, and lots of nude people running around. You'd think this would be a winner—and as a DVD, it is. As a documentary…it's good for one viewing, but I would not recommend this for collectors. The film lacks the focus that this talented photographer has and left me wanting more.
Convicted of indecent exposure of so-so filmmaking…but a shortened sentence thanks to tasteful extras.
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