Before it premiered on television earlier this summer, I had fully intended to be a regular viewer of Bravo’s artist reality series Work of Art. But when it came down to it, I couldn’t care enough to actually sit and watch it. It’s the kind of television that’s ready-made for a certain kind of cynically derisive blogosphere/twitterverse commentary with which we’ve all become familiar, and after I took a blogging hiatus I kind of felt like, eh…why waste my time when I’ve got better things to do? I’ve gotten bored with Twitter too, just as I suspected I would, though I can attribute my boredom directly to the onset of sunnier weather here in Chicago. I don’t want to keep my face in front of a computer screen (or a cell phone) all day unless someone gives me a really good reason to do that. Call me old-fashioned that way. At any rate, one of the reasons I’d been wanting to follow Work of Art (beyond feeling the aforementioned obligation to blog about it) is because I’m interested in the ways that artists are portrayed in popular media. The figure of the artist is easily misunderstood and thus ripe for parody and exploitation, but there are also a number of films in which the portrayal of artists — be they visual artists, musicians, filmmakers, fashion designers, whatever — is complex and nuanced and surprisingly meaningful. Sally Potter’s RAGE is not a great example of this, but I’m going to write about it anyway, for reasons that will hopefully become clear by the end.
Potter, the acclaimed if still somewhat under-recognized British director, has a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art this month, which runs through July 21st and features screenings of her early shorts, her first feature The Gold Diggers (1983) as well as her acclaimed film Orlando (1992), which stars Tilda Swinton and is based on the novel Orlando by Virginia Woolf. RAGE, Potter’s most recent film, was completed in 2009 and has the distinction of being the first full-length movie released on cell phone (it is also viewable in segments at Babelgum, which bought the movie rights for distribution online, and can now also be purchased on DVD). Because the film was made to be watched on a cell phone, its major conceit is that what viewers are watching is a documentary on the fashion industry that is being shot on cell phone by a student named Michaelangelo and posted each day on a website.
The film employs close-up and direct address exclusively because, as Potter explained in an interview for indiewire, both are part of the language of Facebook and My Space. The narrative portrays seven days at a fashion company that’s gearing up for its designer’s big show, and consists of a series of extended close-up interviews with various people who work for the company. The fashion designer, a tchetchy fellow named Merlin (Simon Abkarian), favors black, wears a goatee, and comes from an unnamed country associated with terrorist activities. He starts out the film by asserting that as an artist/designer, “I make statements.” Later, he adjusts the metaphor somewhat by asserting, “My work influences everybody. It’s like a secret research laboratory and I am like a scientist.”
Also interviewed for the documentary are Edith “Edie” Roth (Dianne Weist), the kindly backstage manager who fondly recalls the days when her father owned the company and the fashion industry was referred to as “the garment trade;” Minx, a transgendered runway model who “loves the light” (Jude Law) and Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole), a young female model who was last year’s New Face of the Year; the intelligently bitchy fashion writer Mona Carvel (Judi Dench); a pizza delivery boy/aspiring model named VJ (Riz Ahmed); an ambitious intern named Dwight Angel (Patrick J. Adams) and the nervous P.R. flack Otto (Jakob Cedergren), among other characters. Despite working for a busy fashion house, somehow all of these people have loads of time to sit in front of Michaelangelo’s cell phone and reveal–knowingly or unknowingly–their personal truths. How these high-level professionals find so much time to give to a student who’s using his cell phone for a camera is never explained, but it’s clear that none of these people can help themselves. They’re drawn to the camera–any camera–as if the indiscriminate presentation of the self had become an ingrained, even primal impulse that these human beings found themselves compelled to fulfill.