Although I fancy myself a film snob and love the lure of Toronto, Park City, Cannes, and Venice, I have to confess that Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF) is my favourite film fest-well, my favourite local film festival at least. These curators of fine cinema have a knack for finding films that are off-beat, quirky, unpretentious, and entertaining. This month CUFF presents Beautiful Losers, a feature length documentary about an ad hoc urban artist collective in the 90’s. The self-described “beautiful losers” are an odd mix of skaters, punks, and nerds, all masters of the “do it yourself” style of street art.
Traditionally, art docs are talking head pieces that preach to the converted. In short they are geeky art films for geeks. Recent documentaries on art are typically critical of the nature of art itself like My Kid Could Paint That and Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollock. I can think of only a handful of art documentaries I could recommend. Making a wide appeal film celebrating art is about as difficult a mission as a director can undertake-one about a disparate group of New York “rich bored kids” is nothing short of a miracle. Freshman co-directors Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard have the advantage of being the curators and writers of the Beautiful Losers art exhibit and book and are incestuously familiar with their subjects. Discarding their first filmatic attempt after realizing it was solipsistic and self-indulgent the two nascent directors ended up with a film that is as artfully made as the works they explore.
Rose and Leonard affect an airy and superficial tone that belies a strangely charming insecurity shared not only by the directors but by the artists themselves. At one point artist Harmony Korine waxes nostalgic to neighbourhood kids about his friend’s decapitated head found where they are playing. The speech of these thirty something artists often borders on inarticulate and although it doesn’t discount all their profundities, phrases like “super-awesome” highlight the counter-culture denizens’ immaturity and intellectual primitivism. We admire their art despite themselves and we like the artists as much out of a strange pity as for their unbounded passion.
The commercial success of these anti-consumer artists is by necessity a delicious irony-and as forgivable as the kid who eventually abandons his dream of becoming an astronaut. Whether it is Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama posters selling for thousands or Geoff McFetridge’s graffiti art now hawking Pepsi most of the artists are blissfully unaware of their status as sell-outs, citing their courtship with Madison Avenue as vindication of their earlier suffering. The few purists that are the exception are, of course, those still toiling away without corporate America’s notice.
Beautiful Losers features decades of footage, both color and black-and-white, VHS footage and digital video format. The end result is a mosaic of visual textures and styles and art that is simply phenomenal-although you better not be expecting oil paintings and bronzes. As one of the artists points out, “there is no such thing as a straight line”, imperfection in both art and the artist is a given and that says everything about this film. Not since Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten have I felt like grabbing some crayons and making some art of my own.
Beautiful Losers will play at the Plaza on November 29.