Beautiful Losers

Arthouse Films

Arthouse Films

Beautiful Losers is a loosely organised documentary about 11 artists who had in common their exhibits at director Aaron Rose’s art gallery in New York in the 1990s. Via footage of their exhibits, the artists in action, interviews with them about their process of making art, childhood dreams, clips of their work and little performance pieces they have assembled, we see a lot of their work. But despite this plethora of footage, we don’t learn much about this disparate group of nine men and two women.

Several of the interviewees, including Stephen Powers, Harmony Korine, Barry McGee, Chris Johanson and Mike Mills, talk about how they were all kids starting out together brought together with their love of skateboarding, outsider art and graffiti. How feeling left out, angry at their parents and alienated from their surroundings enabled them to make their way to New York City to create art. For the most part, they combine pop-art sensibilities and street-theatre accessibility with idiosyncratic style to enable their individual voices within the clear group ethic (”Beautiful Losers” was the name of a group showing they did in 2004). But it seems that these people had a lot of success very quickly, fairly early on in their careers — Korine had a screenplay produced when he was 19; Mills has directed a Hollywood movie (Thumbsucker) and most of the others have done major commercials, showed at biennales, or been commissioned for film titles or album covers. These are hardly starving artists. At one stage the group is taken to Tokyo for an exhibit and they talk in wonderment about the money which was thrown at them.

The interviews are shot in a stagy talking-head style, with each person interviewed individually. Several of them are hugely uncomfortable in front of the camera and nothing is done to alleviate their awkwardness. Stylistically, there’s very little new in the film, which includes a lack of insight into their work and choices. As much as I love to hear people complain about the ennui of their suburban childhoods, it’s not new, or terribly interesting. This lack of depth is mirrored in their art; perhaps that is the key to its success. I don’t quite understand why they therefore chose to co-opt the word ‘loser’ to describe themselves. Skaters always seemed to have a pretty clear clique identity, like the goths or jocks, which did not have a lot of room for outsiders. The whole ethos portrayed in this film seems to be of a tightly knit group, referencing and re-referencing each other ad infinitum. Also, in high school cliques as in this film, the girls are on the periphery while the boys grab the attention for themselves. Nor do we learn why they felt the group identity offered by the gallery suited them, or just exactly how influential their work has become. And for all their talk about how alienated and outside the mainstream they feel, an awful lot of them went to art school.

So, the point? Well, celebrating your own wonderfulness is always fun. And showing off how far you’ve come from the banality of your suburban wasteland must have a great deal of personal relevance. But my goodness, if all modern art is this shallow, self-involved and self-congratulatory, no wonder so many people just don’t get it.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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