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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Nam June Paik still tells the TV...

Screen Grabs: Nam June Paik still tells the TV future

Plus: Owen Wilson as a Bob Ross-alike in 'Paint,' exquisite toxic cringes in Todd Flaherty's 'Chrissy Judy'

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home,” choreographer Twyla Tharp once opined, and that notion is variably illustrated by three new movies that are portraits of very different artists, both real and fictional.

The real one is the subject of Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV, which opens at the Roxie this Fri/7. Amanda Kim’s documentary profiles the life and career of “the foremost video artist in the world”—he was also arguably the first such—even as he noted “I use technology in order to hate it properly.” It provides a useful biographical addendum to the big retrospective of over 200 Paik works SFMOMA hosted in 2021, and will certainly make you wish you’d seen that show if you missed it.

Born to a wealthy Seoul family during Korea’s pre-division period of Japanese rule, Paik was a musical prodigy who rebelled against his tyrannical father via teenage Marxism and an early fascination with the avant-garde. A particular fixation on composer Arnold Schoenberg led him to study in Germany, where in 1958 he saw a concert by the American experimentalist John Cage. Many baffled or annoyed patrons walked out—but for Paik the experience had a “profound” impact, such that he began terming his prior life “B.C.” (i.e. Before Cage). He began introducing theatrical “actions” to musical performance, using his body as an instrument, abusing the piano, and so forth. That penchant for the subversive and unclassifiable made him a natural participant in the Fluxus movement, whose fellow disruptors included Yoko Ono and Josep Beuys.

By 1963 he was already toying with “TV art,” using the era’s most influential medium as an object of critique and pranking—famously outfitting cellist Charlotte Moorman in a “TV Bra” of two strapped-on tiny monitors. Their collaboration began soon after he moved to NYC in 1964, having decided his new obsession with electronics required relocating to “the communications capital of the planet.” An early adopter once “Port-a-Paks” made video cameras more accessible, his frequently interactive work anticipated such near-future realities as video games and the Internet.

Still, as attention-getting as some of his stunts were, the art world was very slow to acknowledge video art as legitimate, let alone collectible. So he spent many impoverished years before the grants and commissions belatedly started pouring in. They enabled some of his later efforts to achieve increasingly epic multimedia sculptural or international-simulcast dimensions, his image morphing from that of perpetual trickster to honored sage. Despite a debilitating stroke, he remained active until close to his death in 2006 at age 73.

Paik was also a mentor and teacher to whole generations of video artists who followed the trail he’d blazed, many of them (including Marina Abramovic, John Sanborn, and Liz Phillips) heard from here. If Moon doesn’t convey a great deal of the man beyond his work—despite actor Steven Yuen reading his writings on the soundtrack—that may well be because he was one of those artists so driven by a singular vision that there wasn’t time or energy for much else. While much of his output may seem esoteric by mainstream standards (one marvels at the reminder that in earliest days, PBS welcomed just such avant-gardism), a segment comparing Paik innovations to imitative subsequent MTV clips makes it clear he had a large, lasting impact on popular culture.

Laying at some opposite extreme from the provocations of Paik’s audiovisual gambits is the realm of art as decor, and art-making as relaxation for hobbyists. More than ever almost three decades after his death, the king of that realm remains Bob Ross, late host of long-running PBS instructional show The Joy of Painting. From its ads, I assumed writer-director Brit McAdams’ new Paint was an actual Ross biopic, with Owen Wilson adopting a ‘fro as the famously laid-back, frizz-haired proponent of daubing one’s own restful landscapes and still life canvases.

But it turns out Paint is a comedic fiction, using a Ross stand-in to parody aspects of the Me Decade a la Anchorman. Carl Nargle (Wilson) has spent 22 years doing a daily painting show for Burlington, Vermont’s public broadcasting station. Never mind that he always seems to paint the exact same thing—Mount Mansfield, at 4,440 feet the state’s highest peak—his Mr. Rogers-like words of encouragement in a perpetual sotto voce hold rapt a viewership of rest-home seniors and wistful amateur artistes. His affect also seems to humidify the lady parts of many such fans, including virtually every woman working for the station, among them his wised-up production assistant ex Katherine (Michaela Watkins).

He’s still scoring with chicks in the back of a Chevy van as if it were 1973. But trouble in minor-celebrity paradise arises when falling ratings prompt his bosses to hire a younger, hipper, rival daily painting-show host, Ambrosia (Ciara Renee). She’s immune to his charms—in fact she’d rather make goo-goo eyes at a somewhat flummoxed if flattered Katherine. Needless to say, Carl’s very fragile male artist’s ego is not up to this challenge.

Always amusing in a sexy-space-cadet way, Wilson is well-cast here. But Paint’s idea of hilarity is having our petulant hero’s terminally mellow whisper-voice grow yea more inaudible when he’s really, really mad. In other words, this movie is itself too mild to competently satirize mildness. It’s just kind of silly rather than ridiculing the the silly. There is some fun to be had from the plethora of soundtracked golden oldies, but the whole Seventies thing is itself a muffled joke: It takes us a while to realize the movie isn’t actually set back then, but right now. So it makes no sense that Carl acts like he spent young buckhood in ebbing hippie/high disco days and decided never to leave. (Owen Wilson was 11 years old in 1980.)

Then again, miscasting and weak writing make the torch that Katherine still carries for him seem unlikely—Watkins projects too much intelligent skepticism to convince us she’d be love-blind for a whiny manboy. We also fail to believe there’s any spark between the female leads, and as Ambrosia, Broadway talent Renee brings no tangible comic chops to the table. These ought to be minor quibbles. But a comedy lacking more than a few stray chuckles leaves you too much time to think about such things. Not unlike the Tim Burton film about the Keanes, Big Eyes, this movie has a great conceptual opportunity to wring laughs from kitsch art, yet it’s too nice to do so, and too dull-edged to locate any other real point. IFC Films is releasing it to theaters this Fri/7.

Stuck yea further down the ladder of artistic success is the main protagonist in Chrissy Judy. That’s no surprise: The Manhattanite gay man who goes by Judy (Todd Flaherty) is selling something nobody particularly wants, and he’s not even especially good at it. When we first meet him, he’s half of a near-inseparable, probably-mostly-platonic duo with “Chrissy” (Wyatt Fenner), his BFF and drag performance partner. Singing old show tunes poorly for indifferent bar patrons, their act is going nowhere. Still, Judy (nee James) is shaken to the core by Chris announcing he’ll move to Philly in order to get serious about his relationship with on/off boyfriend Shawn (Kiyon Spencer). When J. goes to visit them, bitchy resentment over this “betrayal” boils over, possibly terminating the only real friendship in his life.

One gets the sense he’s already burned a few bridges. Before things turn around over Chrissy Judy’s 96-minute course, we’ll see him burn a couple more. You have to give first-time feature writer-director-star Flaherty credit for nerve: Playing a figure we’re bound to assume is at least a wee autobiographical, he makes Judy shallow, spiteful, and generally toxic. Even his showbiz aspirations seem hollow. “I’m the next Jim Bailey,” he says, as if that was something anyone needs. (In any case, Judy doesn’t do impressions a la Bailey, but rather a painfully old-school, pre-Stonewall drag act mix of glam presentation, stale dirty jokes, and inept vocalizing of Tin Pan Alley standards.) He’s a fit, attractive man, albeit so dependent on the kind of attention—i.e. quickies and one night stands—that generates, turning age 30 strikes him as a catastrophe.

As a result, much of this movie is hard to watch—not because it isn’t good, but because so many scenes are cringe-inducing, as our hero proves his own worst enemy over and over. Shot in handsome B&W, Chrissy Judy manages to avoid too obvious a redemption arc by postponing that turnabout until quite late, then playing it in a relatively low-key fashion. Judy doesn’t instantly become a selfless person, or a great performer—but hitting bottom lends him the perspective needed to substantially improve on all fronts.

This is a film with heart but zero sentimentality, that skillfully earns its dramatic weight by maintaining modest aims that are nonetheless almost lethally accurate. It was playing a sole Greater Bay Area run earlier this week at the Reading Cinema in Rohnert Park (there was no word at presstime if it would be extending through this weekend), but is also available on dvd and on digital platforms from Dark Star Pictures.

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