Is contemporary art becoming more like art house cinema and its web of global funders and interests?
Any healthy art machine requires a good circulatory system. It’s all well and good to make a work of art, but just as important is the machinery that connects the work of art to its intended or unintended audience — and, by extension, a marketplace. In visual/gallery art there are a few different, overlapping systems with increasingly broad audiences. So, if you do well in the portfolio circuit, you might get to the gallery circuity; do well in the gallery circuit and you might make it to the biennial circuit; do well at a biennial or two and you may even make it to the museum circuit; do well in the museum circuit and you’ll probably do alright in the art history; do well there and be remembered throughout the ages.
Recognizing that they’re completely separate entities, I sometimes think that the film festival circuit (Telluride, Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, TriBeCa … ) is the cinema equivalent of the gallery circuit. Maybe it’d be more accurate to collapse galleries and biennials together for the film world. In any case, on the festival circuit, the audience is smaller, typically better educated on the nuances of a given topic, and some of those attending, as with the gallery circuit, might even be there shopping, whether to collect a painting or ‘distribute’ a film. So commercial cinema becomes a very profitable cousin of the museum; a large building, often of dubious architectural merit, with controlled heating, air conditioning, humidity, and that’s full of strange smells (popcorn, sterility, formaldehyde … ).
When I landed in San Francisco I had ideas about where I wanted to go and what to see, but my habit of picking up any news rag that comes within arm’s reach (SF Weekly and San Francisco Bay Guardian in this case – and anything else that’s free) dropped info about the imminently opening Cine+Mas Latino Film Festival in my lap. I was intrigued; maybe the next Gael Garcia Bernal or Selma Hayek would be there, sitting in muted obscurity somewhere in the back row while their face is magnified in Cinemascope on the silver screen. Or maybe, since I worked for two years at a now defunct indie movie house, the Roxie, its cola-soaked floors and less-than-stadium seating nurture some movie-going nostalgia that I’m particularly prone to. At any rate, as much as I’m a dedicated follower of Art in America-as-United-States, I’m also an advocate for a broader definition of America — as a place that’s a strange and occasionally violent mix of European and other cultural transplants.
The opening event for Cine+Mas was a screening of Undertow, a kind of coastal Peruvian Brokeback Mountain with more religion and less Gyllenhaal, by Peruvian director Javier Fuentes-Leon. Just before the lights dimmed, I was rushed to the front to shake hands with Fuentes-Leon, wearing jeans and a matte black jacket, his hair lightly peppered with streaks of silver.
The story of Undertow is straightforward: Miguel (Bolivian born Cristian Mercado), a fisherman in some idyllic town (the film was shot on the storied beaches of Cabo Blanco, where the Pacific slowly washes the Andean foothills), is a fisherman married to Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) with a child on the way. But Miguel also slinks off over a nearby hill to roll sinfully in the sand with the local bohemian/painter, Santiago (Manolo Cardona). In what follows, Santiago drowns and becomes the specter of the murdered king to Miguel’s now-haunted Macbeth. The shot vocabulary elevates the movie, giving it a touch of allegory that allows it to move past the constraint of narrative. The story is seen both humorously and poetically from underwater and with the requisite amount of romantic, contemplating-the-expanse-of-the-sea-and-also-life that makes this kind of film worthwhile.
Fuentes-Leon explains that the film, which makes no outright claims about documentary authenticity, is more of a fable that sketches a quick profile of LGBT issues in a pious and rural small-town Peruvian community. He explains, also that actors reacted to the role in many ways. Approaching possible leads willing to portray a romantic gay relationship, Fuentes-Leon said he got responses that ranged from “that’s against my religion” to “I’ve done too many.” Ultimately, Mercado signed on because of his career aspirations to be a kind of risk-taking actor identified for his talent: a South American Sean Penn.
Think Local, Work Global
In a post-screening question about how this work of art got made, Fuentes-Leon detailed the remarkable story of its financing — a series of events that provide a revealing look at the kind of money it takes to ride this particular art circuit, and where that money comes from.
In all, four national governments provided material support with conditional attachments. Though the germ for the film sprouted almost fifteen years ago, its first steps towards realization took root few years ago at the Berlin Film Festival, where Undertow got its first grant. The grant came with the stipulation that a certain portion of the work take place in Germany, so in post-production that’s where the film’s Super-16 footage got blown up to 35mm for playback in theaters.
Next the French, not to be outdone by the Germans in being seen as the funding source for Hollywood-less film production, agreed to make a grant as long as a producer on the film was French.
Third, a somewhat happenstance meeting with Colombian officials took place in Spain, and the Colombians agreed to provide financial support as long as one of the leads was a Colombian; ergo Manolo Cardona as Santiago, the object of Miguel’s affections and the source of his conflicted double-life.
And finally, Peru provided the backdrop. The multi-national financing, crewing, production, and dissemination of the film, while impressive, belie the fact that it isn’t beholden to a studio for profits; like a gallery show, the film can be an artistic success without pressure that it risks being a business flop. A good thing? Perhaps.
The real takeaway, though, is getting a glimpse of the foreign/art-house film circuit and its concomitant web of multi-polar promises, where at least the story is left to the storyteller.
A sign of things to come?