The Adventures of Cliff Ingersoll
… And Other Evil Artists of the Movies


David Williamson is widely regarded as one of Australia’s greatest playwrights. He is especially praised for his skills as a social satirist – for his ability to deftly stereotype representative characters from all walks of national life. However, as time and fame have taken Williamson further and further away from the counter-cultural milieu of his youth, some of his caricatures have become increasingly skewed, unreal, even a bit hysterical. This is particularly so when it comes to those who Williamson obviously regards as weird, pretentious, inner city types – like intellectuals, politicos and feminists.

To a jaundiced observer of Williamson’s urban panorama, one character stands out above all: the artist created for
Tim Burstall’s 1981 film Duet for Four. This was Burstall’s attempt to remake his ‘70s classic Peterson for the ‘80s. In Duet for Four, Mike Preston plays a rugged, proletarian, authentically Aussie bloke – a toy manufacturer – who is at sea in a scary world. His daughter (Sigrid Thornton) is lost in a decadent, bohemian ghetto of university education, drugs and loud music, while his wife (Diane Cilento) has left him for the lure of – horror of horrors – the art world. She runs a gallery, and has ensnared a dependent, foppish young painter, whose name pretty much says it all: Cliff Ingersoll – part dandy, part foreigner. All it takes is one glance at his dress style – a florid wing-like structure rising from his shoulders over his weedy, exposed chest – and another at his suitably weird artwork, to know that Cliff is an evil artist, and absolutely no match for Mike.

Beyond Australia, and even when all the characters in a film are artists, the dramatic diagram of Duet for Four tends to assert its paranoid, philistine viewpoint. One of the liveliest cinematic representations of artists and their milieu is provided by Martin Scorsese in the opening “Life Lessons” episode of New York Stories (1989). This story pits a supposedly Real Artist – Nick Nolte as Lionel Doblin, an abstract expressionist in the tradition of Jackson Pollock – against the cold, slimey world of art dealers and apparently fake young artist-operators in the Warhol tradition, the latter symbolised by one Gregory Stark, played by Steve Buscemi. (Again, note the character names.)

When Lionel paints, he lives – using a trash can lid for a rough palette and a selection of classic rock tunes for stimulation, he gets worked up, splatters himself, spills his guts and bares his soul on a vast canvas. Gregory is, like Cliff in Duet for Four, the hero’s rival in the affections of the gorgeous, aspiring painter played by Rosanna Arquette. He is also – and this is the evil part – a performance artist. Near the start of the story there is a dialogue exchange that sums up perfectly the film’s attitude towards this unnatural species of artist, as Nolte quizzes Arquette about her other man:

He: That kid, the comedian?

She: A performance artist.

He: A performance artist. What the hell is a performance artist? A person’s an actor, a singer, a dancer. I mean, do you call the guy who picks up your garbage a sanitary engineer? A performance artist …

This little soliloquy is very expressive. For this bear-like, all-American artist, there are two noble creative vocations: either being a real painter, or else an honest-to-god entertainer. Both vocations are unpretentious, hard working, straight down the line. This is in fact a recurring theme in Scorsese’s movies: in After Hours (1985), the running joke about the latest fancy Soho art is that it’s “not hard to do”. And performance art, apparently, takes even less work.

Neither artist nor entertainer, Gregory Stark in “Life Lessons” is a pallid stage presence whose act verifies the suspicion of Edward Colless that “‘Performance’ is surely one of the most impoverished conceits of late modern and postmodern art” – a conceit in which the slightest evidence of showbiz flair would be quite an embarrassment. Indeed, when we at last get a snippet of Stark’s performance art – a sub-sub-Spalding Gray rap on urban paranoia delivered under an exploding light bulb in an abandoned train tunnel – it seems like a poor simulacrum of a bad stand-up comedian’s routine.

Reflecting on this short movie by Scorsese in the annual British publication Projections, the great French film director and historian Bertrand Tavernier commented on the palpable unease of American filmmakers when depicting acts of with artistic creation. They tend to “portray creators and artists as if they were normal people, as unintellectual as possible, who laugh at the interpretations other people place on their works”. And those who “transgress these taboos are shown as depraved, dangerously sick people whom society has to eliminate”. In the Old Hollywood film noir era, as Tavernier reminds us, such Cliff Ingersolls were usually played by Claude Rains, James Mason or Vincent Price – evil, European dandies one and all.

These days, it is predominantly artists of an experimental persuasion – conceptual, performance, installation or multi-media artists – who bear the mantle of evil. It is certainly curious that, at least three decades after Pop Art, such suspicious stereotyping can still so readily cloak these art forms and their practitioners. The phenomenon bespeaks a continuing resistance to any cool, cerebral or theoretical art, and a corresponding nostalgia for the most simplistic conceptions of the Romantic Artist.

In Catchfire (1987), director Dennis Hopper, disguised as a hit man, rails at Jodie Foster for her cool, postmodern, neon-sign text pieces – actually borrowed for the occasion from Jenny Holzer. He clinches his argument by pulling the plug on them and delivering a tirade against “wall-socket art”. In Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers (1983), we find an even more ancient dramatisation of this great divide: Norman Kaye as the painter of the title, quiet, patient and classical, versus a Pollock-style action-painter of mid-’60s vintage, played with typically deranged exuberance by Chris Haywood. No wonder one commentator called Cox’s schematic narrative “a somewhat uneasy tilt at ‘modern’ art’”.

If the attitudes reflected in these depictions of evil contemporary artists seems strangely dated and skewed, the attempt to capture the essence of their actual work in a nutshell is usually even more ludicrous. In Joel Schumacher’s multicultural comedy Cousins (1989), a teenager defiantly announces to his assembled family that he is a “multi-media performance artist” – and then presents a crude pastiche of the ‘scratch video’ genre, juxtaposing happy family snaps and starving Biafrans. The Roger Corman-produced thriller Body Chemistry (1990) contains a twist on a popular anti-intellectual joke – “what do you get when you cross a mafioso with a performance artist? An offer you can’t understand” – and follows it with a snatch of performance art that looks like a grotesque jazz ballet from 1955, accompanied by musique concrète squawks, squeaks and glissandos from 1925. Continuing in a musical vein, Men Don’t Leave (1989) gives us a few bars of an earnest experimental ensemble in full flight – playing a phalanx of typewriters and cake mixers.

Further examples abound: the alienated young sculptor (Diane Lane) in Lady, Beware (1985) who attracts psycho killers with her disembodied mannequins displayed in department store windows; the wacky young experimental filmmaker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in The Big Picture (1989) whose efforts seem mainly to consist of murky shots of her jumping up and down with teddy bears, until she finds her niche in music video; the priceless glimpse of a “radical student film” from the psychedelic ‘60s that appears at the climax of Dirty Tricks (1992), a frantic montage of jerky, hand held shots shot through star filters of militants screwing under the American flag. But the most popular instance of this phenomenon is surely the ultimate: Daryl Hannah’s presentation in her loft, to an audience consisting solely of Robert Redford, of an entire performance art piece in Legal Eagles (1988).

This one deserves a close description. Hannah – playing Chelsea Dearden, a flighty performance artist going on trial for avenging a crime committed long ago against her painter father – has a minimalist set, and a complete barrage of audio-visual equipment, up and ready to be performed in at any time. She begins her act by whispering into a microphone and activating some kind of sampled sound mix, backed by a monotonous drum machine track. Laurie Anderson seems to be the main reference point here, as Chelsea breathlessly utters phrases that are meant to be casual, banal, chilling and profoundly meaningful all at once – “piece of cake”, “old flame”, “brush fire” – and toys with objects that transform from painting utensils to explosive weapons.

Every image that flashes up during this performance is an image of Chelsea, and every gesture or symbol refers to the ‘primal scene’ surrounding her dear departed daddy. It’s as if whoever devised this nutty set piece had quickly skimmed Rosalind Krauss on the “aesthetics of narcissism” in postmodern art, for a bit of deep background research. After the show’s over – Chelsea’s effigy going up in flames, and Redford grabbing for a fire hose – the artist writes her own review: “I’m trying to challenge your perspective, and make you uncomfortable”. Naturally, this is the cue for a romantic clinch between performer and spectator.

Contemporary artists and their art are not always so badly served by the cinema. In the realm of adventurous avant-garde fictions, one should be grateful for Babette Mangolte’s extraordinary and little-seen The Cold Eye (1980), in which a first-person, subjective camera takes us through the treacherous, interpersonal maze of the New York artworld, or Yvonne Rainer’s films including The Man Who Envied Women (1985), with their intimate, skeptical reflections on artists’ lifestyles and their shifting social place. Even those films which take a stand on the romanticism of the tortured artist in the midst of a heartless world can do so with passion and conviction – like Jacques Rivette’s masterpiece La Belle Noiseuse (1991), with its intense focus on (as Tavernier puts it) “creation and its torments”. Even the more outlandish visions of artistic creation can have unforeseen positive uses: according to Bob Colacello in his book Holy Terror, it was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s wild image of a demented painter urinating on his canvases in Teorema (1968) that provided the direct inspiration for Warhol’s ‘piss paintings’ of the ‘70s.

However, back in the fantasy realms of Hollywood, the reigning representation of matters artistic is perhaps best summed up in a thriller aptly called Paint it Black (1989), handled with undeniable flair by River’s Edge  director Tim Hunter. This little-known film contains virtually every crucial element mentioned so far. The artist as ordinary bloke: Jonathan Dunbar (played by hunk Rick Rossovich) has a sign flashing NOT ART in his garage/studio; he disparages pretentious artspeak and refers to himself with modest heroism as a humble welder. Sexual intrigue: Jonathan is in the spidery grasp of a predatory, nymphomaniacal, money-grubbing art dealer Marion Easton (Sally Kirkland). Evil conceptual artist: the psychotic villain of the piece is Eric Kinsley, a weedy guy who “can’t draw a straight line”, and is compelled by his “life as art” theories to sadistically kill people and create grotesque sculptures made from their corpses, spray-painted in jet black.

And last but not least there’s the Cliff Ingersoll-type fop figure. His name is George Hector (two first names – not very manly). The moment he has taken Jonathan’s place in the gallery owner’s lustful affections, he immediately gets a show on, titled “White on White”. An exercise in “minimal abstraction” – criminal abstraction, Jonathan calls it – we see the entirety of this exhibition in a suspenseful montage at a high point of the action: a car, and various other clunky, artless, everyday objects, spray painted snow white and set obtrusively within an all-white gallery space. We see less of George himself, but one quick mid-shot is quite enough. He is the spitting image of old Cliff, except he goes one better: along with the crazy shoulder wings, the mad, bulging eyes and the bare, ugly chest, his hair comes at you in tiny, babyish curls.

But finally, as I scan all these lurid, perfectly formulaic art world scenarios of noble and evil artists, crooked dealers and soulless buyers, sexual slaves and perverts, creation damned to oblivion or raised to heaven, I am struck by an obvious, recurring omission. Where are the art critics? Surely there’s a few evil, obsequious, pretentious, murderous psychopaths from that breed who could be easily and logically fitted into these narratives. One thing is certain, however: if such critics start appearing in mainstream movies, they will surely talk in the same up-to-the-minute lingo and with the same fey mannerisms as the gentleman in an ad on Australian TV for potato crisps – expounding in front of an obscure painting about its “existentialist hurdy gurdy” before a helpful member of the general public steps in and turns the picture around the right way.


© Adrian Martin August 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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