Original Schtick

(Maciej Wszelaki, Australia, 1999)


If it was fiction, people would label it heavy-handed, overstated. Bob Fischer, American artist, lands in Melbourne with an impressive CV and a personality that oozes ambition and success. His boyfriend-patron is named Ed Proffitt. A psychic rings in regular predictions of wealth and fame. Bob seems to be waiting for news of his father's impending death, because he believes it will be a good career omen.

But Original Schtick is a documentary, and the above list is only a sampling of the bizarre circus surrounding Fischer during his local residency. The facts of the case have been widely reported and commented upon in the Australian press: it turned out that Fischer was something of an operator, and he managed to upset most of the artworld people he dealt with. This video, directed for television by Maciej Wszelaki, gradually unmasks the man (the con artist?) behind the self-made myth.

The appeal of the video can largely be attributed to the fact that it preys on many people's worst nightmares – and also their most prejudiced assumptions – about modern art. Whatever Fischer's degree of talent or skill, the simple truth is that he works in the Pop-conceptual tradition of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. Thus, the fact that he gets other artists to (quite willingly) fill in his canvases for him is not quite as outrageous as it might at first seem.

Original Schtick is better placed, I believe, within a special tradition that haunts Australian cinema of all stripes. The video offers an Australian vision of the encounter between American culture – big, bad, seductive, predatory, opportunistic, treacherous – and our own, more precarious culture.

Local movies from Razorback (1984) and The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) to Welcome to Woop Woop (1998) via Crocodile Dundee (1986) have heartily used the stereotypes of Ugly American versus Innocent Aussie to dramatise this momentous, tragi-comic encounter. The mood of these films is, ultimately, unmistakable: they express a fierce and resentful hatred of Americans and America, a quality admired by other downtrodden, USA-hating nations like Britain.

Wszelaki was lucky enough to find this situation, whole and intact, right in front of his video lens. Certainly, it would be hard to find an uglier American than Fischer. Every gruesome detail of his manner and comportment is dwelt on, often in excruciating slow motion.

Yet, even if inadvertently, this doco manages to give a more balanced portrait than usual of the American-Australian clash. Fischer can often be monstrous, but there are moments when one almost sympathises with his outbursts – particularly when confronted with the Aussie inefficiency and half-heartedness that is typified by his reluctant assistant (and the video's co-producer), Peter George.

Fischer's constant estimation of the people he meets as manipulable losers, fools and desperate, semi-talented hopefuls is an irksome spectacle, to be sure, and it reflects badly on him. But there is also a wicked sense that, at times, Fischer tells the absolute, awful truth about the delusions of the Australian artworld and some of its players.

There is a point at which Original Schtick starts to become less persuasive. The vehemence with which the locals who first welcomed Fischer start turning on him, and their outrage over his art and business practices, smacks of hysteria and defensiveness – and the filmmakers are only too ready to buy into this vengeful gang-bang.

But wasn't Fischer, to some extent, open and transparent right from the start about his plans? (He is certainly extraordinarily candid to Wszelaki's camera.) Couldn't all the dealers and collaborators who fell in with him judge from the outset whether he was a major or minor artist? What about the filmmakers themselves – were they always so suspicious in his company, or did they have more faith at the beginning of the project?

Ultimately, Original Schtick is less an investigative documentary than a queasily compelling soap opera. It sticks relentlessly to a video-vérité style poised just a couple of inches from its subjects' mugs, and is strung together in a simple, linear, storytelling style familiar from Rats in the Ranks (1996).

Whatever one makes of Fischer and his actions, he becomes, through this doco, some kind of star. And as he flies off to Asia at the end, accompanied by the positive exhortations of his psychic, one prays for an even more surreal sequel.

MORE Australian documentary: Facing the Music, One Way Street, Carlton + Godard = Cinema, Wildness, Mamadrama, Mademoiselle and the Doctor

© Adrian Martin September 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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