Wednesday, April 23, 2008

TriBeCa Diaries 1: The Universe of Keith Haring

I'm going to take a break from reviewing old favorites for a bit and concentrate on the experiences in store for me at the TriBeCa Film Festival taking place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan April 23 through May 4.

In addition to being fully accredited as a member of the press (as the Film Correspondent for The Latest Show on Earth--see it at or host Joe Hendel's, I will also be volunteering for the festival's Screening department. As my producer Steve Paul told me "That means you're an expert AND a mensch!" But I think I stumped the volunteer coordinators tonight at orientation when I revealed I was also going to be carrying a press pass. I was wondering if there would be any conflict between the two positions. A bit confused, they said they had never been faced with the situation, so I merely said that I would handle whatever comes my way. I'm concerned I may miss some press screenings because of my volunteer work, but I'm sure in any case I'll be seeing a bunch of movies over the next two weeks.

After getting the full rundown tonight of our duties and privileges, the festival treated us to a screening: The Universe of Keith Haring. Here's my review:

Annie Leibowitz's stunning portrait of Keith Haring (1958-1990)

I've always liked Keith Haring's work. An automatic abstract artist myself, and one unconsciously similar to Haring in style (not in talent, mind you), I especially find nowadays that I appreciate his free and easy manner. As one of the interview subjects opines in Christina Clausen's new documentary The Universe of Keith Haring, he was very much like a musician with his visual art, making marks here and there that came together into full orchestrations. His work, heavily influenced by cartoons and comics (which is probably why they speak to me personally) is alive with color, movement, sexuality, generosity and meaning.

While Clausen's documentary is fascinating in its exhaustive visual research--there's plenty of footage of Haring at work and play here--it unfortunately feels markedly unadventurous. Rarely does the movie itself ever feel as frisky as its subject's art. Instead of opting for a more difficult telling of Haring's story, Clausen simply recounts a birth-to-death narrative that is nowhere near what this groundbreaker deserves. This structure makes The Universe of Keith Haring merely into a finer-than-usual A&E Biography.

A few outstanding problems exist with some of the filmmaker's aesthetic choices. An irritating recurrence comes in the introduction of each new interview subject. When Kenny Scharf, Yoko Ono or Fab Five Freddy appear to speak of their times with Haring, Clausen inexplicably has the camera zero in on her subject's left eye, whereby the screen turns glowing red. What is this, The Terminator? I don't get the reasoning for this repetitive, time-wasting element. And I have a further beef with the director's use of music, which makes the common mistake of dictating our emotions. When her interviewees begin discussing, for instance, Haring's death in 1990 from AIDS, of course Clausen resorts to sad tinkling notes from a piano to play at our heartstrings. It never works. And when dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones talks of his dance piece backed by only the clicking sounds of Haring's brush against the paint can as he toiled in the background, Clausen can't muster up the bravery to let us experience this near silent piece for more than a moment.

I do like where the movie goes in its latter half when it examines the effect that mounds of money had on Haring's work. Always one to give his art away, his advisers told him to stop doing that because the laws of supply and demand would drive his prices down. But that didn't keep him from donating murals to cities his work was shown in (the above photo has Haring standing in front of his last public mural, "Tuttomondo," painted on the wall of the convent of the Church of Sant'Antonio in Pisa, Italy). He donated murals to hospitals, houses and museums, and would not only sign his name for children he visited, he showed his adoration for youth by offering detailed drawings they could call their own. This portion of Clausen's movie is effective and emotional. But it still remains that the film feels padded out to achieve full-length status.

Even so, like a lot of pop culture documentaries, if you're already a fan of the art, then you're gonna wanna see the movie. And, to be sure, they're enjoyable, those glimpses we get of Haring swiftly at work in the subways, or gallivanting cheerfully in experimental film pieces made for Club 57 on St. Mark's in NYC's East Village, or communing with an adoring Andy Warhol (whom he took as his "date" to Madonna's doomed marriage to Sean Penn). Even if the movie does deliver these fine moments, don't expect an emotional or intellectual steamroller like the king of all artist documentaries, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb. The Universe of Keith Haring plays it much too safe to reach those heights.

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