A Review of the Film (Untitled)

The film (Untitled) draws the curtain back on art and some of its creators in a dark, comedic look at the avant-garde art world. The straightforward plot belies the humorous and introspective nature of the film. The film simplifies the world of modern art into a few component archetypes.

The “True Genius” is Adrian Jacobs (Goldberg), a talented piano player who makes some income playing traditional classics at a stuffy fine dining restaurant, but prefers to spend most of his time on his real passion?—?composing and performing what is less music and is more orchestrated noise. Along with a couple of other musicians they bang and scream thier way through Adrian’s music, using instruments that include a tin bucket, sheets of paper and a length of steel chain as well as a clarinet and a piano. The “Sell Out” is Adrian’s brother Josh (Bailey) a visual artist who makes benign, predictable paintings using simple forms and lots of happy gradiated colors. He is very successful because he makes the kind of work the average lawyer would like hanging in his office, and in fact, that is where his work hangs, sold en masse to hotels and corporate offices.

The “Big Name Artists” are egomaniac Ray Barko (Jones) who makes art by hanging taxedermied squirrels on a chandelier, and introverted Monroe (Slocum) who by putting a sticker on a blank gallery wall with the title “Untitled White Wall,” declares it art. The “Collector” is Porter Canby (Orth), a foolish multimillionaire software baron who looks at art purely from an investment and return perspective, and as a bonus his collection allows him to be a bohemian by association. These characters all live in the context of The “Gallery Owner,” the beautiful and sexy Madeline Gray (Shelton) who sells?—?maybe “whores out” would be a better term?—?Josh’s banal paintings secretly out of the back room of her hip NYC gallery, while only showing the more inscrutable work of Barko and Monroe publicly.

The plot of the film is predictable, but what makes the film enjoyable is the constant question it asks: what is art, anyway? Is a thumbtack in a wall a work of art? What if Picasso was the one who pushed the tack into the wall? Adrian’s music is clearly intended to represent that which is misunderstood?—?like a lot of modern art the artist is almost daring the audience to “get it” or not. In a not-subtle reference to Damian Hirst’s work with dead preserved animals, we look at Barko’s taxidermy sculptures and ask ourselves if it is good or not, if it is art or not. This constant search for affirmation through art carries through to the characters as well. Adrian’s on and off physical relationship with Madeline starts with art: Adrian wants to record the sound her vinyl skirt makes when she walks to use in his compositions.

(Untitled)’s success lies not in its grand gestures but in its subtle truths. Barko’s dead animals and Adrian’s music were created and composed by real artists, therefore layering the story into deeper questions of what is art or not. The film assumes you have a reference of modern art and you can understand how work like this really is out there, are really does sell at galleries to collectors like Canby, who locks the work in a storage closet and hope the artist dies soon so the work appreciates in value overnight.

One small scene really sums up what the film is saying. Adrian goes to see a concert composed by Morton Cabot (Ben Hammer)?—?a hero of avant-garde music and clearly someone Adrian admires and deifies. When a critic at the concert starts to explain his dislike?—?without invitation?—?of what he just heard to Cabot, the elderly, jaded composer replies snarkily “thank you for trying to listen to it.” Adrian asks his hero how he deals with such idiocy, and Cabot says “as an artist, you have to find enjoyment in the process.” In other words, art is not about the person looking at the art, but it is about the artist himself. The film is the same: not about the realities of the art, but about the realities of the people making the art.

Directed by Jonathan Parker, 2009. Starring Adam Goldberg, Marley Shelton, Eion Bailey, Lucy Punch, Vinnie Jones, Zak Orth, Ptolemy Slocum