Aaron Rose & Joshua Leonard
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 20 March 2008
Source 35mm Print
Categories The 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival
Stephen Powers is getting a haircut, and it will be a ridiculous one to most people. If his hair were thicker it would be a hi-top fade - identical to Kid’s in House Party - but his hair is a bit frenzied. Instead of extending the shape of his head, it juts upward, fading evenly into the space above in a perfect gradient. As the barber trims his scalp (his hair fading equally into his head), Stephen gives precise direction, and the result is perfectly what he’s asking for, only revolutionarily different from what would conventionally be perceived as a haircut—rather, it’s an opportunity for expression that few people may think of taking. It’s also an opportunity for self-indulgence, which is integral to the artistic process. To quote another of the eleven artists Beautiful Losers centers on, “If other people were doing it, I wouldn’t do it.”
Stephen belongs to a sort of collective of artists, although I hesitate to refer to them as such. “Collective” is an art historian’s word, and it denies the circumstance that I feel has been more contributive to their art. Their grouping should be regarded as more of an incident than an organization, founded upon a shared openness for inspiration, not a shared aesthetic. They first met in the 1980s, hanging in or around a storefront art gallery in the East Village that doubled as a floor to sleep on. Their collaboration (specifically in a traveling exhibition with which this film shares a title) shares a disinterest in correlation. In sum they employ a variety of approaches to and perspectives on art: one writes graffiti, another surmises concepts, and one collects and exhibits skateboards. Beautiful Losers is comprised largely of interviews with each, intercut with footage of them at work, their faces close to a canvas or gallery wall, a pen or brush in their hands.
What do correlate these artists, however, are personal needs. Art must consider commerce, and the film allows each artist to remark on how, fundamentally, they are able to supply for themselves and their families while remaining independent. Most of them have been commissioned, their work used on billboards or animated introductions for ESPN’s X-Games coverage, for example. One may think that these paid gigs are a means to an end; they function doubly as recognition, and this is something the film considers rather ambiguously. I say “ambiguously” because what interests me is artists for whom publicity has no utility whatsoever—J.D. Salinger’s is in my mind an infinitely more fascinating biography than Truman Capote’s. Harmony Korine’s presence in the film examples its fascination with personality over art, as he is apparently only tangentially tied to the others in the film and supplies what is easily the loudest laughter.
Beautiful Losers is thoroughly informative but highly sentimental, and perhaps my suspicion that its foremost intention to publicize these artists is unfair. Biographies on art and artists are easily construed; the questions this film raises and the curiosity it fosters is uncomplicated. Although the film suffers from this approach, it emphasizes the personality over the work—this personality is the film’s most unique feature, but it is a typical approach to art, allowing the work to speak on its own terms and without interpretation. That said, all art deserves biography, and great art deserves recognition. Beautiful Losers honors both tenets justly.
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