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(Untitled), dir. Jonathan Parker, now playing

Almost a century after Marcel Duchamp’s nude headed down her staircase, contemporary art is still able to provoke surprise, anxiety, and anger—and not just in the hearts of Hilton Kramer and Rudolph Giuliani. A new movie set in the Chelsea gallery district reminds us that even people who think of themselves as worldly-wise aren’t sure how, or whether, to respond to the art of our time.

Adam Goldberg and Lucy Punch bring the noise in <i>(UNTITLED)</i>. Credit: Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Adam Goldberg and Lucy Punch bring the noise in (UNTITLED). Credit: Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films.

(Untitled) wants to be a smart little comedy about the New York art world, a rich subject if ever there were one. But its considerable charm is weakened by its willingness to go for easy laughs, assuming its audience probably won’t grasp anything more nuanced than “My five-year-old could do that.” Or perhaps the filmmakers themselves aren’t quite as sophisticated as they think they are.

(Untitled) begins as a tale of sibling rivalry. One brother, Josh (the silkily handsome Eion Bailey), is a painter whose vapid abstractions are selling for $10,000 apiece to hotels and hospitals, for whom the charm of his canvases lies in their decorative blandness. “He’s a genius!” exclaims his proud father. The other brother, Adrian (the ever-glowering Adam Goldberg), is a tortured composer of music so tuneless that no one wants to listen to it—even his parents walk out of the sparsely attended performance.

But this tidy duality—meretricious success versus excessive artistic integrity, over-eagerness to please versus over-eagerness not to—is scrambled by the arrival of Josh’s art dealer and love interest, Madeleine. She’s the archetypal art girl, blonde, beautiful, and smart, with noisy cutting-edge clothes and a wardrobe of aspirational eyeglasses. Marley Shelton perfectly embodies both her predatory ambition and her genuine passion for, if not art itself, at least the idea of it.

Madeleine is the only person in the tiny audience at Adrian’s concert who likes what she hears, even though it’s pretty much a random array of yelps, whistles, thumps, and the noise of tearing newspaper, climaxed by the repeated crash of a metal bucket being walloped by Adrian’s right foot. She advises Adrian to give up on concert halls and instead present his music at her Chelsea gallery as “sound art.”

An all-too-familiar character, Adrian is a self-pitying oaf who endures repeated, entirely self-inflicted humiliations, yet still manages to excite the erotic interest of not only Madeleine but another gorgeous blonde, the girl who plays bass clarinet in his ensemble. She’s played by Lucy Punch as a naif who’s as sweetly awkward as Madeleine is suave.

Adrian is flattered by Madeleine’s invite but outraged when he arrives at her space and sees the visual art on display, which consists of dead animals arranged in silly tableaux. The taxidermy is probably intended to remind us of Damien Hirst, and perhaps so is Vinnie Jones’s portrayal of the artist, Ray Barko, as an arrogant, dissolute Brit.

We’re supposed to agree with Adrian that this isn’t really art; certainly the fabricators who put the pieces together for the movie tried to make them as ridiculous as possible. (Say what you will about Hirst, but his bisected sharks and cows have a frisson of mystery about them that a bobcat stapling itself to the wall does not.) And to drive the point home, the person who’s most enthusiastic about Barko’s work is an internet millionaire turned clueless collector (Zak Orth) who’ll buy anything if it’s trendy. “You’re not just writing a check,” Madeleine tells him. “You’re writing the history of Western civilization!”

Now I have no problem with poking fun at collectors, gallerinas, and artists. It’s fun to see the movie parody the work of art stars like Hirst, Robert Gober, the Chapman brothers, and Martin Creed. And some of the art jargon is hilarious, as when Madeleine’s gallery assistant (a very fey man, predictably) gestures to another artist’s masterpiece, a small piece of rubber tubing stuck to the wall, and enthuses, “There’s a superficial banality that’s both sexual and imposing.”

But one reason (Untitled) never achieves lift-off is that writer (with Catherine di Napoli) and director Jonathan Parker doesn’t distinguish between bad art and art whose only failure is that it doesn’t look like a Renoir. Barko’s constructions, for example, are jokey and devoid of emotional resonance (although I have to admit that one piece, involving a monkey and a vacuum cleaner, struck me as surprisingly strong). According to (Untitled), however, what’s wrong with them is that Barko hires other people to put them together and then sells them for a lot of money. That’s not satire; it’s harrumphing worthy of Morley Safer.

Early on the collector says, “What attracts me to [Barko’s] work is how uncomfortable it makes me feel.” We’re expected to chuckle at what a chump he is, but isn’t being disturbed or challenged, irritated or put a little off balance actually part of the appeal of a lot of contemporary work? If all you want from art is a comfy feeling, perhaps you should be stocking up on Thomas Kinkade.

A similarly bogus note is struck when the gallery assistant opines that art snobs are terrified of disliking any new work for fear they’ll end up looking like those long-ago fools who thought Van Gogh didn’t know how to paint. What’s truer than that tired observation, and far more interesting, is that most people who spend time around current art have repeatedly had the experience of not caring for, or even hating, this or that work, only to grow to love it months or years later. A few experiences like that encourage a certain humility about first impressions.

The film’s take on contemporary music is equally ham-handed. Adrian, we learn, is emotionally constipated. “I write music that isn’t connected to life in any way,” he says proudly, signaling that he’s about to get a Hollywood-style lesson in the value of feelings. But the music we hear him playing (way too often) isn’t repressed; it’s just ridiculous, as silly as Barko’s animals, disjointed and directionless.

The gifted composer David Lang, who wrote the film’s score and provides some terrific music elsewhere in the film, could have come up with something convincing for Adrian. But instead we get the low comedy of Adrian’s routine of kicking a bucket and his pieces often end with a pennywhistle squawk or blatt, a sonic elbow in our ribs to let us know it’s okay to jeer. And although Adrian sneers at tonality—“Harmony was a capitalist plot to sell pianos!” he thunders—it is inevitable, given the film’s reflexive artistic conservatism, that his eventual breakthrough is signaled by a sudden eruption of pretty chords.

The most disappointing thing about (Untitled), however, isn’t its art traditionalism but the way it scants character and story—the brothers’ rivalry, Madeleine’s motives, what’s going on with the clarinet girl—in order to make the same points over and over. It’s as if the filmmakers are going to force us to watch Adrian bang on a piano and listen to laughable art blather until we all stand up and pledge never to visit the New Museum. (Untitled) is well worth seeing and often quite funny. But for all the scorn it heaps on the art world’s superficiality, the movie itself doesn’t dig very deep. 


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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