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Three Films Capture the Reality of Artists’ Lives

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Ushio Shinohara (right) and his wife Noriko of the documentary Cutie and the Boxer (2013). Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival.
Ushio Shinohara (right) and his wife Noriko of the documentary Cutie and the Boxer (2013). Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival.

In the “Life Lessons” segment of the 1989 anthology film New York Stories, artist Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) preens and paints in a quintessential SoHo loft. His mind is consumed by his work to the detriment of the woman who waits for some acknowledgement of her presence. As film representations of artists go, Lionel Dobie is the gold standard, a central casting movie rendition of the eccentric, raging, laser-focused artist: a wild-haired hybrid of Schnabel, Bacon, and Pollock skulking through ’80s Manhattan.

Director Martin Scorsese’s rendition of la vie boheme is part of a not uncommon movie convention in which artists tend to inhabit cavernous, well-appointed urban lofts and spend their time in exquisite, intense pursuit of their work—work that has delivered on its end of the bargain with gallery shows, enviable digs, and enormous swaths of time to devote to such pursuits. It is a vision of the artist’s life worth coveting, steeped in scruffy glamour and the kind of quotidian intensity that makes life as it’s pursued on screen so seductive.

But New York Stories also conveys some of the inauthenticity film can deliver when it comes to treatments of the creative life, an inauthenticity that extends to so many cinematic treatments, or evasions of subjects from sex to death to the pursuit of love. All the more welcome, then, are the films that present such topics with a sense of honesty. It is the rare and welcome film, like this year’s Enough Said from Nicole Holofcener, with its frumpy, imperfect singletons and their ramshackle lives, that offers an exception to the rule of the typical romantic comedy, injecting rueful accuracy into that genre.

Perhaps the reason Hollywood so misrepresents the artist’s life is because on some level directors are serving a desire to represent artists the way audiences long for them to be. Because in some secret heart of hearts within the American psyche, the artist’s life is profoundly enviable. Like movie mafioso with their untouchable moxie and ability to live outside the rules, artists occupy a similarly mysterious and coveted role in our national estimation, as people who make their living through self-invention and chutzpah more than timecard-punching. Because we so often value in theory—if not in practice— such iconoclastic ways of life, films tend to give these artistic demigods the kind of covetable apartments, lives, and freedoms many viewers crave for themselves.

Bill Cunningham in his cramped New York apartment.
Bill Cunningham in his cramped New York apartment. Courtesy Zeitgeist Films.

If Hollywood often errs on the side of hyperbole, overblown emotions, and shabby glamour in depicting the truth of the creative class, it is the indie films that tend to hew most closely to the truth, whether in Terry Zwigoff’s ceasingly depressing and brilliant documentary Crumb, about counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb, or the documentary about the street fashion photographer in Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham New York, which reveals not only the tiny-apartment and penny-pinching reality of this legendary photojournalist’s life, but also his deep satisfaction in the work he does. And so goes the unconventional and deeply pleasurable insight of films that render the artist’s life in all its depth and complexity. Such films show both the struggle and the sense of inevitability—even in the face of enormous difficulty—in devoting one’s life to art. Perhaps the ring of truth in such works is due to the makers of those films, who tend to be struggling artists in their own right and familiar with the toil and rigor of choosing that path.

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Three films in 2013, both independent and big-budget, documentary and fiction, graced by stars and devoid of them, offer compelling depictions of the artist’s life and manage to convey both its extreme rigor and the sense of its inevitability and righteousness.

A scene from the documentary Bill Cunningham New York (2010).
A scene from the documentary Bill Cunningham New York (2010).

First time filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary Cutie and the Boxer takes a look at how gender and the complications of a two-creative family can impact artists’ circumstances. In some ways, this Academy Award-nominated documentary bears a surface similarity to Scorsese’s “Life Lessons,” with its older, more famous painter having grown used to the emotional support of a much younger female helpmate. At the film’s center is Japanese artist Noriko who has put her career on hold to support the work of her partner,”boxer” painter Ushio Shinohara, whose painting technique involves donning boxing gloves that he uses to punch paint onto his canvases. A once-prominent figure on the Japanese avant-garde, Ushio’s career peaked long ago and, at 80, he struggles to sell enough work to make the rent on the couple’s ramshackle, stuffed-to-the-gills Brooklyn apartment.

The couple met when Noriko was 19 and Ushio 40. A great deal of the film catalogues a painful set of injustices seen through Noriko’s eyes. There is Noriko’s gnawing guilt over the son they raised in their cramped apartment, who grew up with Ushio’s alcoholism and constant raucous parties, and her shame over the poverty and self-centerdness he was exposed to. Consigned to the role of helpmate and then mother, Noriko’s exhaustion raising a child offers little time and energy left for her own art. And then there is the indignity of Ushio’s expectation that she serve as his unpaid assistant, manager, and cheerleader. “She is just an assistant. The average one has to support the genius,” Ushio camps, part joke, part truth, about his wife’s role in their relationship. He laughs, she fumes, and Cutie and the Boxer initially suggests an enormous, perhaps irreconcilable divide between them.

Films are often made of big stuff: heists, love affairs, mysteries. But it is the coarsing stream of regret, sadness, and the anxieties of 40 years of married life and growing older within the uncertain economic straits of devoting one’s life to creating art that makes Cutie and the Boxer feel utterly essential and real. Heinzerling’s film is as close to the experience of marriage, aging, financial struggle, and both the pain and elation of creativity as a film can get. Having just turned 80, Ushio is still struggling—but also still creating—and often settling for too little money for his sculptures. The couple contends with trials from the micro to the macro, from a leaky ceiling that drips into their apartment to capricious curators who may or may not come through on a promised purchase.

A still of artist Ushio Shinohara of the documentary Cutie and the Boxer (2013).
A still of artist Ushio Shinohara in the documentary Cutie and the Boxer (2013).

While the Hollywood treatment might center on the heroic Ushio and depict Noriko as the faithful, supportive partner, Cutie is far more bittersweet in showing the sacrifices and nagging economic fragility of Ushio and Noriko’s experience. It offers not only a pragmatic vantage on the economic realities of choosing the artist’s life, but a pointed examination of the myth of the rising star and the supportive spouse, which often gets lost in that storyline. It depicts the truth hidden behind the clichéd trajectory from unknown artist to avant-garde celebrity and the inevitable downside when the art world’s often fickle attention subsides.

But the film also confronts the mythic glamour and excitement of the artist’s life, turning the tropes of unfettered freedom and inebriated excess into something laced with both remorse and a sense of destiny. By the time this complex, emotionally resonant film ends, Ushio and Noriko’s lives also seem like the only possible ones for them: they live as artists, with all of the good and bad that entails. Their marriage is cemented, rather than divided by their shared experiences as artist.

The feature directing debut of actress Lake Bell, In A World… is a shrewd, comic take on the struggles of a voice-over talent in Los Angeles. From its realistic take on the cramped, shared apartments of Hollywood creatives, to its incisive read on the gender-politics that can persist even in creative fields, In a World… tends to dismantle commonplace assumptions about artistic struggle with wit and humanity.

A still of Lake Bell in In a World... (2013).
Lake Bell in In a World… (2013).

Like Cutie, In a World… is infused with gender politics. One of Bell’s canny insights is in showing the extreme resistance in an industry where the authority of male voices is sacrosanct and where female voices hold little sway. Carol’s (Bell) chosen career as a voice-over artist is defined by male voices and the overbearing vocal celebrity of her father, Sam Soto (Fred Melamed). Sam is a supremely successful, self-satisfied voice-over baritone anxious to pass his gold-throated mantle to a young male protégé rather than his own ambitious daughter. Carol struggles not only with a larger social prejudice, that female voices fail to command authority, but also with Sam’s more intimate, nagging and hurtful blindness where his own daughter’s passion is concerned.

Frank Melamed and Lake Bell in In a World ....
Frank Melamed and Lake Bell in In a World ….

One of the year’s most buzzed-about productions, with the kind of money and prestige behind it that suggests a world far from that of Cutie and In a World…, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis has been discussed as a fictionalized reckoning with the pre-Dylan New York folk scene of 1961. But like Cutie and the Boxer, it is also an often harrowing, stark portrait of the extreme physical and psychological difficulties involved in choosing to live as an artist with none of the hagiographic halo-hanging found in other historical treatments of the boho life.

Partly modeled on real folkie Dave Van Ronk, much of what the film conveys is an unrelenting slog of existence, finding a place to sleep, begging for payment, and human disconnection buffered only occasionally by the catharsis of performing.

From an opening song about death sung by Llewlyn (Oscar Isaac) in New York’s Gaslight Cafe, to allusions to his partner’s suicide and a demoralizing visit to see his senile father, the film’s message is one of existential suffering amplified by the chilly, silvery cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel whose lensing gives a corpse-like pallor to skin and a flat black blankness to eyes while draping its New York and Chicago settings in an ashen haze.

A still from Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) with Oscar Isaac (left) and Justin Timberlake..
A still from Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) with Oscar Isaac (left) and Justin Timberlake.

An antidote to the conventional biography, with its arc of suffering followed by triumph, in Inside Llewyn Davis, the focus is instead on unrelenting difficulty: each move guided by a cursed stroke of bad luck. The film is bookended by bad fortune, from Llewyn’s decision to take a flat fee instead of royalties for his role playing on the subsequent folkie hit “Please Mr. Kennedy” to his shrugging off the idea of being the third wheel in a folk trio, which one realizes became the harmonizing super-group Peter, Paul and Mary. While the commonplace myth of the artist hinges on good luck and serendiptious meetings, the linchpin of Inside Llewyn Davis is the inverse: a circular string of ill fortune leading into a deepening existential pit.

Or, as Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan writes of Llewyn, “It’s the film’s empathy with him, its sympathy with the plight of artists in general, that makes Inside an unexpectedly emotional piece.”

The plot line of the Coen brothers’ film is mundane but herculean as Llewyn struggles to navigate New York streets while keeping hold of a friend’s cat, or lugs his guitar and belongings from crash pad to crash pad, faced with the psychologically grueling task of contending with a married folk singer’s pregnancy and his own fear of never achieving success in his field. A brutal cross-country road trip to a noted Chicago music club, the Gate of Horn, is Llewyn’s effort to seek his fortune outside New York. During that misguided trip to meet music producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), Llewyn’s music and his look are rejected outright. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” Grossman tells him, suggesting he work on his appearance and perhaps hook up with some other singers if he has any hope of success.

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. (Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. (Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)

What lingers from Llewyn’s struggles is a sense that in the grueling difficulty of this life, moments of pleasure are few and far between. In a moment of brutal clarity, Llewyn admits of his own career, “It’s not going anywhere and I’m tired…. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that.”

Unrelenting in its desolation and portrait of the physical and psychological difficulty of the artist’s life, Inside Llewyn Davis is also a splendid tonic to the Horatio Alger myth of American life and the almost hard-wired perception that hard work leads to inevitable success. Instead, these films show the myriad forces conspiring against their protagonists and the more authentic ebb and flow of life in which setbacks are balanced by fleeting, cathartic moments in the spotlight. There is a profound humanity to these characters because their realistic travails more accurately reflect the rhythms of real life. They give a dignity to pursuit of the creative life in depicting its quotidian warts-and-all essence, its solitude, and the incredible stamina required to navigate its shoals. These portraits convey the gritty humanity rather than the seductive eccentricity and clichéd torment of the artist’s life, a profound and welcome point of view.

Felicia Feaster is the editor in chief at HGTVGardens, the co-author of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film, and writes frequently about art and culture for a number of Atlanta and national publications.