The last time we got dumped, nobody made a movie about it, but then again, we weren’t dating anyone nearly as cool as Cindy Sherman. That honor belongs to Paul H-O, a liminal figure in the art-world who in the early ’90s created a public access TV show dedicated to the glamour and absurdity of the once SoHo-centric New York art-scene.
Despite Paul and his partner Walter Robinson being dubbed “the Beavis and Butthead of the art-world”, the show had a genuine affection for art, but also understood that the collector-producer overlords were also a bit silly and a lot commercial. Plus, the show had a following, including the media-shy Sherman who shocked her friends, fans, and publicist when she gave Paul access to her life and ultimately her bedroom.
The first 20-minutes or so of Guest of Cindy Sherman are jarring, especially for New Yorkers, because they’re a reminder of how distant the ’90s now feel — a SoHo full of galleries instead of stores, a quiet sans-hipster Williamsburg, and the Twin Towers creating the frame for a shot along the Brooklyn waterfront — all appear to belong to another planet, not a recently bygone era. “The 1990s definitely seems like the past,” Paul tells us over the phone. “And one of the things I tried to bring out in the film was how the whole art-world packed up its tent and moved from SoHo, which was an artist ghetto at one time, to West Chelsea, which changed the environment of art, and how it was seen.” This speaks to on one of the film’s strengths, that it functions on a number of levels, including all the art-world hijinks, and plays like three or four documentaries packed into one, saving it from being a Real World: Art World.
The insider’s glance at 1990s art-world politics and personalities is the first of these films within the film, and sets the stage for what happens next, which is absurd even in a world where the absurd is a valued currency: The nerdy guy with the camera who annoys everyone at art openings gets the girl. This is the equivalent of a Star Wars fanboy-blogger attending the opening of Episode I and not only scoring a date with Natalie Portman, but moving in with her — it just doesn’t happen. But it did for Paul.
Cindy’s affection for him is apparent the moment she appears beneath his lens — Paul flirts with her, she flirts back; he makes a joke, she laughs. The voyeuristic pleasure of watching the two fall in love creates a tantalizing dramatic irony — we know where all this flirting is heading, and more so, we know how it ends. What we don’t know is what causes the happy couple’s demise, and here lies project’s greatest irony: that the production of the film is what will eventually lead to the break-up, and the break-up is what leads to the ultimate version of the film, which started as Paul tells us, by “having a fit over a place-card.” He’s referring to a scene in the film where he gets placed next to the kitchen and has to convince the staff to move Uma Thurman to another spot in order to make room for him at the grown-ups table. It was this moment that inspired him to create a project about what’s it’s like to always be “a guest of” someone else, rather than yourself.
At first Paul says Cindy was fond of the idea of him making a film about being the Robin to her Batman, although why is somewhat of a mystery. How could making a film about being on the losing end of lopsided relationship sound like good couples counseling to anyone? “Well in the beginning it was a really good thing for the relationship,” Paul says, “because Cindy really liked this project. She knew that I was enthusiastic and had the opportunity to work with some good people, so she was very supportive. She tried to help me basically, because she knew I was floundering.” And it’s here that another film within the film emerges, and begins to raise some interesting questions about identity and male and female roles, which oddly enough are at the heart of Sherman’s work. Towards the end of the picture, Paul says, “I know what it feels like to be a wife that no one pays attention to.” An unsympathetic complaint perhaps, but given the context of Sherman’s work, and a project that’s already coated in irony, it fits right in.
Un-intentional high concepts and ironies aside, the best docs function like clever viruses and mutate during production to form something no one could have predicted from the outset. To that end, Guest of Cindy Sherman is a success, especially since it continues to mutate and ruffle feathers: Sherman and the art-world have denounced its existence, and Paul has been ex-communicated from the Chelsea corridor. The celebrity cameos, and art-world antics (Julian Schnabel makes a memorable arrogant appearance), also add to the fun; it will be interesting to see if Paul, who was once so concerned about having his identity pegged to Cindy, can reinvent himself — through the success of a film about having his identity pegged to Cindy.