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Siblings Rival in Tortured Artistry

(Untitled) (2009)

Parker Film Company/Samuel Goldwyn Films

What is art? Can a thumbtack on an otherwise blank wall be a picture? Can someone kicking a bucket filled with chains be music? Most of us with great reason would say no. It takes more inherent talent to make art. Listen to “Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band — 58th on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums, published in 2003. You may think there’s lots of improvising going on, but these songs were notated and practiced in order to be played the exact same way every time. Crazy, huh? Go to any modern art gallery, and you will more often than not see an entire display of large white canvases with one red dot or some variation thereof. It can’t be art if every single painting looks the same, right? Now, listen to Chuck Berry’s “School Days” and “No Particular Place to Go.” Pretty similar, yes? And have you seen Monet’s haystack series — different times of the day and year, but the same ol’ haystack?

So what is art? Is art the thing itself or the idea of the thing? As musician Adrian Jacobs (played with a permanent scowl by Adam Goldberg) says in explaining the difference between music and noise, “Noise is unwanted.” In the same way, art is wherever we want to see or hear it. Adrian and his brother, Josh (Eion Bailey), are both artists, although Josh is a painter rather than a musician. The other big difference is that Josh is successful. His paintings are selling by the truckload to hospitals and hotels that like his soothing, non-confrontational pastel swirls, but he wants to break free from what is making him successful and become a more revered painter. Adrian, on the other hand, has no commercial success. He is lucky if he gets six people to come to his concerts; and he feels dejected by it all. Then again, his music is praised for being beyond its time by “those in the know.” The grass is always greener on the other side within an artist’s world.

Messrs. Goldberg and Bailey play both brothers with enough narcissism and pity to, well, to come off as believable. Mr. Goldberg in particular shows the hurting tortured soul of someone who feels as if his dream, his vision and his purpose for living are not understood. Those few and far between who do understand him and praise the great advances he’s making in atonal music, he berates and chases away. He wants to be upset; and in a way, he thinks everyone should feel as he does. That is until Madeline Gray (Marley Shelton) comes around. She is a modern art gallery owner, through whom Josh is selling all his paintings. In fact, the revenue Josh creates is the main reason she is able to keep her gallery open. She is invited by him to go to one of Adrian’s concerts; and she is astonished – in a good way — by what she hears.

Ms. Shelton’s performance is as stunning as her bleached-blond hair. She is the ultimate avant-garde connoisseur, the perpetual fan to all the misanthropes who grace her gallery. To her, everything can be art, down to the stylish but very artsy clothes she wears — which very audibly rustled and shuffled to the point of distraction, as if there was a problem with the sound editing. It turns out the filmmakers were making a point, but they could have brought it down a little in the mix. The original score, done masterfully by David Lang, is full of atonal crazy music such as Adrian’s and shows how this music can be the sound of the city, a party or two brothers fighting. It is very creative how he incorporated the score into the sound design. One of Madeline’s most prized artists is Ray Barko, played by Vinnie Jones. He is a successful artist, whose art consists of taxidermied animals posed in awkward positions. At his shows, he prattles on about how “the past doesn’t influence me, I influence it” and other such non sequiturs that just add to the absurdity of the entire movie.

To judge this movie is to walk a fine line. It's a satire, and as such it takes what is real and pushes it just a little further to make it bizarre and therefore humorous. The problem is, taking the real and pushing it a little farther is art. There are people who would see the creations in this film and crave seeing or hearing more. There are artists who are just looking “to communicate, to express, to be loved.” There are patrons of the arts that see a chandelier made from dead possums as something deep and profound. So to say that the art or the artists depicted are over the top and ridiculous would be a stretch. At times, they are bang on the money — which is often depressing. But, as they say, it’s so funny because it’s so true.


Opens on Oct. 23 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Jonathan Parker; written by Mr. Parker and Catherine di Napoli; director of photography, Svetlana Cvetko; music by David Lang; production designer, David L. Snyder; produced by Ms. di Napoli and Andreas Olavarria; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Adam Goldberg (Adrian Jacobs), Marley Shelton (Madeleine Gray), Eion Bailey (Josh Jacobs), Lucy Punch (the Clarinet), Vinnie Jones (Ray Barko), Ptolemy Slocum (Monroe) and Zak Orth (Porter Canby).


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