The life of the artist has long been romanticized and debunked, portrayed in turn as full of glamour, inner torment, the high life and low fortunes. This year's Los Angeles Film Festival features a number of documentaries that explore la vie boheme from many angles.
Among the art-themed selections screening are the films "Finishing Heaven," "The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale" and "Dirty Hands: The Art & Crimes of David Choe."
Taken together, they form a fascinating, multifaceted portrait of how artistic drive can interfere with everyday life. The directors of all three films will take part in a documentary round table this afternoon (for details: lafilmfest.com).
"Artists are a perennial subject of film, especially documentary," said Rachel Rosen, director of programming for the LAFF. "The unusual thing is that a number of them rose above the crowd in the same year. And I don't think it's only because several of them are about artists who have a difficult time either with their art or their life or both."
"Finishing Heaven" follows would-be filmmaker Robert Feinberg as he attempts to complete a movie he shot some three decades earlier. His leading lady and former girlfriend, Ruby Lynn Reyner, reenters Feinberg's life to become a catalyst for him to try to finish this long-simmering project.
The up-to-now unfinished film -- which will also screen as a work-in-progress during the LAFF under the title "Heaven Wants Out" -- was shot in New York in 1970 featuring some habitues of the Warhol milieu, making the surviving footage -- if nothing else -- a startling time capsule of its time and place.
"The whole film is a character study of an argument," said director Mark Mann, trying to characterize the relationships that emerged not only between Feinberg and Reyner but also between the filmmakers and the subjects, and even among the filmmakers themselves.
"I think the way people get into the movie is they can see a part of themselves in the struggle to finish something," said David Shapiro, who along with his sister, Laurie, is one of the producers of "Finishing Heaven." "Everybody's got something that's unresolved, that's unfinished."
"There are two lines of thought on Robert's film," Mann said. "I love Robert's film; the Shapiros feel a little bit differently. Depending on how you find Robert as a filmmaker, he either comes off as a guy who's really trying to finish his film or a guy who's trying to hustle a deal. It was a constant irk. But everybody in this project had their own interests."
If Feinberg is an artist who finds it difficult to complete his work, then Chuck Connelly has perhaps the opposite problem. An astoundingly prolific painter, he has struggled to support himself as an artist because of his self-destructive behavior. Connelly, a part of the New York City art-star scene of the early '80s, slowly alienated everyone who could help his career.
"I think there was a certain degree of people giving him a pass for a brief moment of time," said director Jeff Stimmel. "But not anymore. The guy's not rich or famous, he's not Roman Polanski or Julian Schnabel. I don't think he gets excused very often.
"But I will say that Chuck has really shaped his personality from the time he was very young and breaking into the art world. And I think this persona, this drunken, loudmouth kind of guy, he really created that, and I think that persona has really gotten away from him."
Perhaps most heartbreaking is that Connelly knows full well the damage he inflicts on himself.
"All the weaknesses, all the faults that Chuck has, he is perfectly aware of," Stimmel said.
This notion of self-created chaos is echoed in "Dirty Hands: The Life and Crimes of David Choe," a chronicle of the well-known graffiti artist by his friend Harry Kim.
"His problems are very real," said Kim, who has known Choe for more than 15 years. The film starts as a celebration of a bad-boy artist making inroads into the commercial art world but takes a harrowing turn as it depicts the incident that landed Choe for a few months in a Japanese prison.
Following his return to the U.S., Choe changed dramatically. Diagnosed with a series of emotional and mental conditions, he began medication that put him at arm's length from his artistic muse. He was becoming a better person, it seemed, but a lesser artist.
"I didn't really come at it from the perspective of his art," Kim said of how to portray Choe's mounting issues. "I wanted to make a story about him. So what I saw was pretty comical, if you step aside, but I also saw the drama behind it. Dave wants to act like he's normal, but he is very torn and tormented. As someone who is close to him, I think it hurts him and everyone around him."
Among the artist-centric documentaries screening at this year's LAFF, the main corrective to the myth of the tortured artist comes from the film "Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman," directed by Eric Bricker. A lyrical survey of the work of the renowned Los Angeles-based architectural photographer, the film follows the career and life of Shulman, who is still working at 97.
Although many of the artists in the festival's crop of documentaries find it difficult to level the demands of daily life with the voices of their artistic muses, one seems to be an exception.
"Several of our other films about artists are slightly darker portraits that are as much about the artists' personalities as they are a survey of their body of work," LAFF's Rosen said. "To me that's not true of Julius Shulman, who seems quite well balanced."
Any of these films might easily be given the subhead "The Art of Living" because they explore the nexus of artistic creation and day-to-day existence, the torments and treasures that come from living and producing, and the perennial feeling of getting away with something.
As Kim says of Choe, "He wants to be normal, he just doesn't know what that means."