The northeast corner of the lobby at the Lever House was recently taken over by a large, pyramid-shaped stack of Andy Warhol Brillo boxes.
In fact, the Brillo boxes, dead ringers for those Warhol first showed at the Stable Gallery in 1964, are by the artist Mike Bidlo. The title of the piece? “Not Warhol (Brillo Boxes. 1964) 2005.”
“Mike is underappreciated and under-known as an artist,” said the curator Richard D. Marshall over the phone, adding that he has admired Bidlo’s appropriation art since the early ’80s.
Along with numerous Warhols, Bidlo has created exact replicas of sculptures by Brancusi and Duchamp, and paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Yves Klein, Pollock and others. He was even a consultant to Ed Harris for his 2000 film, “Pollock.” “His expression is the extreme of appropriation,” Marshall explains. “He is completely removing his hand and becoming the artist. It’s a homage.”
Filmmaker Jerry Barrett has done somewhat the same with films by French directors Jean Luc Gardard, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Rene Clair, and is presently working on a homage to Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery."
We caught up with Mr. Barrett to talk about emulating Ms. Jackson.
What would Shirley Jackson have thought of your film?
I don’t know. When her short story came out in The New Yorker in 1948 it was met with, as she put it, "bewilderment, speculation, and old-fashioned abuse." I don't think she would feel that way about my film, but I'm sure she would wonder why I didn't spend my time making something completely original.
And your answer would be...?
I like to make movies for my own enjoyment; I'm not really interested in the marketing, salesmanship, and networking that has always been so much a part of filmmaking. While many of my films are original, reworking films or stories that I have enjoyed is an enrichment process.
About marketing. How do you pay for the films you make?
I make them very cheaply. Unlike the typical film you see, every dollar I spend is up on the screen.
Getting back to Shirley Jackson, she died in 1965. Perhaps today she might feel differently, being exposd to the many examples of appropriation art that we see around us.
Perhaps. Go to a museum on any day and you might find an artist sitting in front of a painting, copying it. No one gets upset. I happen to own a fairly good original oil copy of a painting by Matisse, and I love it. I also own an original lithograph by Calder. It's a fact that many famous elderly artists direct their students in the production of lithographs. Does that make it less valuable? No, it does not.
Is the artist's hand less important in this age of technology?
I guess it depends upon how much technology the artist uses. Obviously, you can't appropriate a short story by writing it again without coming up with the same story. But you can turn a short story into a film. Filmmakers have been doing that from day one and no one seems bothered by it.
This is where Bidlo appears to be going out on a limb, since his intent is to erase his personality from his appropriations.
One wonders at what point an appropriation becomes a reproduction. Gus Van Sant considered that problem in his shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho. One critic concluded that such remakes are valuable "for those who wish to understand Hitchcock’s original better. I wish there were more contemporary recreations of different movies. One can find much rich insight in comparing elements of the two films—the way the sets and background art have been updated, the delivery of dialogue—and especially in the noticing of elements in the remake that highlight the same element in the original." The same can't be said about a film based on a short story, as I discussed in a book I co-edited some years ago.
So, do you, like Bidlo, erase your personality from your appropriations?
Not really. I guess you can say that I allow my personality free play in my versions, whether they be based on a film or a piece of writing. In fairness, I try provide the same free range to my actors.
Where do you currently live?
I spend half my time in the U.S. --Texas and California-- and half my time in Asia --Nepal and Thailand. When I return to Asia in the fall, I plan to shoot an original boxing film around Bangkok and a "based on" Godard in Khan Kaen. I'll probably end up making a documentary in Nepal, but I don't know what it will be.
Are there growing film communities in those countries?
Thailand has a very strong film culture, but it's geared towards Hollywood style filmmaking and production. Thai audiences are very much into martial art and horror. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasekatul won first prize at Cannes with a ghost story: "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." Nepal depends upon Bollywood for its film entertainment, but it has a vibrant film festival scene, featuring two popular international film festivals in Kathmandu each year.
If your films shouldn’t be considered simple substitutes for the originals, what should viewers be looking for?
I like to rework the dialogue to reflect my own tastes and visions of the world, both philosophical and political, and I try to stay within the visual style of the original director in order to expand my vocabularly. "So," as Bidlo says, "it’s about learning about the different providences of the piece, the situations that they were made for."
Take Godard, whoese aesthetic interests are similar to my own. My first feature film, "Outsiders," is based on Godard's "Band of Outsiders." One viewer called "Outsiders" 'a sketchbook.' I took that as a compliment because I believe that's what the best films by Godard are like. My favorite in this respect is "Pierrot Le Fou," which pretty much marks the end of his early period. "Outsiders" is an attempt to mesh the more traditional narrative structure of early Godard and the notebook-like, documentary feel of late Godard with themes and sensibilities relevant to my time and place, but readily understandable by a worldwide audience.
So you see yourself as an a film historian?
I think Bidlo is right on the money about this. "History is about loops and continuums. I’m adding another loop to the continuum of the [filmmaker's] phenomenon...It has a lot to do with Walter Benjamin and 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'."
How do you go about choosing a work to replicate?
If I rework something, it's because I have a special interest in the original. You tend to choose your friends on the basis of your enjoyment of being with them.
Are you saying reading "The Lottery" is an enjoyable experience?
The actions in the story are not enjoyable. But it's enjoyable in the sense that we come away from the story with a greater understanding of the worldwide danger of repeating one's mistakes because we're comfortable in doing so, and we fall back on tradition as a higher authority. Shirley Jackson takes this to an extreme to dramatize that point. It's well worth repeating this in a film.
Does appropriation anger some people?
You bet. I once screened "Outsiders" for a well-known contemporary writer. His books are often found at airports. He clearly hadn't seen the original, and asked me if the dialogue was Godard's or mine. I said it was Godard's, although half of it was mine. He became disturbed, although I clearly indicated the providence of the film in the opening credits. Such a reaction was understandable, since he was as much a businessman as an artist, and did not appreciate that my humble, non-profit film was a homage and would probably inspire some viewers to go back and look at the original for the first time.
Is it a goal for you to be "as big as Godard" someday?
Hardly. I don't think that would be much fun. This appropriated interview is the first I've done since my previous life as a political blogger, criss-crossing the country and giving lectures and interviews. Been there, done that. I make movies for the fun of it, and hope those who work with me and see the finished products have fun, too.
Jerry Barrett keeps promising to put some of his shorter films on YouTube. He may be reached at email@example.com