“The Cool School” is one of a subset of documentary biographies that might best be called “Scenes of Yesteryear.” Like the recent “Weather Underground,” “Commune,” and “American Hardcore“–whose respective subjects include radical terrorists, hippie collectives, and indigenous, anticommercial punk rock–“The Cool School” weaves testimony from participants of a faded fringe movement with footage from its heyday to take stock of the legacy of the marginal subculture in question. These are nostalgic, sometimes commemorative films employing a similar functional style to deliver content as practically as possible, and they’re so close to each other in quality that a misfire (“American Hardcore”‘s harried mess) usually isn’t all that far from a triumph (“Weather Underground”‘s precise portrait of revolutionary fanaticism).
As a result it’s hard to avoid faint praise even when recommending Morgan Neville‘s “The Cool School,” which recounts Los Angeles’ frequently overshadowed 1950s and 1960s art scene. As “Scenes of Yesteryear” documentaries go it does right by its subject, providing an illuminating primer on a lesser-known strand of America’s eruptive postwar art movement, even as it doesn’t do much aesthetically to distinguish itself from the pack.
Of course, the story’s the thing here, and with Jeff Bridges handling voiceover duties “The Cool School” paints a clear picture of L.A.’s inferiority complex in the Fifties, when the East Coast owned a virtual monopoly on trendsetting modernism, with de Kooning and Pollock leading the way, and San Francisco emerged as the West Coast’s Beat Era capital. But a legitimate scene began forming around eccentric, pensive curator Walter Hopps and burly artist Ed Kienholz‘s Ferus Gallery, founded in 1957.
Inspired by the freedom from pressure afforded by L.A.’s diminutive status on the art world map and the city’s unique collision of Hollywood glamour and industrial commercial detritus, artists like Kienholz, John Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Ken Price, John Altoon, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, and Wallace Berman forged their own careers in abstract expressionism, assemblage, light and space installations, and pop art, all with a sensibility deeply rooted in the brash absurdity and chromatic shine of Venice Beach.
These were mostly Los Angeles natives who refused to move to New York (or moved there and then quickly scrambled back) precisely because their hometown allowed them to revel in a macho Californian culture of cars, surfing, and girls (the scene’s patriarchal dynamics are unfortunately discussed only briefly), while also using it as raw material for their satirical and subversive work. While initially toiling in obscurity, Hopps and eventual Ferus cohort Irving Blum, a curatorial Cary Grant, continually championed them–often with controversial repercussions, as in the case of Berman, who was arrested on charges of obscenity.
Recognition gradually arrived however, as did, inevitably, a host of ego and power struggles. As the artists’ reputations grew, Hopps became director of the Pasadena Museum of Art (overseeing the first retrospectives of Cornell and Duchamp), and Ferus expanded to take a chance on some East Coast artists you might have heard of (Warhol, Lichtenstein), and the original grittiness and underdog atmosphere in which these artists thrived as a loose contingent of likeminded painters and sculptors slowly evaporated.
It’s the same sad tale of how money can taint something pure, though in this case most of the principal players continued to do well for themselves after the Gallery’s swan song in 1966. There were the unfortunate casualties of the Sixties (Altoon, who battled mental illness and shock therapy) and betrayed friendships (Hopps, whose wife left him for Blum, was hospitalized for a period), but most of the artists went on to pursue their own visions outside an increasingly chic and fame-oriented scene. In this regard “The Cool School” frames the general movement as lovingly as it does the individual artists, though a reunion of the survivors doesn’t carry the weight it should. Neville, a veteran of television documentaries on music, literature, and Hollywood, pulls out a trick or two — black-and-white shots with a single element in color — to jazz things up, but these are unnecessary since the film’s straightforward approach is usually good enough to impart the L.A. buzz circa late Fifties, early Sixties (that there was a time and place when Frank Gehry could hobnob with fellow interviewees Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper is, even for a counterculture, pretty unique). The tone may be insular and reminiscent, but that’s just par for the “Scenes of Yesteryear” course.