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Crashing the Party: Paul H-O & Tom Donahue's "Guest of Cindy Sherman"

Indiewire By Eric Hynes | Indiewire March 23, 2009 at 3:07AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

The best thing about "Guest of Cindy Sherman," Paul H-O and Tom Donahue's shaggy dog documentary about H-O's unlikely love affair with art star Cindy Sherman, is its unpredictable trajectory. Recalling last year's superior "Operation Filmmaker," "Guest of Cindy Sherman" began as a straightforward work of nonfiction before spiraling into something wayward, uncertain, and lifelike. Documentaries too often shoehorn subjects into familiar shapes, sizes, and narrative arcs, making ostensible failures like these far more engrossing to watch. But while "Operation Filmmaker" had game, keenly self-incriminating improviser Nina Davenport behind the camera, neither H-O nor Donahue seem to know what to make of their film's rough edges and sore spots. And their ambivalence about Sherman betrays either dishonesty -- the celebrity interviews, audience interest, and theatrical distribution all depend on her name being in the title -- or titanic petulance.

The film begins with H-O (short for Hasegawa-Overacker) recounting the creation of his New York public access show "GalleryBeat" in 1993. Wielding a video camera that he barely knew how to operate, this onetime artist (glimpsed briefly in the film, his unique surf board-inspired wall sculptures bespeak an abandoned talent) covered the New York art scene with a gonzo, nobody's-watching-anyway spirit. Alongside "Art in America" editor Walter Robinson, his bull-in-a-China-shop fellow traveler, H-O made a sport of crashing gallery openings, filming even when disallowed, bum-rushing artists and curators with unanswerables ("What is this supposed to mean?"), and generally taking the piss. Judging from the footage included here, "GalleryBeat" often straddled the line between irreverence and inanity, car-wreck fascination and tedium. Since both H-O and Robinson cared deeply about art, theirs was a performance piece unto itself, pretending to be barbarians at the gate in order to lampoon the gatekeepers and relieve the pretension. But the truth of it, finally revealed when H-O meets and pursues Sherman, is that the crashers also wanted an invitation to the party.

Watching the notoriously press and camera-shy Sherman flirt with H-O on camera -- culled from hours of footage taken for a single "GalleryBeat" episode -- elicits everything from voyeuristic titillation to sympathy. But Sherman, very much the sexy and beguiling woman that H-O describes to his public access audience, comes across as uncomplicated in her attraction to H-O. By comparison, H-O's excitement about dating Cindy Sherman is understandably informed by more than attraction. Yet even afforded hindsight, H-O doesn't really explore that truth. The subsequent attacks on his pride that accumulate over the five years of their romantic involvement, culminating in the project that eventually became "Guest of Cindy Sherman," register not as indignities but further evidence of a strangely inflated ego. Accompanying Sherman to openings and banquets, H-O bristles at being treated as a second-class citizen. Cropped out of red carpet photos and relegated to secondary dinner tables, he decides to channel his anger into a documentary film about life as a "plus one" to an enigmatic celebrity. He talks to friends and fans like John Waters and Eric Bogosian, fellow artists like Eric Fischl and Robert Longo, and kindred figures like Elton John's husband, David Furnish.

After nearly an hour of straight chronology, here the film finally alights on its true subject. But again, H-O's under-explored motivations hold more interest than the modest insights culled from Furnish or, say, Molly Ringwald's husband. For every revealing moment, such as H-O unthinkingly complaining to two female radio hosts that he "knows what it feels like to be the wife," there are tasteless potshots at Sherman's charmed existence. That the unlikely love affair ended comes as no surprise -- H-O's melancholic tone signals it from the outset -- but H-O's willingness to tell tales and pop psychologize his ex (visualized by iconic, irrelevant photos of Sherman, in character, huddled in a doorway or peering up from the floor) is shocking. It also justifies Sherman's disassociation from a project she'd apparently encouraged when still dating H-O (yet according to H-O, she also obtained something close to final cut). The more H-O tries to pull Sherman down to size, the larger she looms -- as both person and artist -- over his life and film.

Yet on some level, H-O and Donahue know this. By widening their scope beyond celebrity companionship to revisit the past fifteen years of H-O's assorted projects and relationships, "Guest of Cindy Sherman" becomes an interesting (if clumsily constructed) portrait of frustration. No matter how many parties he crashes, no matter how charming or casually insightful he is, he'll never be as compelling as Cindy Sherman or, it seems, at peace with that fact.

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

This article is related to: Documentary, In Theaters