Tuesday, July 13, 2010
The Kiss of A Spider Woman
Perhaps you heard the New York Times have reported that the owners of all the original materials of the film "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985, directed by Hector Babenco) are up for auction - not as a film or even as an archival collection manifesting some larger meaning or artistic importance by its breadth and depth of materials and provenance. The lot includes scripts, 35mm outtakes, camera negatives, papers, and the rights themselves.
They're not selling this to some cultural institution, like the MOMA (who's not interested and doesn't know how to do such things anyway) or the UCLA Film Archives (who as a public entity only takes donations, thank you very much). They're selling this instead as a "work of art."
The collection of film isn't being sold as a cultural entity so much as a physical pile of objects. A beautiful one. The idea is that the whole amalgamation is its own artistic statement.
The move is audacious and smacks of performance art. The film, no slouch itself and a major art-house hit for the time, snuck up on me on cable years later when I wasn't sure what I was in for. It had its own pedigree, co-written by Paul Schrader's brother Leonard ("Blue Collar") and novelist Manuel Puig and starring William Hurt in a game of chicken with his career poised after the avant-garde hipness of "The Big Chill" (1983) and before the cold and depressive "Accidental Tourist" years (1988-present). Raul Julia, who did his best to fight against type-casting his whole career yet ended up cast (perfectly) as Gomez Addams and in "Street Fighter" movies right before his death, is his cellmate who becomes obsessed with the spectre of the Spider Woman in the films of Hurt's dreams.
Get this straight. They are auctioning off a collection of raw and production elements, wishing to declare, position, and profit from the larger idea of detritus as cultural value, an evidence of unique process important and illuminating. Hollywood doesn't appreciate its own products, David Weisman, one of the original producers, suggests, and thinks the art world may appreciate the "object" more properly. This stretches the concept of what is actually art (here we go again), which ultimately will be in the eye of the holder.
Will the new purchaser re-release the film with new sequences never before seen, envisioned, or even scripted? Will the outtakes be digitized and turned into a 360-degree museum installation without beginning or end? How much value does the "asset" still have? The film made about $17 million and went on to generate more interest after a Broadway version. It's not like the collection can be displayed in a Manhattan summer house above the divan, not easily, and it will have storage issues to sort out as well. But so do original canvases by Picasso and Modigliani.
And yet, neither can any actual film, artifacts manifesting the most successful artform of the 20th century, be displayed easily for casual and immediate appreciation and critique. Analog though they be, they must be projected on an arcane projection device, with a lens, bright light, seats and a blank white wall. They don't reveal their secrets to the naked eye and visual inspection. You must "present" them.
Cinema is the only artform in which you turn your back on the object and look at a shadow of the original, shone and reflected against the opposite wall. Which is the source of its power, a caress we stare at of movement and images, light and sound, carefully worked and seducing us to get closer to something we can never seize, never possess. Film only reveals its secrets by proxy, entraping us without us knowing what hit us or exactly how it did it - this collection of frames and shots.
How do these objects possess us and make us obsess over how they were built up; manufactured? Cast their unique spell when we give over to their charms? The quoditian objects created around the production of "Kiss" have been re-conceived as an objet d'art, but may serve better as archival summary to be mined by some future historian. Perhaps by keeping the panoply whole and identifying it as a "work of art" with value all its own, some one some day may get to the bottom of it.