Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Art is a demon, and it drags you along. So says Ushio Shinohara, dubbed "the most famous of the struggling artists." 

At one time Ushio was a popular painter in Japan, creating his own violent riffs on American pop art, but he's spent nearly 50 years struggling in New York.  Now at age 80, he's still on the hustle, preparing for a show at a local gallery. His wife, Noriko, is also an artist, but she's been in Ushio's shadow for decades. Some work of hers will be shown in the gallery, too, a sweeping,  illustrated history of her relationship with Ushio. This couple, their long marriage, and their struggle to create art at all costs, is the story of Cutie and the Boxer, a poignant documentary by Zachary Heinzerling, and one of the best films of 2013.

I love Ushio's pugnacious style; he puts on boxing gloves covered in paint and hammers away at a giant canvas, digging in with punches until the entire canvas is spotted with glove prints. When he's finished, he turns and raises his weary arms, just like a prizefighter at the end of a punishing bout. There's a clip in the film from a home movie taken in the 1970s, when a drunk Ushio is extolling the virtues of his art. It's painful to watch, because he unexpectedly bursts into tears, trying futilely to explain the wonders of being an artist. "I have nothing," he says, "but I believe in my art!"
Ushio's over-sized emotions are reflected in his work. Along with his boxing canvasses, he makes hulking sculptures of motorcycles, monsters, and dinosaurs. These are figures that a little boy would enjoy, which makes it doubly touching to see these bulky pieces hauled around town by an elderly man.  Indeed, Ushio wanted the exhibit promoted with a dinosaur theme. But he's also surprisingly down to earth; when the catalog for their gallery show compares the Shinoharas to Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner, he sneers, "That's crazy."  When  a major sale appears to fall through, he shrugs. He's felt so many disappointments in life that he's immune, like a boxer whose been hit so many times he barely feels it.
Nuriko's style is far less histrionic than her husband's, but she's just as passionate about the life she's pursued. From her illustrations we learn that she came to New York as a young woman to be a painter. Ushio was charismatic and living the life Nuriko dreamed about. They fell in love and married, even though he was 22 years older than her, and an alcoholic. They had a son. The son is now an alcoholic. Nuriko and Ushio's life would be grim, if not for their devotion to each other.
Ushio shows occasional affection towards Nuriko; a kiss on the cheek, a playful pat on the knee. She, in turn, calls him disgusting, and claims he would get rid of her if he had money.  "You only need me," she says, "to read the subway maps." 

Despite their well-honed comedy banter, the impression is that they've weathered some hard times, with Nuriko being the anchor that keeps the family together. We sense that Nuriko has come into her own as Ushio has aged. She needles him, which she wouldn't have done when she was a younger woman. Her illustrations, which have a delicate, dreamlike quality, are about two characters obviously based on herself and Ushio, "Cutie" and "Bully."  Cutie is a firebrand, a young woman trying to tame Bully, a narcissistic doofus.  Yet, as we read in a caption for one of her drawings, "Cutie understands Bully's great need to be loved."
When looking at his wife's work, Ushio remains silent. His face is a mystery in these scenes. Maybe he's admiring her craft, and perhaps fearing her style is more commercially viable than his own. He may also be looking at her stories of their past and feeling some guilt at not being an ideal husband. Maybe he's concerned that the public may see him as a buffoon. "Cutie is dangerous," Ushio says of his wife's fictional character. "She fights back." 
Heinzerling occasionally strives too hard for the elegiac. There are a few too many scenes of Nuriko walking alone, and too many scenes of the couple quietly eating in their tiny apartment. Heinzerling obviously cares a great deal about his subjects, and I can't blame him. Ushio and Nuriko are a memorable pair. At one point she goads Ushio into a conversation about art. She gets him to admit that he believes an artist's early work is always best. "Then why," she asks, "do you continue?" He has no answer. It's only when we see him at work that we understand. For Ushio, art allows his wild spirit to take to the air. Even at 80, he has plenty to give, and will probably be punching at his canvasses until he drops.

Who is the villain in Kieran Turner's Jobriath A.D.? Is it Jerry Brandt, the manager who took a talented young performer and hyped him to such a ridiculous degree that the public couldn't wait to see him fail? Was it the radio programmers of the 1970s, who weren't particularly interested in an openly gay singer? Was it the  rock & roll culture, which was still largely homophobic? Or was Jobriath himself a co-conspirator in his own failure? Jobriath, after all, approached Brandt and said he wanted the same arrangement as Elvis Presley had with his manager. That sort of chutzpah can backfire. And when the career bombed after two albums and an aborted tour, Jobriath didn't hesitate to kill his gay image, which makes me think it was all a big sham to begin with.

The legend of Jobriath has come down in dribs and drabs over the past 40 years. There's an occasional article in MOJO, or a mention in someone else's documentary. I vaguely recall being in a shopping mall at a very young age, and seeing an album cover staring down from a shop window. The man on the cover scared me. His face was blue, and he seemed otherworldly. As I grew older, I always assumed it was David Bowie. Now, after seeing Jobriath A.D., I think it may have been Jobriath. As many people say in this interesting and melancholy documentary, he was so far ahead of his time that no one knew how to take him. (Judging by some of the clips of Jobriath performing, I think Bowie actually borrowed some of Jobriath's look for his Scary Monsters album.)

The portrait of Jobriath that emerges in the film is one I wouldn't have expected. The strange blue man was a boy from Pennsylvania, a classically trained pianist who had been part of a Los Angeles production of Hair, and had blown away record producers at Electra with demos of his original songs. Hearing them now, there are snatches of Bowie and Mick Jagger in his vocals, some lush melodies, all underscored by his piano brilliance. In some ways, his music also reminded me of Meatloaf, with that broad, theatrical bombast, or perhaps a glam version of early Billy Joel. The gay movement was on the rise in the mid 1970s, and Brandt thought the time was right for a character like Jobriath. Apparently, though, Jobriath's image, which included calling himself "the true rock & roll fairy," was too gay even for the gays.

How much of this was Jobriath's idea, and how much was Brandt's?
In  the footage of Jobriath and the fast-talking Brandt, Jobriath appears distracted, and uninterested. He answers a reporter's questions with no real passion or intelligence. He wears the glam makeup, but it feels unnatural compared to the earlier scenes when he was a hippie-looking kid, exuberantly working in a recording studio. The concert footage shows him to be a competent performer, but too fragile for the rock & roll stage. There was even an appearance on Midnight Special that saw the magic Jobriath was trying to create evaporate under the TV lights. "We looked," says one of his band members, "like performing monkeys."

Jobriath's first love had been the old show tunes of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.  There'd been   a somewhat unhappy childhood, including a mother who didn't appreciate his talent.  Jobriath amused himself at the piano, memorizing old Tin Pan Alley numbers. When the glam rock phase of his career imploded, he went into seclusion, worked for a while as a male escort, and then reinvented himself as "Cole Berlin," a Manhattan cabaret performer. He seemed on the way to a successful career as a nightclub singer when he died of AIDS in 1983.

I liked this documentary. Unlike most films about performers, there's no moment of triumph, no career peak.  At least  he was in control of his career at the end,  playing the beloved songs of his childhood, although it's likely the Cole Berlin persona would've eventually melted away like all of his other facades. What's the lesson here? I'm not sure. Jobriath reminds me of a character in a Nathanael West novel, 'Day of the Locust,' perhaps, or 'A Cool Million.' He had some talent but he was a hollow man. He  tried. He tried.

No comments:

Post a Comment