FILM REVIEW: My Art
Written, directed by and starring Laurie Simmons
Opens in LA January 19
Laemmle Ahyra Fine Arts Theatre, Beverly Hills
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Laurie Simmons basically plays herself in this wry, pensive narrative about a woman artist in her 60s who is moved to confront metrics of success, agencies of authorship, and candid emotional priorities during an extended summer in upstate New York — and then makes a bunch of work about it. Her character, “Ellie”, uses iconic scenes from the Golden Age of cinema as the backdrops and launch pads for her own original video art, which makes watching a movie about her process and its results a uniquely satisfying meta-experience as far as movies about art-making go. Simmons is not an actor, however her presence on the screen is confident, awkward, intense, and endearing. She’s a natural. Also, she wrote and directed the film, within which she makes more films, so that the overall sensation is beguiling and truly insightful into the dynamic of a working artist’s studio.
Narratively, the film’s arc is fairly straightforward. We open on a midweek visit to a contemporary NYC museum (in-jokes alert), where she runs into an obnoxious millennial former student (played to nails-on-a-chalkboard perfection by Simmons’ daughter, Lena Dunham) who just can’t believe her own “brutal” international exhibition schedule. At one point Blair Brown’s character, a peer and close, trusted friend of Ellie’s, who is experiencing a fad for her work of which Ellie might be just the smallest bit jealous, “The art world loves bad boys and old women. It’s just my turn”.
As the semester ends, Simmons takes up a summertime house-sitting gig at the country manor of a famous artist…and hilarity ensues. With a supporting cast including Blair Brown and Parker Posey (plus a terrific cameo by Genevieve Gaignard and her art), the film’s deadpan humor is at times quite profound in its meditations on the consciousness of the artist herself. Her new friends are the perfect foils for her issues, inspirations, and her need for enthusiastic collaborators and muses.
“I started writing My Art shortly after being cast as the artist-mother in Tiny Furniture, a film by Lena Dunham,” notes Simmons. “I became preoccupied with the depiction of artists, particularly women artists. Almost invariably, they are mythologized, romanticized, and made to seem tragic and crazy, which has no bearing on my own experience.” In fact, as Ellie notes in the film around the same time as the audience realizes it for themselves, the cinema stories she chooses to recreate feature female characters who speak sparingly if at all. By taking a critical look at the way women were portrayed in classic cinema (look hot, don’t talk, be either a virgin or a witch) she marvelously articulates her critique of the contemporary art world, through her own unique language.
Ellie uses well-made analog restagings of movies, painstakingly and with great aesthetic success building sets and projection screens, devising costumes, makeup, music, and of course, acting and directing. But Simmons also directed the overall film, so there are endless passages of lingering visual pleasure, eccentric architectural framing, emotional details of garments, gardens, or windows, and moments of evocative, poetic, nostalgic cinematography that rather makes it all like one big piece of Simmons’ work. But though it takes a languid tone that makes room for silences and natural awkwardness, it’s not video art, it’s a feature film. There’s even a dog, jokes, and sort of a love story.
Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham will attend the Los Angeles opening on January 19
Laemmle Ahyra Fine Arts Theatre
8556 Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211