"A SLY COMMENTARY ON THE STATE OF THE ART WORLD IN THE '60S"
While looking up information on Brian De Palma's documentary short about The Responsive Eye, I came across a terrificly insightful review by Robert Ham, posted at Network Awesome three years ago. Here's an excerpt:
Say whatever you want to about the school of painting and design known as "op art"...you've already been beaten to the punch by the vox populi caught on camera by Brian De Palma in 1966.
In fact, the majority of the director's documentary account of the opening of the titular Museum of Modern Art exhibit dedicated to perceptual art -- art that, as John Lancaster put it, played with "the interaction between illusion and picture plane, between understanding and seeing" -- is given over to commentary from both artists and spectators about the effectiveness of pieces by Bridget Riley, Josef Albers, and Alexander Liberman. In their collective view, the work was deemed everything from stunning to nauseating. Or, as one interviewee says during the film: "I don't think it's art."
Any other director would have stuck with curator William Seitz and psychologist Rudolph Arnheim as they took them on a tour of the exhibit, teasing out their own interpretations of the art. Instead, De Palma turns the whole piece into one of the wittiest films of his oeuvre as well as a sly commentary on the state of the art world in the '60s. It's a neat trick, and one that he pulls off using the strongest part of his visual arsenal at the time: editing.
His use of jump cuts into dialogue from the interviews echoes the itchy movement of his debut feature The Wedding Party. In that film, he hearkens back to the work of directors like D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, not to mention the French New Wave filmmakers who were using the same artistic tricks: overly-caffeinated pacing and quick edits between two competing scenes.
With The Responsive Eye, many of the same storytelling devices are brought over to the documentary format. De Palma jumps between the discussions of Seitz and Arnhelm, and the reactions of people at the opening night event. They go by so quickly that the effect is as sometimes disorienting as the art on the walls of MoMa. They are short jabs of punch lines and little visual gags (the woman in an evening gown bending repeatedly at the knees to catch the "movement" of a piece she is looking at).
It's also important to look at the people that De Palma and his camera crew choose to interview for the film. They are an absurd bunch: the bespectacled child who declaims that he wouldn't put the art in his home, the woman dolled up for the night in a completely striped outfit ("The tights are from Macy's, and the dress is from Bloomingdales"), the drunken woman being held aloft by her husband saying, "I loved it," and the coup de grace, the caricature of an English nobleman at the very end, complete with a haughty air about him. And a monocle.
The only people you are meant to take seriously, it seems, are the artists behind the work. In that camp, you get Mon Levinson showing off how he creates the illusion of movement with his pieces, and discussing at the end how excited he was to see it. Best, though, is Josef Albers, who kvetches loudly about how long it has taken his work to be appreciated.
Albers may have a point, but it brings up one of the underlying issues of this film and this exhibit. As Marc Campbell on Dangerous Minds points out, Responsive Eye was "the first significant exhibit of optical art synchronous with and in some cases arising out of the early days of psychedelic culture." i It's amazing, really, that no one in the film addresses this fact. I think De Palma knew that going into the project, and although he doesn't press the issue, the point is simple: these folks just don't get it.
That kind of attitude was De Palma's whole mindset at this early stage of his career. The work he was doing before and after this documentary kicked against the ideas of Hollywood filmmaking. Beyond The Wedding Party, he helped create the two Godardian, politically-driven films, Greetings and Hi Mom!, and the slapstick slasher flick Murder a la Mod. Why would anyone expect him to make a dull documentary about an art exhibit?