Friday, September 18, 2009

Filmmaker Kalmbach does photographer Tillmans: IF ONE THING MATTERS at AFA

"IF ONE THING MATTERS," an index card carefully notes at the beginning of the film of the same name by Heiko Kalmbach (shown at right), "then everything matters." I'll buy that. But surely one must prioritize a little: Can each thing matter to the same degree?

This question keeps nattering -- mattering? -- away during the entire short length (72 minutes) of Herr Kalbach's documentary, which tracks German photographer/artist Wolfgang Tillmans (shown at top and bottom): at work, at installations and at play (well, a bit of the latter), as he muses about this and that. Tillmans seems a funny, charming, relatively intelligent guy to spend time with, as he enjoys a successful installation at one of the Tates, mingles with students and fans, photographs German actress Irm Herrman (yes, Fassbinder!) and does a rat-themed video for the Pet Shop Boys, among other endeavors. An awfully lot of time is spent watching the artist hang his work -- which clearly is important to him -- as is his interactions with his fans, at which he excels.

Kalmbach, no doubt deliberately, has created a film as haphazard as its subject and his work. It jumps around like crazy, rarely remaining in one spot or on one idea (or photograph or wall) long enough for the viewer to get his bearings. And if we don't know what something is, or what it signifies, or even what it looks like in its entirety, how can we understand it or its relation to everything around it? Which may be the point, but since we don't see even this very well, we begin to feel like we're dog-paddling across the English Channel. I think this every-which-way idea is a part of Tillmans' philosophy, too, but since we aren't allowed to see much of any of the environments here -- the artists home, his studio, galleries, clubs -- as full of photos/art as the movie is (Tillman clearly wants us to see his photos as art), we're not much closer to knowledge or understanding by the film's end than we were at the beginning.

At one point along the way, after growing noticeably annoyed at one viewer's asking what a particular shot is and where it was taken ("You wouldn't ask this about a painting!" he grouses to the filmmaker afterward), Tillmans admits to being " a little hysterical and hung-over." Well, it's nice to see him, for a moment, not being so constantly chipper. Later he appears as delighted by a bunch of prints of his photos going through a paper shredder as with the earlier gallery opening. Whatever else he may be, Tillmans is clearly a fabulous marketer who understands how to get -- and keep -- an audience and fans.

If you have never seen (as I have not) a real installation of Tillmans' work except what is shown in this film -- and then only in bits and pieces -- I don't see how you can begin to understand much of what this photographer/artist, who won Britain's prestigious Turner Prize in 2000, is all about. The documentary finally seems almost a disservice to the artist. Toward the end of it, we see Tillmans installing his photos in NYC's Guggenheim Museum, where one of those shots he has taken of the famous Irm Hermann ends up as perhaps the most prominently displayed of all his work. We're back to marketing, I guess, and why not? We all have to earn our keep.

If One Thing Matters open in New York City today -- Friday, September 18 -- at Anthology Film Archives for a week-long run. You can view the schedule of performances here.

The photo of the filmmaker, middle right, is by Todd Weinstein;
the photos at top and bottom of Tillmanns are from the film itself.

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