Photo by Joseph Szkodzinski

Make Me Famous Review: The Value of Obscurity

The story of artists who never quite found fame or fortune

6 mins read

Make Me Famous
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Brian Vincent

 

If you are an avid doc fan, chances are you’ve seen the recent films about Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Nan Goldin, and other people who ran in the same circle. If not, you’ve probably heard their names. These films tell how these artists stirred something new in the air of modern art, film, and photography. Moreover, they convey the countercultural voice with which these artists socked it to the establishment. Often scrappy, often funny, and often climaxing with the AIDS crisis, these documentaries profile people who changed art history while enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol would put it. And, yes, there’s a recent doc about him too. A whole series!

What happens, though, when the well runs dry? Make Me Famous veers from the pack by recounting the life and work of an artist who ran in the same circles as Basquiat, Haring, Scharf, et al, but never made it. The artist in question is Edward Brezinski. Director Brian Vincent, however, doesn’t necessarily aim to position Brezinski as the long-lost Basquiat of his generation. The film instead unpacks the elements of commercialization and canonization that let some artists succeed while others starve. Drawing upon a chorus of interviewees including artists, curators, and cultural impresarios from the era, Make Me Famous explores this well-trodden generation of the New York arts scene from new and often funny angles.

 

The Donut King

Make Me Famous finds particularly good humour in the anecdote for which trades noted Brezinski, if publications even mentioned him. Interviewees recall the funny moment in which Brezinski accidently gobbled up a donut that comprised part of an art piece by Robert Gober. Commentators chuckle as they wonder if Brezinski was simply hungry or passive aggressively passing judgment on modern “art.” However, the talking heads position Brezinski as the punchline of the story since Gober sprayed the donuts with resin to preserve them. Brezinski wound up in hospital to have his stomach pumped and the episode even made the newspaper. It was a rare case of citation.

Vincent invites Brezinski’s contemporaries to reflect upon the artist’s struggles as well as his technique. One notable painting of Nancy Reagan suggests that Brezinski had the talent to be in the same conversation as Basquiat or Wojnarowicz when he applied himself. The film also lets gallerists and curators admit that succeeding is partly up to chance, timing, and taste. Gallerist Annina Nosei, for example, tells how she discovered Basquiat and sparked interest in such contemporary art. When it comes to Brezinski, though, she reveals that she dismissed his work. She admits to offering him 500 bucks for a painting and a disingenuous offer to see one of his shows. Cue another tabloidy story about how Brezinski threw red wine at her at a gallery opening and later threatened to kill her. Likability and charisma, it seems, are part of success’s recipe.

 

The Business of Art

Make Me Famous situates Brezinski’s overshadowing within the rise of “celebrity” artists and the bonkers business of the field. Nosei, for one, gasps at the thought that the Basquiat paintings she sold in his early days now fetch exorbitant prices. Similarly, interviewees look at the money-printing trade of stencil pop artists like Banksy and Mr. Brainwash, or the shiny, aesthetically juvenile work of Jeff Koons. The talking heads concede that a little business sense goes a long way in the art world. And they generally agree that business was an area in which Edward Brezinski was lacking.

The film doesn’t quite nail down what defined Brezinski as an artist aesthetically, but one has to admire the Llewyn Davis approach that Vincent takes in exploring the story of someone who didn’t make it. Make Me Famous features some novel archival footage from the era, which shows the New York scene in all its grungy and gritty glory. It’s admittedly fun to see images in which the background players are more familiar than the key subjects are. Generally, though, portraits of the most famous players rarely yield new information. This doc does.

Vincent also finds a peculiar dramatic twist to Brezinski’s story that underscores the poisonous nature of celebrity in the art world. Everyone thinks that Brezinski is dead, but none of the interviewees can identify the where, when, or how with certainty. This ambiguity leads to speculation that Brezinski found his ultimate masterpiece in staging his own death. Whether it worked is up to viewers. But a quick Google search indicates that his art now goes for about 200 bucks.

Make Me Famous opens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Jan. 20.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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