Art Bastard

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There have been a few really good documentaries this year, and this is one of them. This weekend, the documentary on filmmaker Brian De Palma is going to get all the attention, but the much better one opening here at the Angelika Film Center is Art Bastard.

Robert Cenedella might not be the household name De Palma is, but he should be.

In a cleverly titled movie (you can watch it to find out the double meaning), you get to know about this avuncular, wonderful human being who should be making a great living selling his paintings. Instead, he’s been virtually ignored by the art world, despite the many write-ups he’s gotten over the years.

And for those of us that think Pollock and Basquiat were overrated (and there are very few of us), this movie is refreshing; as well as frustrating. Why must the value of a painting make or break the artist? Shouldn’t you buy what you love, or what moves you? Instead, everyone is looking for an investment.

Another pleasant surprise with this movie is that the 76-year-old never comes across as an angry curmudgeon. He hates the art world, and he has reason to.

We find out his mom was an angry woman when she drank, yet when he goes to the bar — he’s in his element. When he speaks about his parents it’s interesting, but when he talks about his influential art teacher, it’s one of the most moving things you’ll see on film this year.

For a guy that got expelled from high school, had dyslexia, and hated every second of school…to find art teacher George Grosz and be so influenced by him…is just a wonderful experience. Grosz did caricatures and paintings of Berlin life in the ‘20s (including Hitler), and Cenedella did it in America in the ‘60s. The story about a target he created with Nixon’s face and the letter he gets from Nixon’s secretary (with a better photo for him to use)…priceless.

The way he makes fun of the “pop art” phenomenon, and does a “Yes Art” gallery opening, is just brilliant. Yet again, you wonder…when a Warhol shows up at an auction it sells for millions and millions. It’s a shame people didn’t purchase his pop art, even if it was making fun of that world. I’m guessing after this movie, they will. Just like how the documentary on the heavy metal band Anvil, who never made it in music…had a huge career after the documentary.

Something about the crowds he paints in New York, stuffed with faces done in exquisite detail, are just fascinating to look at. The music played underneath the various paintings is done well, too. Especially Beethoven, after we see his successful buttons that said “I Like Ludwig” (a parody of the “I Like Ike” badges).

It’s a shame his satirical paintings were being done at a time when abstract expressionism was on the rise.

It’s not just the art that’s interesting in this documentary. Listening to Cenedella talk about being kicked out of school for not signing a “loyalty oath,” or getting into trouble for writing a satirical piece on the bomb drills they had to perform, is classic. In a day and age where kids make the news for sneaking dirty pictures in their yearbook photos, we can think back to a time when you did a prank, you were probably kicked out of school and not made famous by social media.

Another segment of the movie deals with his dad being blacklisted for not answering as to whether or not he was a communist. That hurt his broadcasting career, and even lead to him stealing money from the young teenager.

It’s a treat listening to him talk about his influences. As a kid, looking at the illustrations of Moby Dick (by Rockwell Kent), or going to a gallery to stare at Pieter Bruegel’s “The Harvesters,” saying “I could never see enough of it,” and describing the detail in the wheat. It’s almost how I felt about this documentary. I couldn’t get enough of his paintings and looking at the various ones shown here.

There’s also one of the best revenge stories you may ever hear somebody tell.

A lot of his art reminded me of Leroy Neiman meets Mad magazine. And in so many of his pieces with chaotic crowd scenes, the director smartly goes over a few of the paintings slowly, so we can appreciate in detail the humor in what’s being shown. It conveyed the craziness of New York streets, as well as the crazy things going on in society at the time.

The perfect way to celebrate your dad on Father’s Day would be taking him to see this picture. If you go to the Angelika for one of the afternoon showings on Saturday, you’ll get to hear a Q&A with him.

This gets 4 stars out of 5.