Directed by Aaron Rose
at IFC Center beginning Aug. 8
Beautiful Losers, Aaron Rose’s directorial debut, is a quirky documentary about the rise of 10 under-appreciated—but highly influential—independent artists whose late 1980s and early ’90s street culture roots and childlike spirit continue to shape contemporary pop culture. In a jaunty, somewhat unfocused narrative, Rose maps a timeline that consists more of a love of childhood and the value of friendship than the collapse of the distinctions between high art and pop art. From the New York subcultures of skateboarding, graffiti, stenciling and DIY, these artists created the aesthetic that now appears on subway walls in the form of iPod billboards and GAP ads.
A product of the movement as much as an ode to it, the film is a gem because of the immaturity and intimacy that it shares with those featured in it. San Francisco graffiti artist Barry McGee, gazing uncomfortably away from the camera, speaks with humor and modesty (that borders on self-deprecation) about what it means to be an outcast who just likes to make things. For these "kids," as they keep calling themselves, their work never started out as hyper-intellectual statements for the world to see, but ways to vent even the smallest personal matters in a universally relatable fashion, mostly for their friends. "You didn’t have to be smart," says an enthusiastic Mike Mills (Thumbsucker). "You just have to have a heart."
The movement, conceived around Rose’s East Village storefront gallery, the Alleged, is reminiscent of the cultural revolution that had taken place with Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and similar counterculture groups of decades past. They come with none of the prejudices against being "emo" or angst-riddled that the twentysomethings of today’s New York deride when bashing livejournalers and teenagers with too much eyeliner. Even today, the former patrons of the now famed Alleged gallery are admittedly angsty, still rebelling against their conceptions of the mainstream that rejected them as they lived in a sugar-coated suburban world that revealed itself in its restrained lack of reality. They all identify as losers, outcasts, people wronged by the mainstream of their time. "The dispossessed inherit the creative earth," asserted Mills, and he and the others launched into nostalgic stories intercut with grainy home-video clips of their childhood selves running the streets tagging buildings on skateboards.
The idyllic world of vibrant creativity and rebellion against the constraints of commercial gallery conventions breaks down when the artists come to be renowned and successful. Chris Johanson, Ed Templeton, Jo Jackson and Margaret Kilgallen have been featured in several major galleries and museums. Director Aaron Rose worked for MTV Networks and the Undefeated Billboard Project together with Nike. Perhaps most astonishingly crossing the lines from the subcultural to the commercial, Geoff McFetridge creates designs fro Pepsi, Nike and others. Though the film stops short of exploring the complications that come with the artists and their art being forced into adulthood by way of discovery by the same mainstream culture that alienated them, the progression reveals the story behind the seeds of contemporary conceptions of indie chic.
More notably than the story of artistic growth and change, however, is the extraordinary earnestness of the artists who tell it. From this came the snarky, obsessively ironic darkness that pervades the subcultures that followed. Have the "kids" of today lost the honesty to admit our angst and sadness without backing it up with turned-up noses?
The film itself struck me as toeing the lines between sweet and overly earnest – and exposed my participation in the backlash against the heartfelt. Mills says about expressing the melodramatic emotions of any child, "Sometimes it’s like, I’m going to be so sad it’s going to be just silly." Perhaps Beautiful Losers can stand as a reminder to hold onto our silliness while we still can.