Anyone unsure about Tamra Davis’ ability to gain the trust of her collaborators (not to mention questioning her coolness and punk rock credentials) need look no further than her 1994 six minute doc “No Alternative Girls,” featuring Huggy Bear’s Niki Elliot, Boredoms’ Yoshimi P-We, and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, a trio of women not exactly known for craving media attention. By capturing an identity re-defined and the sexual politics negotiated by a flourishing punk “boy/girl revolution” (emphasis on the grrrl) with her camera (in bleeding color and varying degrees of black and white, no less) Davis is able to convey a sense of intimacy otherwise reserved for late night heart-to-hearts between the best of friends. That sense of personal connection with her interviewees in their element shows up early in Davis’ life (before she’d go on to become one of her generation’s most successful directors, working with the likes of Sandler, Barrymore, and Chapelle, to name a few), as is evident in her ’80s home video interview with her friend, the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. A spontaneous, intimate conversation between two close friends that happened to be captured on tape back in the day, the home video makes up the heart (and soul) of her new documentary, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. With the use of period footage, friend recollections, and, most importantly, Basquiat’s own thoughts, we get a little closer to knowing the genius, friend, person that was Jean-Michel and come closer to understanding the socio-political atmosphere to which the artist Basquiat brought a breath of fresh air.
Ms. Davis was kind enough to indulge a fellow conversationalist on her new film, the price of fame, the ’80s, and of course, her friend.
Marvin Miranda: Pop culture usually seems to embrace an artist from the past with such immediate frenzy that, before you know it, it’s moved on to the next subject of adulation. That seemed to be the case about 15 years ago when an artist who the general public was not familiar with became a toast of the town outside of the art world. Everybody was talking Basquiat. But he really wasn’t just the flash in the pan that a lot of subjects become, as evidenced by your two recent films, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child and the resurrected A Conversation with Basquiat, not to mention two more unrelated films in the past few years. Having known Basquiat personally, what do you think is it about Basquiat that makes him captivating to filmmakers today just as he was 15 years ago and just as he was 30 years ago?
Tamra Davis: Do we as a culture create superstars or do they just exist and it’s up to us to discover them? What if they die before anyone ever knew their greatness? (A Confederacy of Dunces). Or we pursue them to get close and in doing so kill them? Jean-Michel had “it”. That fact was undeniable. He was radiant. I have been lucky in my life to have met people that are special, so extraordinary talented that they somehow are on a different plane. Sometimes these amazingly talented people find a way to keep reinventing themselves to stay relevant and alive. Some fall under the crushing vibrancy of their own intensity.
You could make 5 more films about Jean-Michel and each film would probably reflect a different nature in our culture. Basquiat will continue to show us new things about who we are and why he was so important. Plus his paintings are just so damn beautiful!
MM: One of the things I really enjoyed about Radiant Child is how well it captures the era. It really does have a Downtown ’81 feel to it. But what I found interesting while watching your movie was that the era also seemed to be embodied not only by his art but by Basquiat himself: a larger-than-life quality that included general excess, flamboyance, a f*** the system attitude, and socio-political strife. I’m not sure that we’ve drank such a cocktail since. How was it for you being in your twenties, coming into your own, and being a part of that culture?
TD: I think we had become disillusioned with authority yet we were all still idealistic. We wanted to make it happen. Yet most of us didn’t have money or formal education. How do you make it to the top when all you have is ambition and talent? You believe in yourself and surround yourself with other idealistic and talented friends that fuel each other and push against the establishment to take you seriously. Hopefully when you make it you still have that group of friends or family that always believed in you because it’s really easy to get dizzy and confused once you’re at the top.
MM: The ’80s were a decade that thrived on the idea that “more was more.” You could see that in fashion, music, Hollywood, etc. As your movie points out, that was not the case in the art world, generally speaking, at least in the art houses. Instead, there was a minimalist approach going on. Then Basquiat comes along and suddenly there’s an explosion of color on a “white on white canvas,” sort of speak. Do you think it was inevitable that the larger-than-life ’80s would produce a Basquiat?
TD: I guess, but I also think that every age has an opportunity to create something new and different. He was definitely rebelling against the establishment but I think what was unique about the ’80s is that it was fueled by instant celebrity. I think that made it difficult for a young person to try and grapple with public praise and then public shame and disappointment. I don’t think he was at all prepared for the media attention. Nowadays a young person would hopefully be more savvy about how they deal with the onslaught of public opinion towards something they hold so sacred. When you are talking about some one’s art it is usually so personal. Jean-Michel really took the praise and the slams personal.
MM: Fab 5 Freddy says something really interesting at the beginning of the doc, when he’s talking about Basquiat wanting to be recognized, wanting to be famous. He says he doesn’t really want to use the word “fame” because in the era we now live in, who wants to be famous? “Being famous is whack”. How do you think Basquiat would have fared in our culture today, especially since we live in an era where people with obvious talent line up to be exploited by television? What do you think his attitude towards that would have been?
TD: I think the desire to be recognized would have been there but I think he would have been far more aware of how we treat celebrities. While I was editing the film Michael Jackson died and Tiger was being hunted by the press. I saw these other young men who are obviously so talented being taken down by, of course, their actions, but also by public humiliation. We as a fame hungry culture destroy so many of our talented artists. It is an art in itself how someone can remain a balanced person and have any level of fame and attention. I don’t know how Jean-Michel would have fared in today’s “anyone-can-leave-a-comment” world.
MM: It could be argued that the ’80s was an apotheosis for street culture with hip-hop, break dancing, and of course, graffiti, making their way into the mainstream. As you worked across different sub-cultures (hip hop, punk, new wave, indie rock, etc.) that were not exactly considered mainstream during the late ’80s and early ’90s, could you feel a sense of empowerment these movements had gained as a direct result of what Basquiat and other street artists were doing in the early ’80s? Perhaps an empowerment that may even have helped to pave the way from urban culture to respectability for contemporary artists such as Shepard Fairey?
TD: I guess we have to start somewhere and most new things start on the street, not in the galleries or in the media. Whatever new thing we have has got to start from one person or a small group of people that have a new idea. Then we can co- opt it into the market and media culture and make it mass and available to all. Shepard did the poster and the titles for the film. You have to start somewhere…
MM: In seeing scenes from Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, clips featuring the likes of Debbie Harry, Madonna, and photos of just about every punk rocker, new waver, etc. who was in Basquiat’s orbit, I couldn’t help but feel a certain bitter sweetness in the fact that all these rockers, punks, and anarchists/etc have grown up and become respected contributors to society. Basquiat, on the other hand, will never age and will never cease looking like he doesn’t quite fit in, like he’s not part of the establishment. How did it feel to see his friends, who have now for all intents and purposes become the establishment, posthumously giving him his due and accepting him?
TD: I also found that many of the people were dead from drugs, AIDS or just not presentable to put on film. Thank God some had grown up and are now living fulfilling lives. The people that were established had worked hard on becoming established and well respected. I didn’t find that bitter sweet. I really loved meeting old friends of Jean-Michel and having a cup of tea and talking about him. It made me happy to see that he still had such an impact on the lives of the people that knew him and they gave him respect.
MM: You’re not just a documentarian who’s done her research, culled all these images, and tracked down all these talking heads. You lived it. What was it like for you to revisit all this now at this point in your life? And what was it like revisiting with Basquiat, a person who’s now become an icon, a legend, but who you knew as a friend?
TD: It was an emotional film for me to make. I really wanted to make a film that felt like a movie and not just a bio pic. I cried so many times making the film because I wanted to keep myself raw emotionally so I could make something that was real and moving. I would look at all my old footage and see the relationship I had with him captured and frozen in time. The smiles, the teasing, the flirting…it was all still there as if it had happened the day before. So I had this amazing footage as my base, the heart of the film, and then I really tried to use each interview I did as a road map into both the complex world of the art market and into the meaning of his work. I would also just pour through his many catalogues and books looking for clues and researching the references. The whole time I made the film I kept trying to hear his voice and thought what would he want me to say? Who would he have wanted me to talk to? I had to feel in the end that if I showed him the film he would still be my friend. That’s why the film is a bit like a love letter. I made it for Jean-Michel.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens Friday, August 20, 2010, at Landmark’s Nuart Theatre for a one-week engagement. Director Tamra Davis will speak to audiences on Friday, August 20 at 7:30pm show; Saturday, August 21 at 7:30pm show; and Sunday, August 21 at 2:50pm show. She is joined by MoCA Director Jeffrey Deitch (featured in the film) for 8/20 at 7:30; artist Kenny Scharf (featured in the film) for 8/21 at 7:30; the film’s editor and producer Alexis Spraic for 8/22 at 2:50.
For more info visit: http://www.jean-michelbasquiattheradiantchild.com/