There is a great danger for the film (Untitled), which I will begin by saying is easily one of the best of the year, in that those who do manage to see it are apt to be hoping for a melody.
Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg) is a composer, and fancies himself (sort of) as working out of the atonal school. His performances include a couple of his cohorts, and involve banging on piano keys, ripping paper, kicking metal buckets with chains in them, and generally making a racket. As Adrian will tell you, everyone tries to connect their music to life, whereas he’s gone the other way.
Early on we also meet Adrian’s brother Josh (Eion Bailey) and the gallery owner who manages Josh’s career, Madeleine (Marley Shelton). Josh is a painter, and his work sells faster than he can finish it… by the truckload… to hotels and hospitals for their lobbies. Josh thinks Adrian should get his life together, mainly because he thinks his brother’s “music” is a bunch of stupid noise. Madeleine, on the other hand, rather likes it.
We quickly discover that Madeleine sells Josh’s “commercial” art out of the back of her gallery. It isn’t the sort of thing she would ever show. The front of her gallery is reserved for “serious” art, like the bizarre taxidermy-infused constructions of Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones). Hers is the kind of gallery in which one might find a confused, but hopelessly rich patron offering to buy a work, and thus eliciting a response similar to his having spit on the art.
Adrian is a little uncomfortable with this sort of art, but Madeleine offered him the chance to perform at her gallery before he really knew what he was getting into, and he isn’t exactly turning away opportunities.
The two naturally start having an affair of sorts, much to the chagrin of Josh, who was “working his way up to asking her out,” despite the fact that he had been passing Madeleine off as his girlfriend to his parents, and Josh, from the beginning. When Madeleine wants Adrian to perform at the opening of her new artist, someone who takes readymades to inconceivable new lengths, Adrian refuses to have his work associated with that “art.”
While the “is it art?” debate seems somewhat in the foreground in (Untitled), the question is really far more, “is it an artist?” The difference makes for a tricky difficulty for the film, mainly because a great many people will transpose the ideas behind where the film is most and least making statements. The film has some fun with Ray Barko’s ridiculous and pompous ideas of self-rediscovery, and the fact that a team of workers in a warehouse actually create his “art,” which he rarely touches. It is somewhat whimsical to watch Ray parading around like a peacock who can’t find his way out of the rain, but the movie is practically documentary at this point. Art by administration is not at all a small affair today, and often cites the work of some of the bigger names in your art history book for justification of the idea. Readymades may be taken to a point that causes a small chuckle, but as a statement about art itself it only the begs the question, “Is one readymade really any more stupid than another?”
Where the film has purpose, and something it actually wants to say, is in Adrian’s introduction into Madeleine’s perspective. Her mistaken application of the theoretically noble idea that she isn’t in it for the money is a start, but her simple attraction to Adrian makes the film’s major statements. That she sees his inattention to critical response and mass appeal as the same creature as Ray Barko’s snobbish disdain of comment and opinion, because the bare result is somewhat similar. That she is drawn generically to an intense passion for creating one’s art, and equally to Adrian’s (which he cannot express) and the readymade artist’s (though he can really do nothing else).
Madeleine is brilliantly without understanding of art, though obviously with great education about it. She knows it when she sees it, but only accidentally, because the only things she really knows are certain signs. As she says herself, when critics hate something, she’s immediately drawn to it. And, why not? Look at all the things critics hated in the past, but are considered brilliant now. That’s a sign. Given what is basically her facade of art appreciation, so is a piece of art that looks really stupid. So is an artist that speaks a lot without making much sense, and doesn’t seem to care if the public responds well to their work.
These are all things she finds at the art shows of those who are staggeringly popular. She pays no attention to why critics don’t like something, or what motivation is behind an artist’s viewpoint, because while she can say all the big words herself, she doesn’t really understand why people are saying those big words. She is the sort that, were she in the wine game, would say “heady” and “picquant,” and be fanatically defensive if her taste were challenged once she approved of something, but would go home and drink swill as long as it cost $200 a bottle. And yet, it is somehow with the best of intentions, and a kind of innocence, that she has gone wrong. Almost like an artist herself, who perhaps finds out what is considered good music, and tries to play that, rather than being moved to anything in particular.
Meanwhile, we sit in with Adrian, tortured in his studio, trying to come to terms with just what the hell he’s doing, and why. And, we should not too quickly discount the guy who can’t stop practicing getting just the right sound out of his bucket kicks.
The film is pushed over the top by the brilliant performances (and choices) of Goldberg and Shelton, and to a lesser extent Jones. Goldberg is a natural at a kind of confused disinterest, and his odd, but mesmerizing onscreen charm let him put all the pieces of this character together, without having to say much. The movie gives you Adrian, but doesn’t have to tell you about him when a fidgety scrawl in a moleskin, or a standing case order of Post-Its will suffice. Similarly, Shelton puts the perfect touches on a character that could easily have gone very wrong, and with a different actress might have become not only unlikable, but unwatchable.
As we near an end (but not a finish), Adrian meets his idol, and Madeleine gives a short speech about relationships with artists. Adrian asks the legendary atonal composer how he deals with idiotic criticism, and he isn’t really given an answer, but is instead told that he has to love the process. Madeleine speaks fairly eloquently about how much she enjoys her relationships with artists over time. The joy of watching them develop. Being a part of the creation of something beautiful. She is oh so right in everything she says, and wonderfully unaware that the beautiful thing that gets created is not the artwork, or that she doesn’t know any artists in any case.
(Untitled) delivers great sound, has a precision of purpose that is almost unrivaled, and the sort of true strength generally found in nature only among really big dogs. But, you will want a melody.
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*There’s still a little time left on a giveaway for some (Untitled) stuff here. Ends Oct. 31st.
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- Marshall Fine: HuffPost Review: (Untitled) is artfully funny (huffingtonpost.com)