Bay Area filmmaker Jonathan Parker’s latest feature (Untitled) captures the art world and all the accompanying pretensions at its funniest.
Adam Goldberg plays Adrian, a lovably grumpy avant-garde composer who lacks a fan base. That is until he meets ridiculously affected gallery owner Madeleine (Marley Shelton). Soon she’s his number one fan and promoter. But love, like trends, can be fleeting when the illusive next “big thing” is on the horizon.
Over email, Parker and I discussed low-budget filmmaking, the unforgettable taxidermy Madeleine shows in her gallery, and what inspired his sardonic take on art collecting.
(Untitled) is currently playing in theaters.
I really enjoyed the film, but I initially found the title rather confusing. Why did you title the film (Untitled)?
(Untitled) is the title of a lot of contemporary art works. You often see it on labels in museums and galleries, accompanied by the name of the artist and the year the work was created. There were a few suggestions to change the title due to the difficulty of searching online, but we had lived with it for several years and felt it had a certain elegance. I hope it is not too confusing.
What inspired you to write and direct a film that cleverly satirizes the art world, specifically what is considered art?
We started with the idea of Adam’s character – a difficult guy whose music is difficult. I spent many years as a musician (I got into film through music and have experienced many of the live performances depicted in the film), and wanted to do a story about a classically-trained composer who very seriously pursues music that is heard by very few. What keeps him going? Thomas Mann’s “Dr. Faustus” is about a similar character (also named Adrian) whose revolutionary musical theories are based on Arnold Schoenberg’s. It’s a character type you encounter not infrequently in that world. The difficult personality may be a self-defense mechanism masking a deep insecurity about whether their work has any merit or not.
We then set about contrasting the musician’s prospects (very little money) with those of a contemporary artist working in the moneyed world of contemporary art. I grew up in an artistic house. My mother, Gertrud Parker, is an artist and founded a small museum in San Francisco (Museum of Craft and Folk Art). But it was my college-age son’s pursuit of art and interest in contemporary art that got me going to a lot of galleries and art markets. I became curious (and somewhat annoyed) as to why wealthy collectors were spending so much on certain types of art and how the mysterious gallery system worked. I noticed a striking difference in the motivations of the collectors (social connections and investment) and the artists who created the works (loftier artistic goals). It struck me as a good comic set-up.
How did your own experiences as a musician and art collector contribute to writing (Untitled) with Catherine di Napoli? Specifically the idea that creating art and music for profit, or at least to make a living, is somehow less artistic than making art and music purely as creative pursuits.
I don’t agree that creating art for profit is less artistic than making it for purely creative reasons. I don’t think specific artists or musicians have much of a choice regarding that. One does what one does, and whether it’s profitable or not depends on the nature of the work. The amount of creative people who are fortunate enough to make a living from work that they would do anyway even if they were not getting paid for it is pretty small. That has never been my circumstance. I make a living from non-artistic pursuits.
What inspired Adrian’s (Adam Goldberg) compositions and the art shown at Madeleine’s (Marley Shelton) gallery? Do you have an interest in taxidermy?
The composer, David Lang, and I were parodying certain contemporary music compositions with Adam’s performances. These were augmented by Adam’s actual playing because it was the only way to shoot those scenes. Regarding the art, all of the pieces in the film are specific parodies of certain artists or conflations of multiple artists. Taxidermy, as a material, came about somewhat by accident because the young artist Kyle Ng, who I approached to make the Vinnie Jones character’s art, happened to have a taxidermy collection and his own private taxidermist. The concepts of most of those pieces were developed by my son, Sam Parker, and then executed by Kyle.
Adam Goldberg and Marley Shelton are very well cast and have great chemistry. How did both actors become involved with the film?
We approached Adam for the part not just for his acting ability but because of photographs I saw of him at a film festival looking extremely annoyed. It was the right countenance for Adrian. Adam then suggested Marley who he knew but had never worked with. The whole cast had excellent chemistry together, which is mostly just luck.
I had read that (Untitled) was made on a relatively small budget, and yet I found the film to be rather posh, particularly Madeleine’s clothing, gallery, and apartment. How did you achieve this tone on a smaller budget?
It wasn’t easy. Our DP, Svetlana Cvetko, obtained a very favorable deal from Panavision to use the Genesis HD camera, which had never been used on a low-budget show. We then decided to shoot in a wide-screen format to make it look more expensive. Marley’s personal stylist was able to obtain some of the high-end designer clothes gratis. The gallery is a set built in a Brooklyn warehouse. The art in her loft was made for the movie, very inexpensively, as parodies of actual pieces.
What is next for (Untitled) and for you as a filmmaker?
(Untitled) is rolling out to a number of big cities. It opened last week in the SF Bay Area, Washington DC, Dallas and others, and will open this weekend in Boston, Philly, Seattle, Atlanta, and the following week in Minneapolis and Houston. I’m heading to Germany tomorrow for its foreign festival premiere in Mannheim – Heidelberg.
Catherine and I are working on our next script which is set in the California Gold Rush. It’s kind of a comic version of There Will Be Blood.
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