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The story of the life of artist Ray Johnson is cloaked in mystery not only at the moment of his death, but also throughout a career that was difficult to know and to understand. As one of the seminal figures in the Pop Art era, Johnson is known as the founding father of mail art and as a collagist extraordinaire. But, overshadowed by those like Warhol who manipulated that world in a very dissimilar manner, he was also a reclusive and sometimes enigmatic figure who has been called New York's most famous unknown artist, but who challenged the commercial and critical establishment. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Well not really, its all pretty much drawn out for you. This film is a very solid documentary about Ray Johnson an underground artist from NY, that never grew in popularity as his peers from the scene. The film presupposes that the "mysterious death" was not "mysterious" at all but in fact was really something that could be considered his final performance. The film is extremely linear in that sense. We get a quick summary of his childhood, we get a quick peek at the NY scene, and we get hints throughout the film how he loved the idea of messages in a bottle, or things associated with water and floating. So yes, you pretty quickly build up a theory he committed suicide and that it was a performance. The film is so absolute that their is not even a hint of doubt in anyone interviewed that his death was an accident or foul play, that the idea of this film being about solving his death, is misleading. (Which I personally was annoyed at because I misjudged what the jacket description considered the arch of the film, not the directors fault, but I was still tossed by that for a minute).
The true arch of the film is also a bit shallow, "Who was Ray Johnson?" This question is answered in the first lines of the film. Friends, Gallery owners and even mailmen knew a little bit of him, but when pondering the question, everyone realizes no one really knew who the man really was. After reiterating this point again and again, we finally come to the closest realization (From I believe Billy Name) when he says, "To try and separate the man and the art is impossible when talking about Ray Johnson". Not a direct quote, but something to that effect. Ray was art, and what he did was not a creation of art but art itself. This of course then concludes the big question, "Was his death a performance?" This answer again is pretty self explanatory.
This film is a good look at an artist and does a good job at detailing a man's life, but in relation to the elements that surrounded this man, we are left a bit shallow. We interview famous people from the art world, but the film never dives deeply into the art scene, or for that matter anything.
There is nothing wrong with a film that stays directly on its subject and this film exceedingly does that well, but if you wanted to learn more about the art scene, this is a good film to pick up AFTER you have learned about the scene from other sources. This film only allows you to put faces to all the artists you have heard or read about before.
I do recommend this film on the basis that you get a strong solid film, but do not be misled to feel that this film is revelatory in any such way.
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