They Aim to Please

"His whole life was a game, like his work," one colleague says of this Duchampian figure who turned every attempt to sell his art into a Zen exercise. "Ray wasn't a person," another elaborates. "He was Ray Johnson's creation." One of the pleasures in Walter's documentary, which won a special jury prize at Sundance and leaves little doubt of Johnson's significance, is the parade of veteran painters, confounded dealers, and miscellaneous bohos who expound upon the subject's mysterious personality without ever explaining him: "Everyone had a story about Ray Johnson." Even I have one. During the first week of 1995, Johnson—whom I'd never met—called me out of the blue with a question concerning the framing of a photograph in a book I'd written. A week later, he jumped into Long Island Sound and drowned. "If none of us could understand his motive for living, how could we understand his motive for dying?" someone wonders.

Walter's documentary ends with the police video taken of Johnson's house in suburban Locust Valley, Long Island. Unprepossessing on the outside, the place turns out to be all studio, filled with boxes and meticulously stacked pictures. There is nothing on the wall and no image facing out except one oversized, deadpan portrait of the artist. That Johnson's suicide was obviously his final work is a most disquieting form of integrity.




The Decay of Fiction, eight years in the making and showing once this weekend as part of the New York Film Festival's massive avant-garde sidebar, is the most complex piece ever produced by Los Angeles-based special-effects whiz Pat O'Neill—and the fullest expression of his career on the periphery of the dream-factory assembly line.

The filmmaker uses a combination of 35mm location shooting and a digital overlay to transform L.A.'s once grand and long-shuttered Ambassador Hotel into a haunted mansion. The Ambassador has enjoyed a curious afterlife as a movie set, but O'Neill allows it to represent itself. Silver ghosts gather around the derelict swimming pool. The empty Edward Hopper rooms are animated by creeping shadows, fluttery curtains, and the memory of guests past (dressed in styles that range from the '30s to '50s). The old Coconut Grove nightclub, originally furnished with papier-mâché monkeys and the fake palms from a 1920s Rudolph Valentino vehicle, is here a moldering wreck populated by phantom gangsters.

O'Neill coaxes the suggestion of a story out of various movie moments, bits of soundtrack, and references to the Ambassador's legendary past. The evocation of Robert Kennedy's assassination in the hotel kitchen is as awkward as it is unavoidable. With its daylight documentary aspect and dreamlike interludes, The Decay of Fiction combines the two poles of L.A. art—it's a sunshine noir—and, like all of O'Neill's films, it's magically accomplished. (Too much so, perhaps: The muscular craft sometimes polishes the emotional content to a very fine sheen.)

In its abstract movie-ness, O'Neill's 73-minute fantasia exudes a wistful longing to connect, not so much with Hollywood history as with the history of that history—as embodied by such self-reflexive visions of the movie colony as Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive. The narrative motor isn't there, but the "all is vanity" mood is fully sustained. In the last few moments, O'Neill loops Orson Welles's voice as the Shadow, repeating "who knows?" as the film's resident death-angel pirouettes into the final carnival of souls.
Exploitation with an agenda: Moore in Bowling for Columbine
photo: United Artists
Exploitation with an agenda: Moore in Bowling for Columbine

Details

Bowling for Columbine
Written and directed by Michael Moore
United Artists
Opens October 11

How to Draw a Bunny
Directed by John Walter
At Film Forum,
through October 22

The Decay of Fiction
RA film by Pat O'Neill
At the Walter Reade,
October 12

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Related Story:
Citizen Ray: Talking With How to Draw a Bunny Director John Walter" by Dennis Lim

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