Kitsch or Kill


Those hoping to apply a little cultural-studies eugenics to the miscegenation of high art and low pop would no doubt have their knickers in a knot after a little time spent with artist George Condo. A post-postmodern absurdist equally comfortable discussing Gorky as portal to abstract expressionism or the merits of King Crimson (“I’d say they’re worthy of animation but not a play”), he paints colorful, vaguely menacing imaginary beasts; with their outsize features—Dumbo ears, cathedral-door eyes, cystlike cheeks—they’re cartoons of cartoons. In his spare time, he’ll blow off steam action-painting with a toilet plunger (his late friend William Burroughs shows up for these forays), or talk about the mysterious “antipodal beings” who act as his muses, or glue cutouts of television characters onto reproductions of Dutch old master paintings. The Beverly Hillbillies fan asks, deadpan, “Was Granny as important as the Mona Lisa? And if so, why didn’t the Mona Lisa ever have her own TV series?”

This is more than self-amused irony; this is kitsch as religion, and John McNaughton’s Condo Painting is an ode to whimsical devotion that tries to approximate Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. McNaughton evokes Condo’s collage paintings (one turns Bill Gates into a Renaissance grandee) by stacking his lysergically colored documentary with tricks (film run backward, use of negatives) and trippy non sequiturs: Bubbles float across the screen with Condo inside them—blowing bubbles. Condo’s creations might strike you as another kind of infinite regression, but for a while you’re trapped in a Flaming Lips video with Condo and happy to be there, not least for his quixotic sense of dedication; the one constant thread is footage of him obsessively painting and repainting the same canvas. But then, oddly,McNaughton puts Condo in a car to his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, to visit the family and Jack Kerouac’s grave, and the film stops dead (the amazing soundtrack—including DJ Spooky, Beck, Tom Waits, and lots of Residents—notwithstanding). It briefly revives only at the end, when Condo and a friend (who wears an old-man mask and huge red gloves) stake out a garbage dump hunting down an “antipodal being” known as “Big Red.” It’s like an episode of Cops staged by Spike Jonze.

The United States as world’s policeman gets a stern once-over from the oafish Deterrence, in which a newly unelected president (think Gerald Ford) gets snowed in at a Colorado diner that fatuously doubles as a cross-section of America (dumb immigrant, dumb redneck, angry black guy) and, faced with a scenario similar to the Gulf War, decides to drop a nuclear bomb on Baghdad. The film begins and ends with footage of FDR intoning “I hate war,” something the film takes two interminable hours to say.