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The Lens: Monday night at the 2009 Film Festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2009 -  William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler: William Kunstler first gained national attention as part of the defense team in the circus that was the Chicago Seven (originally Eight) trial. The 50-year-old attorney was a veteran of civil rights cases and an outspoken activist of free speech and protest, but, as his daughters say in their film about Kunstler's life, the Chicago experience radicalized him. Well, who wouldn't be radicalized by a five-month ordeal of a trial that saw the judge ordering one of the defendants gagged and tied to a chair? (And then there were seven ...).

Kunstler's daughters, Emily and Sarah, weren't even born at the time of their father's most celebrated moments -- The Catonsville Nine, Attica, the American Indian Movemient – so their respectful but shaded portrait of their father has a slightly different slant than the standard biography, one that reveals how our attitudes to the legal system have changed in this era of televised courtroom and celebrity trials. By the end of the 1970s when they were growing, they could see how their father's reputation as “the most hated lawyer in America” came uncomfortably close to their front door (Kunstler's office was below their home) and wondered why he determinedly took on cases for some of the most reviled criminals in America: terrorists, murderers, one of the teenagers in the Central Park “wilding” rape case, even Mafia don John Gotti.

“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” (the title is an emphatic “yes” to a question posed in Eliot's “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) is the latest contribution to a growing number of documentary films in which the lives of famous figures are dissected by family members (I remain suspicious, lest we start hearing things like “The world may know Benny Malaprop as a great scientist, but to me he will always be the man who was too busy finding a cure for cancer to attend my first little league game...”). The Kunstler sisters, in the course of presenting the man they knew (via home movies, family interviews and their own voices) as well as the notorious public figure, create an honest and ultimately respectful portrait of a complex and heroic man, a courageous if occasionally impulsive agitator who fought for freedom and justice for most of his 76 years. It's a fine introduction to their father's life, made with equal portions of insight and love.

Waiting for Hockney
Directed by Julie Checkoway
Monday, Nov. 16, 9.30 pm, Tivoli

The title of Julie Checkoway's film refers to a quest for validation made by her subject, a Baltimore-based artist named Billy Pappas. At the time of the trip, Pappas has spent 10 years working on a single picture, a highly detailed – that's an understatement – pencil drawing of Marilyn Monroe. For reasons not sufficiently explained in the film, Pappas and his mentors – one of his former high school teachers and his sponsor, an architect named Larry Link who calls himself “Dr. Lifestyle” - reached the conclusion that the drawing must somehow received the imprimatur of British artist David Hockney (perhaps because of Hockney's recent theoretical work on how the Old Masters might have used lenses and mirror to create details). Throughout the film, we see Pappas following Hockney's trail, angling for an invitation and finally (in late 2004 – the film is a little fuzzy on chronology), meeting the artist and showing him his work. Unfortunately, the meeting was not filmed and from the description given, Hockney offered the same polite but uncommitted encouragement he probably gives to a hundred young painters a year.

That anti-climax is just one of the things that goes wrong with “Waiting for Hockney (https://www.waitingforhockney.com/ )”, an absorbing but ultimately irritating account of Pappas' obsessive work, filmed over two years. This is a portrait of an artist who could charitably called “eccentric” at the least, and while Checkoway gives an indulgent amount of screen time to Pappas, his family and associates discussing his work, the film shies away from all but the most superficial discussion of his art, his inspiration or his ideas. At best, the film makes his decade-long project seem like a quirky notion rendered heroic by persistence – like building a replica of the Titanic in your basement out of toothpicks. (It may be relevant that Ms. Checkoway first encountered Pappas while a producer for PRI's “This American Life,” a program that venerates quirkiness in all forms).

And as unremarkable as the meeting with Hockmey proves to be, Pappas' drawing itself – with Checkoway doesn't reveal until late in the film – turns out to be even more of an anticlimax. Pappas is technically very skilled – as shown in some of his earlier work seen briefly in the film, but his “Marilyn” (you can see details of it here (https://www.billypappas.com/marilyn_monroe_upclose.html) is both banal and a little grotesque. Banal because the image itself has been so overexposed (ever hear of Andy Warhol?), and grotesque partly due to Pappas' ultra-realistic technique, and partly because of his collage-like method of using several different images of Monroe for details, - a left eye from an old news photo, half of the bottom lip from a publicity shot, etc. This is a Marilyn flayed and (over)exposed on a drawing board, a Frankenstein's Monroe catalog of body parts shaped into a single image.

But is it art? There are valid arguments to be made for Pappas' arduous methods, for the selection of the overly iconic Monroe, and for the duplication - and superseding - of photography as a model, but neither Pappas or the film make them.

Also on the program is Laurie Hill's terrific short film “Photograph of Jesus.” If you can't attend the Festival screening, you can watch it here (http://vimeo.com/2362113 ).

The Lens is provided by Cinem St. Louis.