New Brow | documentary 13 of 100

New Brow, a film by Tanem Davidson, just finished a short three-day run at Northwest Film Forum. I caught it last night on it’s final evening in town.

Synopsis: Through more than 40 interviews with “low-brow” artists, gallery owners and collectors, filmmaker Tanem Davidson explores the cultural roots and evolution of popular art through the work of graphic designers like Shepherd Fairey, cartoonists and street graffiti artists. The film chronicles their DIY rise from the streets to the place where today they are poised to break into the “high brow” world that has until recently been unwilling to accept them as “serious” artists.

Story Structure: This film is a straightforward, interview-driven documentary film. There’s tons of visually interesting b-roll and always the voice of an artist in the background talking us through the story. Still photos are zoomed through, panned across, or pulled back from before cutting back to the person being interviewed. The film tries to cover the entire movement but sacrifices a clear story arc in the attempt. Some elements of conflict arise from artists describing their outsider status from big NYC galleries who until recently have not been interested in showing their work. But I left the film wishing more thought had been given to taking me on a journey with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Cinematography: The production value was not high. The interviews appeared to have been grabbed in a scattershot way without any stylistic cohesion, and most disappointing, some were just plain poorly lit. But one thing worked well: there’s a ton of great art in the film. And that really helped make it visually interesting. In particular, most of the art is shot up close, so it’s really in your face, which works for the subject. I found myself wishing the camera had moved more slowly on the pans – you can hardly pan or zoom too slow in my view. Side note: the cinematography in Up In The Air, which I saw Saturday night, was so powerful, in part, because the camera work was so subtle. There’s all these wonderful super slow tracking shots. I had to watch the edge of the frame to determine whether the camera was actually moving, and it almost always was throughout the film, which worked very well for a film about travel.

Editing: This film could have been editing a lot more tightly. A lot of the material felt repetitive to me, and I didn’t feel l like I was being guided through the huge amount of material by a master storyteller. There wasn’t a clear beginning, middle and end of this film, just a lot of interesting and historically significant material, that I think could have been focused much more sharply to greater effect.

Music and Sound: Audio was distractingly bad in some of the interviews. There didn’t appear to have been any attempt to control the setting of the interviews, resulting in cuts that transition directly from a quiet office to an echoing gallery so that you really notice the difference. And in some cases the audio was too loud relative to what came before and after – levels weren’t normalized.

What happens when filmmakers make a film about the same topic as another set of filmmakers at roughly the same time?  I’ve always felt that it’s best not to worry about it, because no film can be YOUR film. But this film is one thing that can happen. Similar material was covered, faster and with higher production values, in Beautiful Losers, which was released in 2008. I guess this goes to show that it pays to be first, or that if you’re going to come after, you have to find a way to put a new spin on the material. I don’t think this film achieves that. But what the filmmakers DID achieve is, they made a film! And that’s always an achievement worth celebrating.

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