A latter-day exemplar of the postmodern exercise wherein tangential characters become protagonists, Guest of Cindy Sherman is a fascinatingly flawed and balloon-headed study of an unlikely encounter with greatness. Lower-class Brooklynite Paul Hasegawa-Overacker (or Paul H-O), the documentary’s Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern, was a public access faux critic during SoHo’s celebrated mid-‘90s renaissance when he found his Hamlet in photo artist Cindy Sherman, with whom he conducted a series of unprecedentedly casual interviews. This memoirish video collage follows H-O’s non-career through the prism of Sherman’s enigmatic patronage—from lo-fi flirtation and social ascendancy under the starlet’s wing to inevitable perdition when H-O becomes the jaundiced, marginalized boyfriend at Sherman’s splendiferous exhibits and countless honors ceremonies.
Observing an infinitesimal asteroid caught in the compassionate orbit of an ebullient gas giant can be a refreshing and illuminating premise (one remembers the skewed tenderness of Melvin and Howard). H-O, however, is not only love interest-turned-envious parasite, but auteur as well, despite co-directing with TV editor and producer Tom Donahue. This lends the documentary unavoidable bias and an unsavory layer of unintentional irony as we watch the filmmaker capturing the violent pop of his own delusional bubble. In the risible prologue, H-O makes quite a persuasive argument for his own achievements as the host, director, producer, and often cameraman of a public access program called Gallery Beat, a show offering iconoclastic and intentionally philistine coverage of New York art exhibitions. It’s easy to identify the root of Sherman’s attraction to H-O in these moments, as his gleeful glibness often penetrates the husk of bullshit enveloping pomo’s fruit. But his flippancy alienates as readily as it entertains, and when the auteur’s luck worsens, a gratingly woe-is-me tone consumes the film—and the Sherman/H-O romance. Did he really think public access infamy would reign eternal?
The documentary’s strength lies quite paradoxically in its peripheral representation of Sherman, a modern artist who very well might prove a subject too complex for a filmmaker to undertake head-on. H-O briefly succeeds where scholars would lose their way not only because of his reductive reading of art but because his many hours of intimate studio footage depict a hitherto obscured Sherman, giddy and vibrant at the endless possibilities her creativity generates. Comparatively, the cumbersomeness of interpreting Sherman’s unique oeuvre is glimpsed in H-O’s frequent career-summarizing flashbacks, which form the nadir of the piece despite featuring many astoundingly powerful stills.
Both a self-photographing model/designer and a textural portraitist with an uncanny eye for commenting upon cultural landscapes with visual ones, Sherman belongs with the class of contemporary metro-hyperrealist painters such as Robert Longo while somehow transcending their fleeting appeal. And yet H-O unevenly flouts these audacious accomplishments in the documentary’s first half only to establish a foundation for his emasculation at the climax, and the film’s talking heads (mostly New York curators and Artforum mag insiders) consistently fail to add anything useful to the visceral impact of Sherman’s photos. Sherman seduces us just as effortlessly as she did H-O, so much so that when the boyfriend attempts to discard his Sugar MoMa after the “disrespect” he’s delivered by the art public, it feels arrogant and unnecessary. Some of us, after all, would suppress the ego in a heartbeat to be mere “guests” of Sherman.
The documentary’s final unwinding is a third act devoted to exploring the male difficulty of acknowledging spousal success. An interview with Molly Ringwald’s husband that’s clearly meant to expose something of Sherman’s celebrity by proxy would be insulting if it were less baffling.