The Cool School

The Cool School

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In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Los Angeles transformed itself from an artistic wasteland into a burgeoning mecca of modern art, thereby confirming there was more to the world of painting, sculpture, and photography than what was happening in Paris and New York. With narration from Jeff Bridges, Morgan Neville’s The Cool School details this vital period of creativity, in which a group of young artists championed by curator Walter Hopps at his famous Ferus gallery (1957 - 1966) made great strides in the areas of abstract expressionism and assemblage. Director Neville’s retrospective gaze (shot in color and black and white, and set to a jazzy beat) is crafted with archival footage and photos as well as talking-head chats with most of the story’s main players, an unadventurous approach that proves informative but also enervating, offering up a coherent and comprehensive view of the scene without ever conveying a palpable sense of the excitement, daring, and competitiveness of that specific moment. Still, the film wisely complements its reverence for, among others, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin, and Ed Ruscha with dissenting opinions regarding the merits of their work, even if this contrarianism only amounts to one cranky New York Times critic. The artists themselves, as well as admirers like Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell (smoking stogies and waxing rhapsodic), competently recount the era’s ups and downs, from the closed-minded repressiveness of the ‘40s and early ‘50s when modern art in L.A. was decried as communistic, to the heady euphoria of the movement’s infancy, to the predictable self-interest and greed that took hold once Hopps’s partner, Irving Blum, a dapper gent with a faux-Carey Grant accent, demonstrated that there was money to be made from these artists’ creations. Unfortunately, whereas the Ferus gallery was defined by its strong personalities, Cool School largely avoids sharply delineated portraits, with its focus on the scene at the expense of individuals—and their relationships, such as Shirley Nielsen’s marriage to both Hopps and Blum—ultimately resulting in a documentary that doesn’t rise above the functional.

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DVD
Distributor
Arthouse Films
Runtime
86 min
Rating
NR
Year
2008
Director
Morgan Neville
Screenwriter
Morgan Neville, Kristine McKenna
Cast
Dennis Hopper, Frank Gehry, Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Kienholz, Irving Blum, Ed Moses, Ken Price, Larry Bell, Walter Hopps, Robert Irwin, Wallace Berman, Dean Stockwell