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Young, gifted and screwed up

Two films about an alcoholic writer and troubled painter suggest we’re more interested in artists’ pain than their art.

David Bowden

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‘When a writer is born into a family’, claimed Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, ‘that family is finished’. ‘For an author, sons are an embarrassment, as if characters in his novel had come to life’, said the childless WH Auden in reference to Thomas Mann’s fantastically unhappy brood. And while Graham Greene considered ‘a shard of glass in the heart’ a prerequisite for great writing, that’s not necessarily wholly undesirable in parenting, either.

Artists and their offspring have been something of a mini-theme on TV recently, perhaps anticipating viewers’ potentially fraught Christmas encounters. More4 documentaries The Arbor and Calvet explored the seemingly endless appetite for the stories about creative minds with deeply disordered private lives. Yet despite their focus on two very different artists – an alcoholic Yorkshire playwright and a French petty criminal reborn as hip painter – they somehow both ended up shedding more light on the state of contemporary documentaries rather than on their respective subjects.

The Arbor was widely lauded on the documentary-festival and art-house circuits last year, and it was certainly more innovative than Calvet. Nominally recounting the sad life of Andrea Dunbar – the brutal and gifted chronicler of tough working-class lives who drank herself to death aged only 29 – this was a harrowing yet promisingly framed 90 minutes. Dunbar is most famous for her 1986 autobiographical cult film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, adapted from her two stage plays, Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1980) and The Arbor (1982).

The documentary raised questions about the purpose of the artist as chronicler and voyeur. It used actors to voice the words of Dunbar’s friends, family and artistic collaborators and interspersed these with footage of an open-air performance of her debut play, which, like its eponymous film, was set on the rough Buttershaw council estate in Bradford where Dunbar grew up. This was certainly a sincere attempt to pay tribute to the life and work of a neglected artist and to document social decay.

The first half was a grim delight: Dunbar was described by dramatist Shelagh Delaney as ‘a genius straight from the slums’. Dunbar wrote the initial draft of her first play in school exercise books as a pregnant 15-year-old. Given the heavily autobiographical nature of her work it was perhaps understandable that her rough upbringing seemed fitting subject matter. Although archive footage of her father explaining her talent was ‘probably something she picked up at school’ arguably felt a more interesting proposition. Refreshingly, though, the documentary-makers seemed happy enough to focus on Dunbar’s work and artistic career – particularly the schooling she got from the Royal Court and director Max Stafford Clark – rather than wallow in the misery of the slums, which her early work, while sometimes bleak and hard-hitting, certainly never did.

Yet halfway through, The Arbor suddenly lost focus, seemingly forgetting about the surely most interesting question – whether Dunbar was a genius or at least as unfairly overlooked as claimed. Instead it shifted its focus to the misery of the contemporary slums. In telling us the upsetting life – drug abuse, domestic violence, prostitution and the rest – of Dunbar’s mixed-race daughter Lorraine, The Arbor was keen not only to dwell on the destructive tendencies of Dunbar’s personality and shortcomings as a mother, but also to emphasise that the situation for today’s inhabitants of Buttershaw is even worse than in the past.

This may be fair territory for documentaries, and it is understandable that The Arbor showed us the dark side which Dunbar was also so effective in skewering in others. Yet here it came across as poverty porn, and it was made worse by the insinuation that interactive community theatre could be a solution to social ills. Moreover, the device of using actors rather than actual interviewees felt intellectually dishonest rather than providing a critical distancing. The one glimmer of hope – that Lorraine had managed to pull her life together despite the grimmest of starts and that she managed to outlive her mother – didn’t seem to warrant the journey we were being asked to undertake.

The Arbor was perhaps a little too keen to pay homage to its star in imaginatively reworking her for a contemporary age, but surely a more useful approach for the documentary would have been to ask whether Andrea Dunbar produced work which was worth remembering and valuing as more than social history. She did, by the way. Yes, the documentary was stylish and lovingly made, but as an artist Dunbar deserved a better homage. How she faired as a mother should have been between her and children.

Calvet was a much more traditional and straightforward film but it suffered from similar shortcomings. Its star was entertaining – the gay hustler, legionnaire and small-time mobster, Jean-Marc Calvet. It would certainly be worth picking up his bar tab in exchange for hearing about his wilder excesses. Perhaps feeling the need to give the documentary more intellectual direction, however, the reason we were being asked to pay attention to his notably gaudy life was his apparent redemption as a successful painter aged 38.

You couldn’t escape the thought that Calvet himself probably benefits from possessing the kind of demeanour which means you’d think twice about criticising his paintings to his face. The film, though, never really went further into exploring his work than revealing that people in New York pay a lot of money for it. Like the histrionic Brian in cult sitcom Spaced, Calvet’s art was certainly inspired by a lot of pain, fear and anguish, but was it a particularly illuminating or beautiful manifestation of it? Even the programme makers seemed to get bored by this question quite quickly, instead following Calvet on his journey to meet his long-lost son. It seemed to end happily, which is good for Jean Marc and son, but as a viewer you had to wonder whether it justified the five minutes’ worth of Calvet staring at walls waiting for the phone to ring.

Of the two documentaries, The Arbor certainly took a more innovative approach to filmmaking, but ultimately you were left no better informed or challenged by it than by the technically competent Calvet. It was difficult to escape the sense that a more radical approach to documentaries would be to take its subjects off the therapist’s couch and submit them to the glare of the filmmaker’s lens and essayist’s eye.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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