The eccentric Austrian-born artist Gottfried Helnwein might be best known to Middle America for his pop art tableaux, such as his Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a riff on Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. That sort of kitschy iconography isn’t typical for Helnwein, however; he has spent the majority of his career obsessed with painting and photographing children. Conceptually, his work explores the same idea that informed photographer Garry Gross’s early installations -- the loss of innocence in pre-teenagers -- but whereas Gross’s work was overtly slick and erotic, Helnwein’s is rough, asexual and violent. He brings off the corruption of the surrounding world via images of corporeal decay -- from bloody, bandaged children’s bodies to blue and emaciated faces that imply a morgue setting. Unsurprisingly, these motifs have attracted a great deal of attention and controversy; they also snagged Helnwein a role as the set and costume designer on Gil Shohat’s 2010 opera The Child Dreams, adapted from a play by Hanoch Levin and mounted by the Israeli Opera for its 25th anniversary year.
This is potentially fascinating material for a documentary, and Lisa Kirk Colburn’s Gottfried Helnwein and the Dreaming Child begins as involvingly as one would expect from the subject. The opening sequence features an interview with Helnwein, standing in front of the paintings and photographs in his studio and discussing the thematic basis of his oeuvre. He’s lucid and compelling -- with explanations that lay out a persuasive social rationale for his work -- and we’re immediately hooked. We expect Colburn to stay on the same narrative course and plunge more deeply into Helnwein’s paradigm, fixations and technique, systematically looking at how all three informed his Israeli stage collaboration.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. What we get, instead, is roughly an hour of behind-the-scenes footage that shows Helnwein brainstorming with various other contributors to the Shohat opera. Conceptually speaking, Colburn’s methods, which resist interpretation and force us to draw our own conclusions about the backstage relationships, suggest direct influence by filmmakers such as D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers. And in the right hands, this documentary could have become something akin to Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s wonderful behind-the-scenes theater documentary Moon Over Broadway. But Colburn doesn’t have the skill to pull off that mode of filmmaking here, and the material comes off as both loose-limbed and sloppy as a result. The documentary feels like it was made by someone on a speed jag. Colburn’s cameras flit back and forth from one end of the stage to another, giving us little snatches of conversation about different aspects of the production. As a result, we have only the poorest sense of what is happening, and who is doing what, at any one point in time. Even more fundamentally, Colburn never has Helnwein or her other interviewees sufficiently take us through the entire narrative of The Child Dreams -- and given the potent, visceral quality of the visuals that we do see onstage, such as mannequins made up to resemble children’s bloody corpses, suspended in the air -- this is a serious distraction; the production practically cries out for narrative elaboration. The movie does offer one tantalizing sequence with petulant backbiting from the opera’s production designer, who asks Colburn, “May I speak freely?” and then proceeds to accuse Helnwein, on camera, of being theatrically ignorant. This is hugely entertaining. That’s an exception to the rule, however -- overall, the documentary lacks coherency, and makes us feel completely apathetic; it’s impossible to care and invest oneself in the subject and the goings-on if the fundamentals are never elucidated. leave a comment --Nathan Southern