Can failure be the best way to understand something?
In Helmut Berger, Actor (2015), the filmmaker Andreas Horvath attempts a series of conversations with the titular actor, star of The Damned (1969) and Ludwig (1972), and sometime lover of Luchino Visconti, the director of both films. Berger now lives in a small, suburban apartment, messy with perilous electric sockets, boxes of Cialis and religious kitsch; his most constant companion is his cleaner, Viola, who dusts his signed pictures of Romy Schneider, clears up broken bottles and speculates that Berger’s behaviour ‘would indicate severe depression, really’. Voicemails that Berger leaves for Horvath are played over the footage and offer both aspirant invitations (‘Andreas, I also want you to write a book about what the Visconti family has stolen from me’) and brush-offs (‘Andreas, you can’t come round because Gloria von Thurn und Taxis is coming to pick me up in her jet’). High camp is blended with high gothic – clouds slide over a full moon and mist shrouds alpine ravines. While being massaged, Berger rasps like a wolf; it’s like a Dario Argento remake of Grey Gardens (1975) or as if the schlocky Joan Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest (1981) had been spliced with My Best Fiend (1999), Werner Herzog’s account of his ‘working’ relationship with Klaus Kinski. But while Horvath’s film is a self-aware compendium of these other movies’ tropes – the pitiful glory of self-delusion, the actor as monster, etc. – it’s also a study of the interview as patient labour and psychodrama. Horvath needs Berger to make the film and Berger needs Horvath for something, although he can’t quite decide what. Accordingly, Berger’s apparently casual lines are masterpieces of ambivalence: ‘Can you pour me some of your red wine, egoist?’; ‘Luckily, I just woke up and ate a vegetable soup and I realized you’re a hypocrite.’ Frustrations reach a head during a rain-soaked New Year’s break in Saint-Tropez when Horvath flips out, calling Berger ‘pathetic’ and ‘ridiculous’. ‘So what if I am?’ Berger responds, hand on hip, suddenly more composed and watchable than in any other frame of the film; he then approaches a police car and declares: ‘Officer, arrest this man, he doesn’t speak French […] To the prison, please.’
My question: is Helmut Berger, Actor an example of a good interview or a bad one? Is it a brief fulfilled or the documentation of a failure? A successful interview is a complicated thing to ascertain: it might be good for the reader or the audience but excruciating for the participants. If it’s revealing of the subject, it might be in a way that is unwelcome to them; equally, what the interviewer discovers might have nothing to do with what they were looking for.
In the title piece of her essay collection, Forty-One False Starts (2013), Janet Malcolm profiles the painter David Salle or, rather, as its title indicates, she repeatedly tries to. Malcolm is taken with Salle as a type – a self-constructed character – and, at moments, she admires his art; she also admits that she doesn’t find what Salle has to say about his work interesting – indeed, that she has never found what any artist has said about his work interesting – and thus finds herself ‘forced into a kind of parody of his melancholy art of fragments, quotations, absences’. This is not a position that a writer of Malcolm’s ilk would, I imagine, enjoy. Yet her discomfort and disappointment create something of a masterpiece.
I read Forty-One False Starts to get myself out of a fix. I had been commissioned to write an interview with the great artist, critic, novelist, broadcaster and consummate all-rounder, Brian O’Doherty. I had pitched the interview out of deep admiration for, and curiosity about, O’Doherty’s manifold achievements – but also because I hoped that an interview might get me published on the strength of its subject and distract from my relative obscurity. However, the interview was a failure. I spent time with O’Doherty – indeed, I had a lunch with him and his wife (the scholar Barbara Novak) – in which I tried to stay composed while they talked casually of Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner, giving myself a moment’s relief from the fear of intellectual humiliation for remembering, in a discussion of colourists, who Jacopo da Pontormo was. (This was undone when I later got Morton Feldman’s name wrong.) But though it’s standard practice, O’Doherty wasn’t comfortable being recorded. In truth, this was probably no great loss. Despite the fact that in the weeks preceding the interview I had tried my hardest to bone-up on all things O’Doherty – going over his book American Masters (1988) and his novels, re-reading Inside the White Cube (1976) and the essays he commissioned for Aspen – during lunch it became clear that my research hadn’t produced any great insights: at least, none that O’Doherty would countenance. ‘I hope not, Matthew,’ came his responses, ‘I certainly wasn’t aware of that at the time, Matthew.’ O’Doherty was perfectly kind, but I was mortified. It was a reprieve of sorts when he asked me to use our conversation as a basis to come up with some questions and email them to him instead. A period of illness then intervened and, months later, I had thousands of notes on my desktop, but nothing concrete. When my editor got in touch and heard my story, he suggested I read Malcolm’s new collection.
There’s a line in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick (1997) in which the narrator claims: ‘When art’s a seismographic project, when that project meets with failure, failure must become a subject too.’ I folded the corner of the page when I read this but I am yet to figure it out; it’s like a magic spell that I invoke despite the fact that I don’t know exactly what it means. I perhaps risk the glibness I’m trying to avoid by saying that writing about art often involves not knowing exactly what something means. A critic obviously has to find something to say about an artwork but, often, that something is weird, indistinct or even non-verbal. There are great writers, perhaps, who can process, parse and comprehend an artwork in an instant, through a perfect image or a great phrase but, for my part, when I ‘get it’ quickly, I tend to be suspicious – either of the work or my reading of it. With the art I care most about, even, every attempt to express definitively why never quite suffices. I think we sometimes have to settle for ‘getting it wrong’ as the only way to ‘get it’ at all.
Hence my fascination with Malcolm’s book and other examples of ‘failed’ interviews. (It’s also the subject of the short film I’ve made for frieze.) Awkward, disjointed, frustrating encounters between interviewer and subject, fan and idol – John Waters and Little Richard, Jonathan Meades and Zaha Hadid, Terry Castle and Susan Sontag, Joan Acocella and Penelope Fitzgerald – reveal something without explaining everything. They point to an investigation that doesn’t require a seamless, facile harmony of enquirer and object, or fumble for a way between, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what my work means,’ and ‘No, I have no idea what you are talking about.’
In the frieze archive, I recently came across an obituary of the legendary critic Stuart Morgan by the artist and writer Edward Allington, who recalls Morgan asking him on a studio visit if he made ‘boy sculptures’ or ‘girl sculptures’. ‘I’ve never worked out how to answer it properly,’ Allington says, ‘and probably never will.’ The artist doesn’t mention how he responded – whether he fumbled for an answer or felt frustrated or changed the subject – nor how, with reflection, he’s tried to formulate answers. What he does say in his next sentence is this: ‘Stuart helped me to make more work.’ Which seems a good enough reason to ask such questions and to forgive, even court, those awkward moments that follow them.
Productive Frustrations is the second in a three-part series of film and essay projects, supported by Arts Council England, exploring the relationship between art writing and the moving image.
First published in Issue 178