The Cool School

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Arthouse Films

Documentarian Morgan Neville has fashioned a spirited riposte to the groundless cliche that Los Angeles is a cultural wasteland.

Rather than delve into individual backgrounds, "The Cool School" uses a wealth of archival material and up-to-date interviews to paint a group portrait of the artists, curators and collectors who built an influential gallery scene in Beat-era Los Angeles. Narrator Jeff Bridges lends the smart script -- by Neville and journalist Kristine McKenna -- the perfect Southern California intellectual hipster tone. Jazz tracks propel the playful visual mix of black and white and color.

A selection of the recent Los Angeles Film Festival, the film is scheduled for a fall theatrical run before screening on PBS' "Independent Lens" in 2008. Its chief appeal is to aficionados, but viewers with even a cursory knowledge of modern art will find plenty to enjoy in the lessons of "Cool School."

In the face of East Coast chauvinism and local red-scare censorship, Los Angeles' Ferus gallery became an art-world destination soon after opening its doors March 15, 1957. It was not in Manhattan but at Ferus' La Cienega Boulevard site that Andy Warhol's first gallery show went up. Helmed by the unlikely partnership of Walter Hopps, a biochemistry major with a passion for abstract expressionism, and Ed Kienholz, whose groundbreaking assemblages would make him a world-renowned artist, Ferus became a crucial hub in the city's emerging avant-garde scene. Self-promoting theatrics abounded, but beneath those was an ambitious and serious sense of experimentation.

This was a time, of course, when Venice rentals were cheap and "poetic poverty," as one participant puts it, was possible. Barney's Beanery served as de facto clubhouse for the bohemian set, which shared the bar with Bekins employees. But it wasn't all easy street; Wallace Berman's Ferus show was closed by the vice squad for obscenity, the artist carted off to jail. In its brief nine years, Ferus faced its fair share of struggle, but "Cool School" presents a convincing case for its revivifying effect on the region's museums.

Neville doesn't avoid dismissive naysayers, but it's those speaking from the inside who give the film its intimate edge. Besides many of the artists, those interviewed include Ferus owner Hopps; his second partner, the more commerce-oriented Irving Blum; and Shirley Nielsen, who ended up marrying both of them. Artists and scenesters Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell puff on cigars as they reminisce; Frank Gehry explains why he gravitated to painters and sculptors rather than fellow architects.
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