As a project that was eight years in the making, Llyn Foulkes One Man Band echoes the work habits of its subject, artist and musician Llyn Foulkes, as he revises, reconfigures and sometimes dismantles two major paintings. Briefly a hotshot of the L.A. art scene, the prolific Foulkes has for much of the past half-century felt like an outsider looking in. He’s a straight talker and an irresistible film subject. The entertainingly introspective film, which premiered in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is a natural for arts-oriented programmers and could click with moviegoers in select markets.
For their first nonfiction feature, directors Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty have dispensed with the usual biographical template, instead diving right into Foulkes’ downtown studio as he prepares a large-scale work for exhibition. Their intimate sessions with him capture not just the daily nitty-gritty of turning an idea into a concrete object, but also the self-doubt, anxiety, frustration and anger of an artist who yearns for recognition while loathing the corporatization of the art world and the career game-playing that it requires.
A breakthrough in his late 70s brings Foulkes high-profile retrospectives and major sales, but during most of the years documented in the film, he feels unjustly disregarded by the critical establishment. “Is it ever gonna be my time?” he wonders with typical forthrightness, an endearing trait whether he’s confessing his unhappiness or dismissing a random telemarketer with admirably succinct profanity.
For a while it looked like it was his time, when in 1959 he was plucked from the Chouinard Art Institute to exhibit at the influential Ferus Gallery (itself profiled in the 2007 documentary The Cool School). Dennis Hopper photographed the rising star and appears briefly in the film. Museum curators, fellow artists and journalists offer their take on why Foulkes was expelled from the gallery while such artists as Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston and Robert Irwin went on to lucrative careers.
As the late Hopper notes, the dead cats, possums and raccoons in some of Foulkes’ assemblages don’t exactly make them an easy sell. Shifting gears from landscapes to surreal images of bloody heads to satirical critiques of American culture (with Disney iconography, Mickey in particular, a frequent target), Foulkes was never interested in repeating himself for the sake of the marketplace or conforming to its demands.
He has been working beyond categories in the visual arts and music for years. The doc’s title refers to his lack of studio assistants, and to the extraordinary musical contraption he built and plays, a literal one-man band. Inspired by Spike Jones, Foulkes’ Machine is a joyous construction of cymbals, drums, cowbells, antique automobile horns and xylophone parts, to name a few of the components.
Halpern and Quilty include footage of him playing the beautiful oddity on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show — a performance he could have turned into a weeklong gig, until an argument with a member of the house band ended the opportunity. It’s just one example of what some would call a propensity for self-sabotage, a motif of sorts in the documentary.
What some might consider futzing, Foulkes insists is necessary. Quilty’s camera serves as close companion in the adrenaline-fueled hours before the deadline for a 2004 New York show, as the artist prepares a striking three-dimensional canvas, The Lost Frontier, revising and fine-tuning until the last possible moment. Begun in 1997, it incorporates a preserved cat and a TV screen and takes impasto to a whole new level. Another painting,The Awakening, whose tender subject is the unraveling of his second marriage, underwent 18 years of radical changes, a number of them chronicled in the documentary.
Foulkes’ openheartedness in facing everything from career ups and downs to his self-described failure as a husband is affecting. Even so, his angsting over his outsider status grows repetitive — the point, perhaps, but the film could have used more vérité observation and a bit less monologue. A boyishly handsome septuagenarian, Foulkes is a joy to watch in action: in his downtown Los Angeles studio, eating Original Tommy’s burgers in his car, or meeting friends and admirers at a museum or gallery. One Man Band is an engaging tribute to an artist who has stayed true to himself.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Tamaroland Pictures and Lost Frontier Prods.
With: Llyn Foulkes, Dennis Hopper, Paul Schimmel, George Herms
Directors: Tamar Halpern, Chris Quilty
Producers: Tamar Halpern, Chris Quilty
Director of photography: Chris Quilty
Music: Llyn Foulkes
Editors: Tamar Halpern, Chris Quilty
No MPAA rating, 88 min.