'Nam June Paik & TV Lab: License to Create': Film Review
It wasn't all about cellists wearing bras made of tiny TV sets
Highlighting ways in which its namesake artist and his peers influenced much more than the rarefied gallery world, Howard Weinberg's Nam June Paik & TV Lab: License to Create sees in a freeform public-television project seeds of major changes throughout pop culture and the arts. Stuffed with interviews and clips, the hurried doc has a lack of polish that's in keeping with its seat-of-pants subjects; though this limits commercial prospects, the film is very useful for those curious about this underexposed scene.
The title is slightly misleading, as Paik (famous for sculptures incorporating televisions and other forms of video art) was only one of many important figures in a project affiliated with New York's public television station WNET. From 1972 to 1984, farsighted individuals like executive producer David Loxton gave aspiring creatives access to cutting-edge (and portable) video gear, enabling them to make things the professionals at the nation's three national networks would never have dreamed of.
"You don't have to like everything you see here" was the credo of a place where psychedelic video effects (some now hokey, some still eye-opening) alternated with peculiar documentaries and transgressive performance art. The very nature of television could be questioned, as when Bob & Ray hosted an experiment that required the viewer to have two TV sets side-by-side, each tuned to a different channel and receiving only half of the intended image.
We see dozens of snippets of manipulated-video projects, many made possible by the video synthesizer Paik created with Shuya Abe; most of the clips leave us wanting more, but Weinberg has much ground to cover. Soon we're seeing how members of this era's famously productive New York arts scene used the Lab: William Wegman and Twyla Tharp produced exciting material, while Shirley Clarke delivered a program so exciting it never aired.
The anything-goes spirit also applied to nonfiction productions. Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno, such amateurs they didn't even know what a cutaway shot was for, were soon making the first US video of acupuncture and meeting Fidel Castro while shooting in Cuba; Susan and Alan Raymond, in Police Tapes, would inspire both Hill Street Blues and Cops. Other participants who went on to long careers included film producer Michael Shamberg and Murphy Brown creator Diane English.
Paik (who died in 2006) disappears for stretches of the film, though we hear how he encouraged people whose work had little to do with his art. (Everyone he met, it seems, was "a genius.") The history of TV Lab proves a little unwieldy for a feature-length film, but in interviewing so many participants while they're still around, Weinberg helps keep their strange achievements from vanishing into the ether.
Production company: Priority Productions
Director-Producer-Director of photography: Howard Weinberg
Executive producer: Stephanie R. Cooper
Editors: Sara Sowell, Shanon Griffin, Brian Emery, Alexandra Garcia, Stefani Blum
No rating, 94 minutes