It's All True

The examined—and obsessively documented—life of Michel Auder
by Jason McBride  posted March 17, 2009
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Like some art-world Gump, Michel Auder has constantly been in the right place at the right time—or the wrong place at the right time, as the case may be. With Philippe Garrel, long-haired and dreamy, on the barricades in ’68. In Warhol’s New York, seducing and then marrying Viva, trying to make her his own superstar. Getting high with Taylor Mead. Making mischief with Jonas Mekas. Cozying up to Larry Rivers and then going down on his wife poolside. Sitting for, and with, Alice Neel. Making junkie movies with Eric Bogosian. Marrying Cindy Sherman, just in time to benefit from her superstar status. But all that proximity to genius, does it rub off? Auder films, and then tapes, everything—at least 5,000 hours worth of footage, apparently, constantly re-edited, sometimes many years after the footage was shot—but success, as a filmmaker, as an artist, largely eludes him. He may, in fact, be a terrible artist. A poisonous pudding of tragicomic solipsism, a heroin addict likewise hooked on his own intermittent charm, with a talent only for self-promotion and self-regard. Self-awareness is another, more complicated, matter. But at least he knows enough to recognize how the same vapid egotism propels and props up the art world. “Why can’t you see,” Dan Bejar sings, “that a life in art and a life of mimicry—it’s the same thing.” In Auder’s case, substitute “vanity” for “mimicry.” Call him Hack Narcissus.

Or at least this is the image of Auder—incomplete, inadequate—that emerges in The Feature, an audacious self-portrait of the artist as an asshole, a monster, and a great poet (his words). Co-directed with Neel’s grandson, Andrew (a co-director of Darkon and New World Order), this nearly three-hour opus, screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York from March 18 through 24, is billed by its makers as a “fictional biography.” It’s a sobriquet so useless—what fiction doesn’t bear traces of someone’s biography; what biography doesn’t fictionalize, to a degree, through its narrativizing selection of details—as to be comical. But The Feature, obsessed with its own binary system—real vs. fake, the raw vs. the cooked, film vs. video, man vs. woman—is structured accordingly; the oscillation between these poles animates the film.

It begins, roughly, with the filmmaker (or video artist, take your pick) undergoing a CAT scan. His doctor tells him he has a tumor and will require chemotherapeutic agents. “Poison,” in the doc’s words. The 64-year-old Michel, thin-lipped and silver-maned but resolutely virile, accepts the news with disarming disdain. Raging against the dying of the key light, he refuses treatment, insisting that if he starts to feel ill, he’ll simply lie down and “pass away.” The doctor shrugs. What follows is Auder/Michel’s passage through his own dissolute life, his aide-mémoires a vast repository of films and tapes accumulated during that life. It’s a journey from Paris in the ’60s to an L.A. of the 21st century, from black-and-white to color, analogue to digital. The fictional framing device, shot by Neel in sumptuous HD, provides a clichéd narrative strut—our hero, preparing to die, visits loved ones a final time, recalls his triumphs and tragedies—while at the same time serving as a kind of fluid, glossy vitrine for the little-seen work of Michel Auder. (It’s a decaying, dying oeuvre; the clips Auder shows are occasionally so degraded as to be unwatchable.) Imagine a kind of hijacked Histoire(s) du cinéma, with all the histoire(s) leading back to Auder. Some of his work: The Cockettes, New York City 1991; Portrait of Alice Neel; Chelsea Girls With Andy Warhol; T.W.U. Richard Serra.

A self-made man, he’s a man made in—and with—the images of others. His early films plundered Godard and Garrel and then Warhol. The little-seen Cleopatra, a troubled mash-up of Morrissey and Mankiewicz, premiered at Cannes in 1970, featuring such idiosyncrasies as snowmobiles in “upstate” Egypt and a straight Taylor Mead. It’s not until Auder obtains one of the first Sony Portapaks (around the same time, unsurprisingly, as Godard), that he finds real creative footing. Video allows him a new intimacy and immediacy, a way to be both voyeur and exhibitionist. Like smack, it’s instant gratification. Or, as Auder puts it in The Feature, “Video’s like writing. You look at it for a half an hour and then later you enter it again, like you would a book.” He abandons any aspirations to be a director, instead describing himself as simply an “organizer,” someone who “brings people together in situations.” It helps when those people include Brigid Berlin and Gary Indiana. It helps when you film everything, including your visits to a hooker unaware of your hidden Handycam.

Auder’s third-person voiceover, in occasionally clumsy, accented English, is maudlin, perceptive, mundane, self-pitying, bathetic, ridiculous, ruminative. It’s the voice of a name-dropper who loves gossip, especially gossip about himself. (And the gossip value of The Feature is irresistible.) But the question that constantly surfaces: who is that self? Auder savages the idea of self. Strenuously, gleefully. The not-very-funny joke is on both him and us. A life lived for the camera, with all other lives comparable fodder, is a kind of human sacrifice. A title card at the beginning of the film states, unhelpfully, “This narrative is not a true account.” The fantasy of a true self in a world where all selves are packets of performance, image machines, is itself self-deception. Auder’s lonely nihilism is a world away from, say, Caveh Zahedi’s sweet, self-effacing quest for authentic emotion or Donigan Cumming’s we’re-all-in-this-together abjection. He’s fond of calling his particular meld of fact and fiction “poetic truth,” and while it’s a phrase that’s as much a smokescreen as Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” the pursuit of truth, he suggests, is as preposterous, perhaps, as the search for love.

“Why do you always film things?” his young daughter, Alexandra, asks, anticipating screening Q&As for years to come. “Because I’m a filmmaker,” Auder responds, and this tautology typifies his method. (The scene is reprised in 1987’s Bogosian-starring featurette Chasing the Dragon.) But filming—or taping—is tantamount to assault. Sherman, who was married to Auder for 18 years, despises her own image, but he compulsively captures it. (All those masks and disguises—what a challenge.) He whines that they never talked about their art together. As he did with Viva—who, standing naked and pregnant in a bathtub, declares that “being a star is like being a slave”—he rubs Sherman’s nose in her own representation and is hurt when she complains. And maybe, though neither the “real” nor the “false” Michel admits this really, maybe he’s a little pissed that both women enjoyed more substantial careers? Domestic bliss eludes him, though he does seem like a devoted dad. Tellingly, the only woman who really speaks onscreen is the elderly Alice Neel. She gushes over him, babies him, but presumably they never slept together.

Lolling naked by the infinity pool of his L.A. redoubt—Michel/Auder’s nothing if not haute-bourgeoisie—he looks as though he may already be in heaven. Or at least wishes he were. A pipsqueak Proust, snuffed out by memories. Exhausted by entertainment, the glut of glamour, drugs, celebrity, ambition, travel, a fickle family and more fickle fame. Life, a loser’s manual. In Ravelstein, Saul Bellow writes, “Maybe an unexamined life is not worth living. But a man’s examined life can make him wish he was dead.” How true. 


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Courtesy SeeThink Films
A scene from The Feature, directed by Michel Auder and Andrew Neel
Photo Gallery: It's All True


Jason McBride is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Cinema Scope, The Believer, The Globe and Mail, and Toronto Life. He is the editor of From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings of Guy Maddin and Everybody Loves Nothing: Video 1996—2004 by Steve Reinke.

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