Michel Auder, rebel pioneer of the handheld camcorder, was making video works before art snobs bestowed the medium any legitimacy. Here, the director collects an entourage of sideshows (many prolific fixtures in the art and pop cosmos), on-and-off screen, to weave a distorted discourse through a warped past and present. The Feature is a tour de flux, captured by a magnified lens, celebrating degenerate art in the most uncompromising way. You’re left with a bittersweet aftertaste. The few intrigued diehard cinephiles will have to pace themselves for a long haul. As a result, numbers will be slim.
The film begins today. A doctor has just delivered Auder, the filmmaker, a fatal prognosis. Life’s bookends are glaring. In an effort to divert the real, mortal present (far too much sting), we’re beamed into the past to see a frenetic showcase from Auder’s compendium of clips. Given the fact that his days are numbered, Auder’s peering backwards simulates the moment just before meeting your maker—where life (in this case Beta and Hi-8) flashes before the eyes. Even the present day footage, intended to serve as a neutralizer from the heated orgies or the voyeuristic selects, stay on the established, fatalistic topic. Here, life is finite and the camera may be Auder’s only weapon to fight for some semblance of immortality.
Through all 184 minutes of material you have to ask yourself: Is Michel Auder a likeable character—dead man walking or not? Sure he pals around with Andy Warhol, indulged in a love triangle with Larry Rivers and bon vivant Viva and even wed avant-garde filmmaker Cindy Sherman. Yet the starving artist who was doing lines at The Chelsea Hotel is now a cell phone blabbing member of the bourgeoisie. Nowadays, Auder seems to be searching for his edge and has to show his cinematic tattoos as proof that he was once down for the cause.
Credit Auder for having the guts to hang his reel laundry. From the birth of his daughter (not as head-on as Stan Brakhage’s version on the same subject), to seducing naïve models to awkward stunts, or scoring blow with a young and jonesing Eric Bogosian—among Auder’s exploits there’s not much fluff just tender portions. Auder records bickering episodes with his first wife, Viva, who at one point calls out his god-complex with the camera—even commandeering it and shooting him for a little payback. Clearly, the filmmaker likes to be in front of the camera on his terms. And while doling out accolades for valor it should be said that in Cindy Sherman’s scenes she is virtually mute. Auder explains off-screen that she is shy in front of his camera. All bets were off with Viva, but when it comes to wife number two—who happens to be an über successful filmmaker—he must have made a clandestine deal to show restraint. It’s a major flaw.
Auder writes a will and yet none of his inner circle understands why. He fails to explain it and perhaps they don’t question him too much because the cryptic demeanor is in keeping with his character. He’s an artist! But as a professional now, his gallerist grows impatient with the scattered slate. Buyers want product. The bulk of works from before have established Auder and he can call his shots. But when given the keys to the castle, the filmmaker prefers to brag about a project in the works involving a yacht he bought made of teak for $250,000. All the while his past is haunting with its intentional irony and experimentalism. You go from parties in the Hamptons to phone feuds between Auder and Viva as their daughter takes a couple puffs from a joint. And to accomplish the 180, you manage to stumble around Paris and Morocco and stall in unchartered land where natives are performing a fertility dance.
The weight of life and the lack of funds seem to be one chapter in Auder’s run, but he is an addict prey to the belief that the fix will shake away demons and deliver breakthroughs. You can see the futile results when he’s sitting in his apartment, ranting to himself, clutching a parakeet as a prisoner, or watching insects squirm around rotten food. In one of his slurred soliloquies, he says, “there was not an audience big enough to scrutinize his work.” There is now.
What can never be taken away is the era during which Auder was a focal part. He clearly had a gift to capture the circus around him, adding ammo to the tall tales that circulate in memoirs. His contemporaries now are poets or dog lovers or already dead. And there are moments in the present with his women that expect him to shut off the camera. He doesn’t. At one point, a wad of British bills sits on an armoire as an Asian prostitute plays warm companion for a few rounds. We see Auder’s last fix, accompanied by assurances he’ll go clean for good and check himself into a hospital. He tells such true lies.
The coke is still around and maybe the only remedy is his favorite drug of all—the camera. The pictures evolve and the direction reveals Auder’s stamp. Together with his co-conspirator, Andrew Neel, they weld a remarkable pendulum that swings every way, sideways. Reality and its alternative universe co-exist without steroid effects or heavy plot-driven analysis. No doubt, letting events spin on their own axis without too much English is delightful. However many potshots deserve to be thrown at Auder. He and his swelling ego devised a pixilated portrait of a life lived and captured unlike any other.
Cast: Michel Auder, Viva, Louis Waldon, Brigid Berlin, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers and Alice Neel
Director: Michel Auder and Andrew Neel
Producer: Ethan Palmer
Running time: 184 min
Release date: March 18 NY