Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood and Beg, Borrow and Steal

Review by Drew Heitzler


I took two books to review in 2013 and I am just getting to the writing now. Blame it on a life dictated by tides instead of clocks (or calendars evidently).  Procrastination aside, the advantage is that now I can think about these two very different books as if they have something in common beyond the fact that I wanted to give them a look. I’ll start with Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood by Curtis Harrington, published by Drag City.


Curtis Harrington, who died in 2007, was a Hollywood anomaly. He began his career as an experimental filmmaker closely associated with Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, made the jump to Hollywood-movie-land, making critically acclaimed films like Night Tide (1961), Games (1967), and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), but then ultimately found himself cast into the no-mans-land of television directing, working on both Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty. Mr. Harrington tells his story with just the right amount of good humor and consternation, elevating name-dropping to a literary art form. He loved movies and you can tell, as his obvious ambition was consistently sacrificed to his desire to tell the story in the right way. Not always the profitable way. He became a master of stock footage appropriation in order to save scenes axed by the money-men, and burned bridge after bridge in order to make the movies he wanted to make the way he wanted to make them. Perhaps owing to early associations with Anger and Deren, he never shook his commitment to the idea that “real film is in the magic of refracted light on screen, of moving shadows.” Harrington believed deeply in the magical art of filmmaking and his dedication to film-as-art-form led him to near failure in the movie business. But taken from another view, Harrington’s story is really the failure of the movie industry itself. He made his first film in 1942. His last film was released in 2002. Over this period, Harrington was witness to a Hollywood of noirish moving shadows devolved to a corporate techno-spectacle of digital speed. Bigger, louder, and dumber replaced nuance, emotion, and complexity. Curtis Harrington was no longer amused.


Beg, Borrow and Steal, published by the Rubell Family Collection is the catalog that accompanies an exhibition of the same name. Originally installed at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, Florida in December, 2009 the exhibition travelled to the Palm Springs Museum of Art in February, 2013. The show includes the work, though in some cases poor examples, of many excellent artists, including Matthew Brannon, Peter Coffin, Aaron Curry, John Dogg, Marcel Duchamp, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Wade Guyton, Robert Gober, Dan Flavin, Karl Haendel, David Hammons, Rachel Harrison, William E. Jones, Mike Kelley, Elad Lassry, Louise Lawler, Mark Leckey, Sherrie Levine, Glenn Ligon, Nate Lowman, Adam McEwen, Cady Noland, Richard Prince, Charles Ray, Jason Rhoades, Stephen G. Rhodes, Sterling Ruby, Steven Shearer, Cindy Sherman, Haim Steinbach, John Stezaker, Piotr Ulanski, Meyer Vaisman, Kelley Walker, Andy Warhol, and Christopher Wool. However, despite this impressive roster, the exhibition was a disappointment. The buying habits of a wealthy Florida couple are simply not cause enough to carry an exhibition. Nor would one expect them to be, except for the fact that, in this case, they have been packaged as scholarship and sold as such in a museum. The Rubells are by their own admission largely responsible for the creation of Art Basel Miami, the annual art fashion luxury goods spectacular that has, in the last decade, reinvigorated the Miami tourist industry. It should probably be mentioned at this point that the Rubells are in the hotel development business. Their motivations for purchasing art seem governed by concerns closer akin to investment properties than aesthetic and historical relevance. This is apparent in the exhibition, and in the exhibition catalog as well.


The book includes four essays, but only Karl Haendel’s, Complicated Sneakers, is worth taking the time to read. He does an excellent job of describing a childhood dominated by MTV and first generation video games, and how that screen-mediated interaction prepared those of his generation for an easy acceptance of the appropriation-dominated artworks that some would later encounter in art school. However, the essay takes an unfortunate turn as Mr. Haendel takes aim at October group critical theory and argues a position that reduces Haim Steinbach (an artist that Mr. Haendel worked for while living in New York), along with Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Robert Longo to simple consumers of popular culture as opposed to critical-thinkers. He follows this up with an argument for the necessity of the hand in contemporary appropriation.


Unfortunately, after reading this essay, I think it has something to do with antiquated consensus thinking regarding individualism, practice, and talent. These are not art terms, at least not any more. They are marketing terms, and at this point Mr. Haendel’s otherwise excellent essay begins to make sense within the pages of this problematic catalog for an even more problematic exhibition. Curtis Harrington would not be amused.


Curtis Harrington, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, (Drag City, 2013) and Beg, Borrow and Steal, (Rubell Family Collection, 2011) 
Images: Cover of Beg Borrow Steal, Still from Night Tide, and installation of Beg Borrow Steal.