ALUN EVANS: With documentaries there's always a danger that the director's own personal judgements and biases (however subconscious or well-intended) will foreshadow the narrative; will lead an audience to come to a conclusion that's already somewhat pre-ordained. Indeed, the prolific American documentarian, Frederick Wiseman, argues (and quite convincingly so) that no documentary can be truly unbiased. In this event of nepotism (and it could well have amounted to such, given the periodically projected familial closeness of the group involved in Aaron Rose's documentary), narrative can be frequently fated to suffer for the director cannot help but become swayed by the current of his affections.
Refreshingly, this is not the case with Beautiful Losers. Rose interweaves various individual stories (linked through archive footage, animations and recent interviews of the artists) throughout the process of describing a collective that congregated around his dilettante store-front gallery, Alleged, in the hip and trendy New York of the early nineties.
These loosely fluctuating anecdotes of the various featured artists could have weakened the piece, becoming an incoherent mess of egos and self-promotion: a weakly exposed roll of faded desultory snapshots with saccharine-coated sentimentality overriding the actual work and passions involved. But due to the frankness and sincerity of most of the artists themselves, and their grateful relationships to Rose as Alleged curator, Beautiful Losers manages to skip nimbly over this potential pitfall and becomes an amalgamation of one central, consistent message that seems to be indicative of why (and indeed how) this collective became such a self-sustaining and enduring force in the New York art scene; namely: POSITIVITY. This is not a vague, inane kind of positivity which seems to be commonplace these days, but a deeper, more sincere idea of the term: the punk ethos of anti-authoritarian, individual freedom tipped on its spiky mohicaned head and publicly infused with love and a child-like tenderness; a love that is based most specifically on those that find themselves located on the margins of polite society. Hence the title: Beautiful Losers.
In one interview the heavily bearded San Fransciso-based artist Chris Johanson, mutters rather vaguely and (one hopes) with a good dose of irony: “It's all nothing, it's all such nothing.” In the case of Beautiful Losers, I'd be inclined to disagree with Johanson: the film's a heartfelt testimony to a time and place most of us were never privy to observe first-hand; but through the lucid and wonderfully visceral storytelling skills of Rose, we are able to tangibly feel some of the tremendous energy (still not spent) that occurred during this period within this small group of people.
So, it's certainly not “all such nothing”. If anything, there's a Hell of a lot of passion and love wrapped up in this project, which ultimately preaches squeezing tolerance and enjoyment through self-expression and art, from a topsy-turvy world that's not always forthcoming in its reciprocation of these declarations. The sincerity of this message is further illustrated by the exemplary “Make Something” art-based youth workshops set up by Rose and his cohorts in conjunction with the release of the film, which Rose himself considers the “scariest thing I've ever done.”
When questioned by a member of the audience through an increasingly dodgy, intermittent Skype connection (we could see him full screen in the cinema, though rather sinisterly he couldn't see the audience leering back at him), Aaron Rose had acknowledged it was indeed a reference to the 1966 experimental Leonard Cohen novel of the same name. With characteristic good humour he finished answering the question with a line I've never heard, and don't believe I will ever hear again: “I hope if I ever get to meet Leonard Cohen, he doesn't beat me up.” So, as one beautiful, Leonard Cohen-fearing loser to another: well done Mr Rose, well done indeed.
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