Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia: The Movie

After receiving an M.F.A. in Los Angeles I was trying to figure how art is taught, with the suspicion that it had very little to do with what classical philosophers have called “the good”, or what people today call “being a good person”. I saw the title of Richard Hertz’s book: Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, and was immediately drawn to the volume. It sounds like the name of a band, or a gangster movie. I didn’t go to CalArts, but I’ve become progressively aware of the school through witnessing the tight knit cliques of artists in Los Angeles that it creates, whose combination of self-seriousness and detachment can often resemble that of terrorist cells.

“I ruined my life, but I made a body of work. And for that body of work it was worth it to ruin my life” – the book closes with the words. As I read them, I knew that I needed to make a film of the book, or perhaps that there was something inevitable about my working with this text. I flipped back to the first page and started underlining images from the work. His father’s gleaming shoes; Jack’s concern with the surface of things. His abuse at the hands of his father, on the schoolyard. I was drawn to the drama of these situations. I identified with how he’d taken so much to philosophy and post-structuralist theory, how he’d lived through those discourses and how much he had suffered through those discourses. His impersonal, material relationship to himself. How he became a signifier.

There’s an interesting story behind the making of Ed Harris’s film Pollock. The actor Ed Harris was mailed a copy of Pollock’s oral biography To a Violent Grave by his father, who was struck by Ed’s physical resemblance to Pollock. The actor Ed Harris became fascinated with Pollock’s story, and some 10 years later produced, directed, and starred in the biopic film. I find Harris’s identification interesting: Yes, painters can be dramatic, but what they do and say day-to-day is often not dramatic. Their work itself is often solitary and focused, in contrast to the work of the actor, which almost always involves other people. That is to say that the actor and painter are bonded, each possessing something the other lacks, and it makes some sense that the actor would see some dramatic potential in what a painter simply calls the circumstances of their life. Who I think I am.

I was drawn to Pollock as a model for this film project, and found that for better or for worse, Pollock reduces dramatic cause and effect to selective cliches of art history. It is a character study of ambition, one that shows success and failure in the art world as related to a feedback loop of Dionysian inspiration, manic creation, and maddening hangovers. This model posits that an artists life is defined by grappling with this natural occurrence of inspiration. As Harris-Pollock says as he paints: “I am nature.” I began to find that Jack’s work resisted this kind of narrativization due to his own detachment and degree of control over the effects of his work. Jack’s work forms a depersonalized system that both portrays and responds to the inhuman demands of life under technocratic capitalism. And at that moment I realized that like Ed Harris, the why behind my desire to make this film had so much to do with my identification with Jack. That I wanted to make a film about Jack Goldstein because I spend a lot of time fearing and thinking about the same things that I imagined he thought about, feared, as well as manipulated in his art: the power contained within images, the hypnotic control exercised by mass spectacle, and the role of the artist within such totalizing systems.

I began to resist: No, if I made a film of Jack’s life, it would be more direct in its portrayal of the psychic and physical effects of modern life, something more like Michael Mann’s 1995 thriller Heat — a film that, to quote a blog post, “directly addresses questions of the relation between one's work, commitment to a profession, and quality of life.” I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but in the film Robert De Niro and Al Pacino play a game of cat and mouse as career criminal and cop respectively, sharing identity in their obsession. In the film, there is a scene where De Niro and Pacino face off against one another. De Niro, in close up, stares directly into camera, representing the infrared camera that the police are monitoring him through. Pacino stares back directly into the camera. The thermal image of De Niro stares directly at Pacino. This moment punctures the film’s extremely controlled diegesis as a moment where the two actors become interchangeable, where their screened-mediation becomes conspicuous. It emphasizes the abstraction of the Hollywood star system, reminding me of Jack’s thermal paintings (His aphorism from the Documenta catalog: “A close up of what can only be seen from a distance is as close as we can come to true abstraction.”)

I still believe Jack’s ambition, obsession and paranoia could be mapped well onto the conventions of a thriller. There was the potential to make those things sexy, like how in Oliver Assayas' miniseries Carlos, radical political action becomes aestheticized pleasure. based on the life of Carlos the Jackal, the terrorists of Carlos put theory into practice with style. Like an artist they function in terms of surprise, spectacle. In one clip, New Order's 1981 'Dreams Never End’ plays as Carlos bombs a bank. Through just a slight temporal displacement, using this song lifted from the future, Carlos’ leaving a bomb at a bank in the 70’s becomes as exciting and mesmerizing as hearing a new sound on the radio. We see how miniscule of a formal shift it takes for us to enjoy destruction. I couldn’t help to also think about the film that Jack himself said he would make. In an interview, Goldstein says:

If I had all of the resources of Hollywood at my disposal, I’d make weather films: blowing trees, twisting trees, floods, walking on the ocean. I would love to be able to do a performance where a black cloud comes over a hill and it would rain for thirty seconds.

In the same era as Mann’s Heat, we already start to see these images in films like Twister, where natural destruction becomes the anti-hero. Maybe that would be Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia: the Movie... Twister 2...