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Cool School, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/20/08 16:46:06

"Be cool to your school."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: A reverential look at the L.A. art scene of the 1950s and 60s, Morgan Neville’s documentary “The Cool School” focuses its admiration on the Ferus Gallery, which served as the hot spot for dozens of influential and revolutionary artists. The story is rather fascinating to someone as uninformed on the art world as I am; I would assume fans of modern art would consider some of the interviews and archival footage on display here as a true find.

In the early 50s, the movie tells us, L.A. was a cultural dead zone. The west coast was considered a place for beach bums and movie stars, not high class artistes. Enter Walter Hopps, who dreamed of building the town’s culture cache; as Jeff Bridges’ narration explains, his plan would require a sudden influx of artists, backers, critics, and collectors. Slowly but surely, he would succeed, thanks to his creation of the Ferus Gallery, a showroom hangout where artists could gather, produce, and occasionally attempt to one-up each other.

The Ferus would last from 1957 until 1966, just long enough for it to transform the entire city. Pop artists from New York - the cultural mecca at the time - were wooed to L.A. (among them: Andy Warhol and Ray Lichtenstein), but the real focus was on local creators who would invent a west coast esthetic hinging on the “new,” with sleek lines, bold colors, and man-made materials. Lots of shiny plastics. (Several interviewees admit how the California car culture of the era was a major influence on these pieces.) The gallery’s studio space would provide a spot where abstract sculptors could experiment freely.

Not everyone was impressed. Early critics (based outside the city) hated the results, while authorities were quick to cry foul, first out of fear that these beatniks were Commies (one buttoned-up official swore he saw a hammer and sickle hidden in a painting), later as a result of the obscenity wars (for lack of a better term) that saw Lenny Bruce locked up for saying “shit” on stage and one Ferus regular arrested for displaying a nude sketch. When the county finally opened its own art museum, the architecture was strictly old school, the sort of ugly plain-block building in vogue at the time.

The museum is an example of where the movie doesn’t quite succeed - in focusing so much on the Ferus Gallery, Neville only skims its coverage of the rest of the L.A. scene, leaving a slightly incomplete picture. The interviewees grumble about it, but only briefly, and only as a counterpoint to the hipness of the Ferus. Then again, even Neville’s own subjects get only cursory treatment; art newcomers aren’t fully taught why these works so revolutionary, only that they were, and with a dozen or so interview subjects and a few more mentioned by name, everyone becomes a jumble as we struggle to keep up.

Still, as mentioned above, art fans will appreciate the chance to glimpse these artists both then and now, via archival film and video and newly held reunion interviews. (The reunions offer the best supply of give-and-take.) And Neville’s experience working for PBS and A&E lead the filmmaker to ensure his movie is informative in a beginner’s course kind of way. “The Cool School” is neither as lively nor as complete as it could be, but as an introduction to the importance and the power of modern art, it’s a fine freshman course.

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