Guest of Cindy Sherman

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I took a look recently at Guest of Cindy Sherman, a documentary co-produced and directed by an ex-boyfriend of the artist Cindy Sherman, the ultimate New York postmodernist. It’s about the pleasures and humiliations, mostly the humiliations, of being the not-quite-significant other of a much more famous person. It’s been making the rounds of the festival circuit and opens this Friday in New York and Santa Fe.

The ex-boyfriend is a New York video maker, surfer and artworld supernumerary named Paul H-O. (Short for Hasegawa-Overacker — the film is co-directed by him and Tom Donahue.) In the ’90s H-O produced and hosted a cable access TV show, called Gallery Beat, that basically consisted of him and a few confederates turning up with a videocam at gallery openings. On camera he looks like a cross between Al Franken and Ken Burns. Picture Stuart Smalley with an early ’90s video rig and you’re there.

Paul comes off as a somewhat goofy but implacable guy who has a way of getting his foot in the door and a sense of humor about himself. He’s not afraid to show us footage of artworld blowhard Julian Schnabel — who (no surprise) does not have a sense of humor about himself — telling Paul that his tv show is “a sort of masturbatory exercise in stupidity.” (Careful Julian, that’s a pretty good description of your entire career as a painter.) But by way of his show Paul eventually makes the acquaintance of Sherman — on a night when she arrives at an opening with Steve Martin, no less. Six months later — this is 1999 — he goes to her place to interview her, and gradually they enter into in a relationship that lasts into 2004.

What kind of relationship? Romantic/domestic but eventually, or so it appears, passive/aggressive. She’s prosperous and famous. He’s neither. She buys a house in the Hamptons. He develops colitis because his landlord is suing him. Over time his anxieties deepen about the status gap between him and his renowned girlfriend. “It’s the difference between being the person that everyone wants to talk to and being the person that hardly anybody wants to talk to.” Ouch.

Paul’s film is part of a subgenre of what you might call exemplary abjection. Frederick Exley’s novel A Fan’s Notes is the classic exmple, about a man obsessed with the distance between his humble self and the godly, real life football hero Frank Gifford. The category reaches another weird zenith with U+I, Nicholas Baker’s non-fiction account of his semi-obsessive pursuit of John Updike. But neither one of those guys got to live with the object of their affection. By 2000 Paul H-O is in the door.

Inevitably it all ends in disappointment. While he’s still with Cindy, Paul tries to develop a new TV show. Doesn’t work. Paul sees himself as a struggler. Cindy’s life seems struggle-free. (Probably not true, but you know how it is with neurotics.) He ends up on anti-depressants. The film appears to be his way of asserting some power in their partnership. He’s the one behind the camera this time. When he goes to visit Sherman’s family and records them telling him that Cindy’s conception was an accident, you can’t help but think this is payback time.

Along the way he reaches out to other less-famous people partnered with famous people, like David Furnish, Elton John’s husband. (Who also made a documentary about his partner.) To Molly Ringwald and her husband. To April Gornik and Eric Fischl. Finally there comes an opening of a Robert Mapplethorpe show curated by Sherman where Paul doesn’t even get seated at Cindy’s table. That’s where he’s identified on the seating card at some faraway table as “Guest of Cindy Sherman”.

By 2004, when he starts work on the film, he’s still with Cindy, but, he tells us, before too long she’s gotten a little anxious about this film thing he’s doing about them. (He has to be the one to tell us, not her, because most of her appearances before his camera — at least the ones we see in the film — date to the early years of their relationship.) Before much longer, the relationship is over. “I got downsized,” is how he puts it. “I got laid off from being the boyfriend.” We last see him surfing in Central America.

H-O has said that Sherman was supportive of the film at first, but by the time it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year she had issued a statement saying she regretted having cooperated with the project. By that time she also had a new, suitably famous boyfriend, David Byrne, the former Talking Head, someone presumably whose ego isn’t so much on the line. If anything, at the height of his fame, he was much more famous. But of course he must wonder sometimes if her fame is the more lasting kind. This status equality thing is hard to get just right.

You can find a funny interview with Paul H-O at the art blog C-Monster.