Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2017: "Shadowman"

Michael Hayward

The Saturday showing of Shadowman at International Village opened with a representative of the Vancouver International Film Festival standing before us, reading a letter sent by Oren Jacoby, the film's director, who wanted to express his regret at not being able to attend the screening as he'd planned.

In fact (Jacoby said, through his spokesperson) he'd never been to Vancouver, though he'd long wanted to visit the city where Richard Hambleton, the renowned street artist and subject of Shadowman, had been born in 1952. Jacoby wanted to warn us, though (through his spokesperson) that the film we were about to see would not address Hambleton's Vancouver years at all. The reason for his film's lack of attention to the city in which we (although not he) were then sitting (Jacoby's letter explained) was that a film's success depended on a director focussing his (and our) attention on one aspect of the material, and addressing that aspect in depth. In making his film Jacoby had decided, early on, that he did not want to distract viewers from what he, the director, felt to be the most important aspect of Hambleton's life: the years in New York City.

The director's spokesperson then hesitated briefly, before reading another sentence from the letter, in which the director remarked, almost casually, that Richard Hambleton, the subject of the film we were about to see, was still alive, though "barely." He thanked us for attending this screening of Shadowman, and hoped (through his spokesperson) that we would enjoy the film.

Jacoby's Shadowman takes viewers deep inside a corner of the New York City art world, the Lower East Side, at a time (the mid-1980s) when disco ruled the airwaves as well as the NYC nightclub scene; a time when Andy Warhol and his art factory were the focus of the art world's attention. It was a milieu populated by a toxic blend of beautiful social climbers and the desperately addicted, a world in which influential art dealers and their rich collector clients swam (and fed) like sharks.

At that time Richard Hambleton was one of a trio of artists who were the public face of what was then known as "graffiti art." The other two artists—Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring—died young; their work, when it comes to auction, sells for millions of dollars, while Hambleton's canvases sell for "only" one to two hundred thousand.

At his peak Hambleton was often photographed—at gallery openings; at Studio 54—wearing stylish, well-cut suits, with a beautiful woman on each arm; he smiled broadly at the camera. By the end of the film Hambleton is a creature of the underworld, his body stooped and twisted from scoliosis, with parts of his face eaten away by skin cancer. It is Dorian Gray in reverse: the artist hidden away in his studio, decaying, yet still managing to produce striking and dramatic works of art for public view (and sale). The story of Richard Hambleton's New York years is, then, a perfect tragedy: an inexorable descent from the heights of fame to the depths of addiction and squalor.

By the end of Jacoby's film we can see that the narrative arc he has outlined in "Shadowman" is ideal; and we understand the director's decision—a difficult one, no doubt—to exclude Hambleton's Vancouver years from the film.

There is one more screening of Shadowman during VIFF (though I expect the film to return for a longer run):



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