Many years ago, when eminent documentarian Les Blank visited Cleveland with one of his short features about an "outsider artist," an eccentric self-taught painter-sculptor-costumer-composer-architect (The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists, highly recommended; catch it if you can), I tried to interest the famed filmmaker in East Cleveland's own Rev. Albert Wagner as a celluloid subject. Blank patiently explained to this sub-D-list regional entertainment reporter that he frequently gets such suggestions in his travels - tips about offbeat musicians, artists and visionaries. Alas, without some producer ponying up the money for the film shoot, Blank said, no deal.
Wagner died in September 2006 after both ascending to a position of eminence and marketability among American folk artists and earning a place in books such as Weird Ohio for his home/gallery/studio/church on Lakefront Avenue and St. Clair - a place festooned with murals, sculpture and installations everywhere you look. Cable-channel documentarian Thomas G. Miller's One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story casts an inquiring lens on Wagner in his final years, and while I can't resist dreaming of that Les Blank project that never was, this delivers a fair and compelling portrait.
Practically every Clevelander who can name an art gallery knows the Wagner legend, a life story the artist himself elevated to mythic status in his sometimes autobiographical paintings: At age 50, after a successful career as a mover and a debauched lifestyle that included three wives (at least) and 20 children (ditto), the formidable Wagner - if there's ever a biopic, Samuel L. Jackson would be ideal casting - experienced a road-to-Damascus-style epiphany, converted to a form of Pentecostalism and started to make works of art. He sold the moving business and established his own church/museum, the People Love People House of God - his own neighbors and extended family being the principal congregation.
With no training and using common cast-off junk as his initial material, Wagner fashioned faces and physiognomies out of discarded washing-machine backs, bowling balls, plywood, whatever. At the same time, his new identity as the Reverend put the artist in rabbinical black garments and on a kosher diet, and gave him a flowing beard and beatific demeanor. Meeting him felt like an audience with an Old Testament prophet, wrote more than one journo (even the writer for Weird Ohio was pretty awestruck). Faith, sin, redemption and his own POV on the black experience - as a Mississippi sharecropper in the darkest Jim Crow era - constituted themes of a lot of Wagner's output, along with the romantic notion that the man was expiating his trespasses against the Commandments by making art on orders from God Himself.
What the documentary shows us is that Wagner's guilt was serious business. The charges included child molestation, and the filmmakers were able to get the various ex-wives/mistresses on camera - voices in this Wagnerian soap opera that you wouldn't normally expect. Some of the women still don't seem persuaded by the big man's conversion and are flummoxed by the idea of affluent white buyers as well as Oberlin College professors and students beating a path to Wagner's door; is this art thing for real or just a self-serving ghetto con? Then there are the non-PC aspects of Wagner's own sermons and allegorical imagery. He preached that African American society was as much sinner as sinned against, and he exhorted followers and passersby to cleave to old-time religion and not the damnation of hip-hop. This made the Reverend about as popular as Bill Cosby or Alan Keyes among those who want victimization as their only cross to bear.
The camera follows Wagner into his final months (omitting the highly timely detail that one of his sons got swept up in a Homeland Security witch hunt of terror suspects), and ultimately the viewers are left to make up their own minds about the Rev. Wagner's legacy and salvation. A lot of artists harbor God complexes, but his was a special case. - Charles Cassady Jr.
One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story
Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre
Rape of Europa
After 1989's docu-epic The Architecture of Doom, one might be forgiven for imagining there isn't much left to say about the Third Reich's fascination with art and aesthetics, and the systematic plunder of paintings and sculptures as key parts of military invasion and cultural extermination.
But The Rape of Europa tells quite a story. It's a sprawling adaptation of the nonfiction book by Lynn Nicholas about the fate of European art treasures, both on the Eastern and Western fronts, after the Wermacht was unleashed on Poland in 1939. The movie (narrated by actress Joan Allen) is, if anything, overstuffed with detail that a thick book can more gracefully contain; you can suffer a veritable Stendahl syndrome (mental overload after overexposure to art) from the sights, sounds, themes and shifting vistas and battlefields. Rising to power as a megalomaniac conqueror/messiah of the Aryan race, Hitler planned, in meticulous detail, a mighty museum in Linz to display all the great art treasure of the ages, which the Thousand Year Reich would capture from its enemies. It's a great proud-to-be-an-American moment (infrequent in documentary films lately) when a museum in Utah finds out its prized Boucher canvas was looted and returns it to the original gallery owner's descendents without argument. It might have been fair (but would have widened the film's already wide net still further) to mention that strategic art plunder was also carried out by Napoleon, the British Empire and imperialists all the way back to ancient Rome - and probably before that. "Art is what makes us human," says one of the interviewees. So does stealing it. - Cassady Jr.
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, September 6 and 4 p.m. Sunday, September 7 The Mother of Tears
Putting its predecessors Suspiria and Inferno to shame, The Mother of Tears is the last installment in Dario Argento's "witch trilogy." Dario's daughter Asia Argento plays Sarah, an American art student studying in Rome. After opening an ancient urn and unleashing the power of a demonic witch, Sarah quickly turns into a damsel in distress as chaos breaks out in Italy's renowned capital. A series of rapes, robberies and murders follows, as witches from all over the world (dressed in cheesy '80s apparel) gather to worship their "Mother of Tears." Oh, and there's nothing like a little sadistic monkey to add to all the madness. In a Harry Potter-like twist, Sarah discovers some genetic supernatural powers of her own as she scrambles to solve the mystery behind the evil witch. Known for combining nudity and gore, director Argento continues this trademark, going so far as to show a baby being thrown off a bridge and film his own daughter in the flesh in a bizarre shower scene. But there's nothing artistic about this film. Visually, the movie features over-the-top, cheap imagery. Asia Argento utterly fails in the lead role. Ultimately, The Mother of Tears is an unsatisfying ending to a notable trilogy. - Lauren Yusko
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 7 p.m. Thursday, September 4 and 9:20 p.m. Friday, September 5 Mister Lonely
Mister Lonely, which director Harmony Korine wrote with his brother Avi, is something of a stylistic departure. Opening with a slow-motion shot of a lone bicyclist set to the saccharine Bobby Vinton song "Mister Lonely," the movie is about an unhappy Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna of Y Tu Mamá También) who goes to live in a Scottish Highlands commune inhabited by celebrity impersonators. It's not a good film, but it has a sweetness unexpected from a director who once tried making a movie about his own provocation of real near-death street fights. The Jackson impersonator, who laments in his narration that he has "always wanted to be someone else," moonwalks for spare change on the streets of Paris. He performs at an old folks' home, where he urges the residents to live forever. "Don't die, don't die!" he chants with endearing absurdity. Into this scene glides an ethereal Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton), who invites Michael to join her and her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant) at a commune. Not much happens in Mister Lonely, and were it not for the endearing presence of Morton and Luna, it would be almost completely intolerable. - Pamela Zoslov
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 9:40 p.m. Saturday, September 6 and 7 p.m. Sunday, September 7