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Tribeca Takes: Michael Sladek on Con Artist

What happens when "business artist" Mark Kostabi conned the art world? Find out in this TFF 2009 docu-comedy, opening Friday in Brooklyn.

Tribeca Takes: Michael Sladek on Con Artist


Does a documentary subject have to be likable to warrant the film's release? Director Michael Sladek explores that provocative question on the eve of the release of his debut doc Con Artist (TFF 2009), about the 80s "business artist" Mark Kostabi.


Tribeca Takes: Michael Sladek on Con Artist
Director Michael Sladek


Three years ago I invited a few friends to my apartment to watch a rough cut of my docu-comedy feature film Con Artist. A half an hour into the screening, one of these friends turned to me and said (in a jocular way that caused his entire being to shake, his eyes to grow wide, and his teeth to suddenly whiten): “So it took an asshole to make a movie about an asshole!”


This boldly inaccurate statement took me aback. For here’s the reality: I am decidedly not an asshole. I say “please” and “thank you.” I hold doors open for the ladies. I love dogs and cats. I do yoga. I instantly forgive Park Slope moms after they run over my feet with their SUV strollers. I’m friendly with Muslims. I support marriage equality and go so far as to call it that. I put up with my Sarah Palin-loving uncle. I apologized to Barry Johnson after randomly making him cry for no good reason in high school. I give money to the homeless as long as they’re carrying their things with them, because that’s the telltale sign they’re actually homeless. I weep at the end of Zorba the Greek, for f**k’s sake! Need I say more? No. I needn’t. However, there is a lot more to say about the subject of my film, a man who many would indeed classify as an asshole: notorious “business artist” Mark Kostabi.
Tribeca Takes: Michael Sladek on Con Artist

Con Artist
is, as Variety succinctly put it, “an entertaining reverie on the concept and addictive nature of celebrity” as told via the story of Mark Kostabi, who was a major art star in the late 1980s but is now an often-reviled footnote in the history of modern art. The film mainly chronicles Kostabi’s current, darkly comic obsessions with regaining the fame he once owned.  
A contemporary of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons, coming up amidst the booming New York art scene of the 1980s, Kostabi’s star rose quickly when he hit upon a gimmick. Taking Andy Warhol’s notions about mass production and fame to the extreme, Kostabi hired “idea people” to come up with concepts for paintings, hired artists to paint the paintings, and then, upon signing these works with his name, blitzed the media with aggressive PR exclaiming that “modern art is a con and I am the world’s greatest con artist.” Seen as either an ingenious commentary on the art industry and capitalism itself, or simply as cynical manipulation, Kostabi rose to international fame and considerable fortune. By the mid-1990s, however, the man had almost totally alienated himself and was broke.
Tribeca Takes: Michael Sladek on Con Artist
Warhol, Kostabi, Basquiat


Today, Kostabi still does the same thing: hiring others to conceptualize and paint “his” paintings, which he signs and sells to mid-level collectors all over the world. He’s once again quite rich but struggles to live down his past while seeking love via the fame he dearly misses. Essentially a lonely, constantly self-aware, constantly hustling anti-hero, one wonders if this exceptionally eccentric and laughably strange man is a genius or just… an asshole.
Early on, my filmmaking partners and I learned that we had a tough fight ahead because of this very question. Every A-list art industry name we reached out to refused to talk to us on camera because of our subject’s reputation. Even when we explained that Kostabi had zero financial stake or influence upon the final outcome of the film and that we wanted negative opinions as well as positive, we still had many doors shut in our (strikingly handsome) faces. The vitriol was so thick that a certain A-list artist actually told me I shouldn’t be making a film about Kostabi at all (and then proceeded to say we should instead make a film about him).


Tribeca Takes: Michael Sladek on Con Artist


Naturally, being such an amazing guy (see first paragraph), this level of resistance made me want to make Con Artist even more and, in doing so, keep to a strict middle ground without judging the main character ourselves. Eventually we got every inch of commentary that we needed from fascinating people such as Michel Gondry, Baird Jones, Daze, Donald Kuspit, Nick Zedd, Glenn O’Brien and more. Working closely with our stellar co-editor Jacob Bricca (Lost in LaMancha), we mined hundreds of videotapes, resulting in views from Jeff Koons, Robin Byrd, Michael Musto, Anthony Haden-Guest and many others. As a result, this fast-paced, funny, music and style-driven character study also became a film filled with insights in to our money- and fame-obsessed culture itself.
However, since our 2009 premiere at Tribeca Film Festival (where we sold out all four screenings and received rave reviews), we’ve had to face down the same essential issues with Kostabi’s reputation and personality time and time again. In a difficult distribution climate wherein the docs that rise to the top are mostly politically motivated or inspirational pieces about underdogs overcoming the odds, certain distributors, exhibitors, and even festival programmers told us they couldn’t stomach getting behind a comedy about someone they personally disliked. To us, this was a cop-out and a misguided way to judge any film. Do all contemporary movies have to be about people who are easily likable? If we used that barometer, we’d have never seen films like Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, or The King of Comedy. In this climate, would the classic doc Crumb have seen the light of day?


Perhaps it’s simply that stench of post-9/11, recession-fueled “code orange” that lingers in the air. Perhaps there’s simply a fear of pictures that are hard to classify.  Perhaps fear is what’s hip right now.  
Tribeca Takes: Michael Sladek on Con Artist


Happily, whichever way you think, I have news for you: After a year of being invited to festivals such as Tribeca, Rome, Hamptons, Sarasota, Florida, Denver, Austin, Glasgow, Berkshire, Tallinn and FlyOver, we not only found wonderful, diverse audiences who love the movie but truly excellent homes for Con Artist. On November 12, the film opens at reRun Theater in Brooklyn; we’ve signed a TV deal with a dynamic network; and we are about to sign a home video deal with a renowned distributor.  
So, in the long run, what have I learned (besides to ignore that friend of mine with the flashy white teeth)? Well, I guess I’ve learned that next time around I should make a fiction narrative about a really cute kid who grows up poor and just wants to DANCE! And in the end, HE DOES!
That’ll sell like hotcakes. Or, even better, it’ll sell like Kostabis.


Con Artist opens Friday at reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn. Find tickets.


Watch the trailer:


Con Artist - Trailer from Plug Ugly Films on Vimeo.


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