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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Watch the trailer: