High Art

     First a disclaimer: at one time I worked at the same company as Lisa Cholodenko,
the writer-director of
HIGH ART.  We were acquainted, but not closely, so I do feel I can be
an impartial judge of her work.

     With that out of the way, I can say that her debut feature is an assured work, a fascinating,
if flawed, motion picture.
HIGH ART is a contemporary examination of ambition and infatuation.
It centers on Syd (well-played by Australian actress Radha Mitchell), an assistant editor at a
photography magazine who seems stuck in a dead end job, fetching coffee and making telephone
calls. Her boyfriend James isn't all that supportive. When a leak in the ceiling leads her to the
upstairs apartment of a well-known photographer who has been out of the limelight for years, her
world expands and Syd embarks on a journey fueled by her desire to move ahead and her growing
attraction to the artist. That Ally Sheedy (who herself has seemingly been off the public radar)
was cast the photographer adds a certain amount of resonance to the role.

     This ambitious film attempts to cover a lot of ground — and for the most part succeeds. Syd
slowly enters the world of Lucy (Sheedy) which is populated by Lucy's German lover Greta (a
brilliant Patricia Clarkson), a former actress who now seemingly lives to get stoned. Lucy also
is coping with her wealthy mother, a Jewish refugee who has trouble accepting her daughter's
lesbianism and most especially, her relationship with a German. Syd manages to convince her
employers that Lucy is back and available to work and she accepts a commission to shoot a photo
essay for the magazine. As Syd and Lucy draw closer, their respective worlds begin to crumble.
Syd's boyfriend and Greta both become jealous. The pressures of the deadline loom and Lucy
struggles to come to terms with the choices she has made in her life.

     There's a lot happening in the film and that is part of the problem. Like a good novel, the
screenplay (which received the Waldo Salt Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival) is filled
with marvelous scenes that come alive. But there are also repetitive shots of people snorting
drugs and lounging about. The point may be that these are not always particularly pleasant people.
Some of the characters, particularly the male ones, don't seem to be fully integrated into the story.
Bill Sage's Arnie is the male equivalent of a "fag hag" — a handsome, perpetually horny guy
hanging around with lesbians. Syd's boyfriend James (played by Gabriel Mann) functions merely
as a plot point; someone from whom Syd can move away. Even David Thornton as Syd's boss
at the magazine is a cipher.

     Much more richly observed, however, are the female characters. Lucy is the artist who
couldn't cope with success and walked away. Which is why Sheedy seems such an inspired
casting choice. She was a successful author at age 11, a top young actress in her late teens
who after a couple of flops all but disappeared. Her own battles with bulimia and drugs which
have been meticulously detailed in the press fuel her performance. At best, though, Sheedy
has always been better at playing the "good girl" and here she somehow lacks the charisma
required for the character. Sheedy does well, however, in the quieter scenes, whether fighting
with her mother (Tammy Grimes offering a perfect cameo) or her lover (the fabulous Clarkson
whose accent waivers). Even Sheedy's scenes with Mitchell — particularly an extended love
scene work. Still, there's something missing — the sense that this is a character with a vital force
just isn't there. With her round features and blonde hair, the angelic-looking Mitchell is ideally cast.
She offers a fine portrayal of a woman with a decided goal who seizes opportunities and tries
to make them work to her advantage. Yet, there is an underlying naiveté and sweetness that the
actress brings to the role that tempers the character and makes the audience care for her.

     The film's title is both a pun and perhaps a declaration of intent. The drug use is presented
without comment; it is neither glorified nor condemned. While not exactly "high art' in of itself,
HIGH ART is a very fine introduction to a clearly talented new filmmaker.

                                                     Rating:                                B
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.