“In the Land of Retinal Delights,” oil on canvas, 1968, by Robert Williams
ROBERT WILLIAMS MR. BITCHIN’ is now available on DVD and VOD. It is a unique documentary, distributed by Cinema Libre Studio, on Robert Williams, a significant artist that has done a lot to usher in the zeitgeist as the leader of the Lowbrow art, or Pop Surrealism, movement.
We take for granted today the mash-up of high and low culture. It is considered common knowledge that we do this mashing up. Everything is oh so “mashable.” Media empires rely upon it. How cute and comforting it all may sound now but there was a time when the lines between the art world establishment and the outsider were far more clearly drawn. Never mind the myth of such bad boy artists as Jackson Pollock or even Andy Warhol. It was the art world, taking its orders from a closely knit New York elite made up of a handful of blue chip galleries and high end art magazines that decided which bad boys, with the occasional bad girl thrown in, would go on to be crowned art royalty. It was something that artist Robert Williams could hardly not notice since, during his early career, his art was on the wrong side of the established line. As the years progressed, Mr. Williams would find the whole line not only switching in his favor but becoming blurred. This, in no small part, was due to him.
A new documentary, “Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin,” provides us insight into this process of becoming acknowledged as a professional fine artist as well as what it takes to make groundbreaking art, to really make art history. This is the highest achievement an artist can seek and that is what we see Mr. Williams set out to do and ultimately achieve. It is truly an inspiring story that clearly shows you how the mysterious art world climate can change despite itself. It is an argument that lead director Mary C. Reese and co-director/writer Nancye Ferguson are more than happy to make a case for with Mr. Williams as their prime example. And Mr. Williams, an amiable person, is quite adept at helping connect the dots to his own career.
The whole style of this documentary seems to suit its subject’s nonconformity well. It’s not a high end production, per se, and is ready to practice what it preaches as it presents a more casual shaggy dog presentation as opposed to your typical “art” documentary that can be restrained and clinical. There are no polished dramatic pauses, for instance. Design is pretty basic. But, at the same time, that is not really a problem at all. There is more of an honest blue collar approach that undercuts any need for too much in the way of heightened experience. The interviews, archival footage, and art speak for themselves quite nicely. And, where the budget allowed, you see some nice additional touches as in the multi-layered observation of the actual artwork.
You can tell that the filmmakers were going for a more familiar feel in many of the exchanges between Mr. Williams and the camera. At one point, he jokes that, as far as he understands from Werner Herzog, cinéma vérité is passé, implying he’s not so sure he wants to be followed too closely. The response behind the camera is a good-natured shrug and, “It’s Okay.” Mr. Williams shrugs back with a wink, “Okay.” In another scene, he sort of mocks concern over his interviewer’s lack of knowledge in anthropology. He is also quick to say he is more than happy to defer to his wife, Suzanne, and her expertise. This all adds up to showing Mr. Williams in a relaxed and trusting mood. We even see the couple riding unicycles.
Back to art history, the documentary does well with its facts and there are inspired moments as when we are swept away to the greener pastures of post-war Los Angeles. Everything cool, from Betty Page to hot rods, is happening out there. It was some pretty heady stuff decades ahead of its time, particularly for the East Coast establishment. This was the culture that Mr. Williams knew and loved. This is what Mr. Williams drew and painted. Along the way, he created iconic work, including naked women lounging on top of giant tacos, and inspired a new generation of artists.
We follow his career from his work with Big Daddy Roth through to his falling onto the general public’s radar with his painting, “Appetite for Destruction,” becoming the album art for the legendary rock band Guns N’ Roses. And onward to Mr. Williams’s answer to Art News and the like, his creation of the influential art magazine, Juxtapoz, and his own work being recognized by today’s art world establishment. “Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin'” proves to be the right mix of respectful tribute and irreverent fun.
Tuesday, July 30 – Screening at 7:30pm at The American Cinematheque (Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA 90028). Q&A to follow with Robert Williams, Suzanne Williams and filmmakers Nancye Ferguson, Stephen Nemeth, Mary C. Reese, Doug Blake, Michael LaFetra and special guests! Details: http://www.americancinemathequecalendar.com/content/robert-williams-mr-bitchin%E2%80%99-0
DVD and VOD street date – July 30th available at major retail outlets and digital platforms (Hulu, Amazon Instant and more!)
ABOUT CINEMA LIBRE: Cinema Libre Studio is a leader in distributing social-issue documentaries and features by passionate filmmakers. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the Cinema Libre team has released over one hundred films including the Sundance Audience Award‐Winning FUEL, THE END OF POVERTY?, Rachid Bouchareb’s LONDON RIVER and Oliver Stone’s SOUTH OF THE BORDER. The studio is developing John Perkins’ best‐selling memoirs, CONFESSIONS OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN, into a major motion picture. For more information and updates, please visit: http://www.cinemalibrestudio.com and follow on Facebook and Twitter.