‘Guest of Cindy Sherman’: Inside looking out

March 23, 2009

Paul H-O is the kind of person you’d meet at a party and end up telling other people about: “Wow, I met this guy who was kind of funny and cool to talk to.” The kind of person who, when you spot him on cable-access TV, would make you say, “Hey, I just talked to that guy at a gallery-opening party.”


Paul H-O (which is certainly easier to type – or remember – than Hasegawa-Overacker, which is his full moniker) made a name for himself of sorts doing exactly that: turning up at Manhattan art galleries with his video camera beginning in the1990s, taping himself talking to artists for a cable-access show called “Gallery Beat.”


Like his TV show, his film, “Guest of Cindy Sherman,” which he co-directed with Tom Donahue, has a Spalding Gray-ish quality: His work morphs into his life and back again.


Eventually, Paul’s path intersected that of Cindy Sherman, downtown art queen whose career took off in the 80s and 90s. Notoriously reclusive, she apparently was either a fan of “Gallery Beat” or simply amused by Paul’s shtick, which is alternately earnest, smart-alecky and just plain smart.


Sherman actually invites Paul and his camera to her studio and talks to him, gradually embracing him as a person – until the two of them are romantically linked. He gives up his apartment and moves in with her.


At which point he discovers the dark side of fame – that is, what it feels like to live in the shadow of someone much more celebrated. The film’s title comes from an event he attended with Sherman that became the catalyst for the collapse of their relationship. He found himself at a dinner party given by a friend, who put Paul at a separate table from Sherman and didn’t even put his name on his placecard, identifying him only as “Guest of Cindy Sherman.”


So Paul began putting together this film, which begins with his early years on “Gallery Beat” and follows him to his entanglement with Sherman and beyond. It stops along the way to assess the impact of “Gallery Beat,” to analyze Sherman’s career, to talk to mutual friends about the Sherman-H-O merger – and to talk to other unhappy “guests of,” such as Elton John’s partner, David Furnish, who complains about the fact that he’s treated as an afterthought by people wanting to ingratiate themselves with Sir Elton.


Eventually, the movie gets to its real topic: itself. Specifically, it becomes about Paul H-O exploring what that touched-by-greatness partner’s life is like and why he resents it so. In the end, it also considers Paul’s separation from Sherman, who becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the direction this film took, in terms of intruding on her carefully sheltered existence.


Solipsistic? Perhaps. “Guest of Cindy Sherman” offers the kind of self-revelation that too often turns cloying in other films. Paul H-O, however, never grows tiresome; you wind up rooting for him, or, at a minimum, hanging in to see what he’ll do next. Where you wind up is nowhere near where you expect, based on the movie’s starting point.


Again, that reflexive thing – making a movie that’s about making the movie – is a risky proposition. There’s the chance that you’ll disappear up your own fundament – and look like an a-hole to boot. But Paul H-O casts a wide net here; though ultimately the focus is on his own story, he’s got the sense to let other people into the picture as well.


There comes a point where you want to say to Paul H-O, “Gee, if you weren’t so caught up in being famous yourself, you could have a pretty sweet life.” But the male ego is a tricky thing.


And, if he’d made peace with it, we wouldn’t have this entertainingly quirky little film.


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