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A never

Apr 03, 2024

YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE when old people start talking, reminiscing about stuff that happened before you were born, incidents that have seemingly gained personal meaning as they have lost cultural traction, tales from some zeitgeist of yore, stories flowing rapidly into one another as synapses fire off newly recalled shards of an age-strangled youth? Of course you do, just as you know how these stories, slipping between the mundane and the revelatory like absent-minded codgers dancing in their dotage, can be immensely entertaining or impossibly dull depending on the storyteller. Thankfully, Make Me Famous, an obsessive documentary on a chimerical character named Edward Brezinski, who seems as worthy of remembering as a bad odor, is not only filled with remarkable raconteurs but is told by a pair of filmmakers—the husband-and-wife team of Brian Vincent (director) and Heather Spore (producer)—who manage to use such rambling old yarns as a brilliantly digressive structure for a feature-length movie.

Make Me Famous is less a portrait of Brezinski than that of a time and place: the East Village scene of the 1980s, fueled by myriad nostalgias—for old New York, for one of late modernism’s last bohemian enclaves, or simply for grit and authenticity in this age of endless simulation—and turbocharged by the myths of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This fascination, fortuitous as it may be, is also something of an abiding curse, endemic to the East Village’s once radical history, which affects its former participants like a glorious stigmata, forever foregrounding generational context over individual attributes. Perhaps this is just the nature of the past, with its inclination to clean up the messiness of overlapping and diverging storylines into neat chronologies. Everyone is ready for their close-up; little do they know that the lens inevitably focuses on the background.

A minor player by all accounts, Edward Brezinski fills a central role here as a bumbling and doomed everyman, one who gives backstage pathos to the pageantry of stars by which this era is typically celebrated. Though this is a remarkably loving and deeply empathetic conjuring for which Vincent should be commended, the conceit of this picture, what has indeed sold it so successfully to audiences, is how its protagonist is ultimately a surrogate, a blank upon which we can project the full spectrum of desire and dread that circulates through creative ambition like the lifeblood of culture. Brezinski, a common fool who serves as something of a Rorschach for the film’s talking heads, elicits anecdotes as revealing of the teller as they could be of the artist himself. Walter Robinson, the artist and critic who penned Brezinski’s only obituary, shows not just his satiric penchant for championing the worst but his abiding love for the art world’s most embarrassing gossip as he recounts the time when Brezinski poisoned himself eating a formaldehyde-laced donut in Robert Gober’s first one-person show, while classic East Village characters like Fun Gallery owner Patti Astor and painter David McDermott seem to grant an animal magnetism to Brezinski’s rough ways, and Annina Nosei is at her charming best as she recounts how a single misguided visit to Brezinski’s studio turned him into an angry stalker culminating in his throwing a glass of wine on her during a Kenny Scharf opening at Tony Shafrazi Gallery. A former editor-in-chief of Artforum, Joseph Masheck, allows that Brezinski may not be the greatest example of the figurative expressionism all the rage at that moment, but he is (by way of comparison to Pissarro’s position within Impressionism) a perfectly paradigmatic example of it.

There is an undeniable charm to Masheck’s affection for the typical, one we may suspect lies at the heart of so much of the secondary market where, even if we cannot buy into the cache of solitary genius, we can own its proximate form. Because I have the dubious distinction of having lived through the East Village heyday (still being alive no small accomplishment), people are always asking me to put an actual name to some artistic artifact from that time. Maybe I should just tell them that they are the proud owners of a Brezinski. But that’s the most exasperating side effect of Make Me Famous: seeing so many underrecognized artists of that time—including the incomparable James Romberger, in a star turn as the melancholic survivor of Brezinski’s hopeless folly—play second fiddle to an artist who couldn’t (to mix a metaphor) hold a candle to many of them. In full disclosure, I was asked to be in this movie but demurred because I couldn’t think of one nice thing to say about Ed. This I honestly regret because it clearly didn’t stop anyone else from being in the film. In fact, most of the humor that makes this such a winning picture comes from everyone describing the stupidity, desperation, and annoying omnipresence that made Ed as pervasive as the smell of alcoholic piss on the streets then.

Perhaps it is disingenuous, but I would recommend everyone see this movie and no one ever make another one like it again. It’s bad enough we have the kitsch of the world’s most self-satisfied artist, Julian Schnabel, churning out movie after movie about tormented artists. Can’t we finally move on from this afflictive narrative that poverty, suffering, and madness equal genius? And please, let’s jettison the counterfeit tokens of ratification. It’s as ridiculous as the way in which artistic ambition was confused with some Madonna-like quest for fame in the ’80s, and as hollow and bankrupt as the pyrrhic victory Make Me Famous registers of Brezinski being included in the “Club 57” show at MoMA, an exhibition that featured so many overdue unknowns no one wants to call it out for what it was—a flea-market mixed bag of a show in a lobby-like basement lacking scholarship and masquerading what was in effect an archive grab for their film department. By the same account, throwing up images of truly significant artists from that period like David Wojnarowicz or Martin Wong (who appears visually without mention) is the worst kind of empty signifier of place and time.

Yes we all breathed the same air and did the same drugs as Haring and Basquiat, and for this everyone deserves their footnote in history. But let us consider how those six degrees of separation between fame and failure are probably true for every generation—or so it would seem to me from all the personal anecdotes I used to hear from people about de Kooning, Pollock, and Johns back in the day—and how this culling of the herd so that each moment is granted a few geniuses while the rest are forgotten better serves market machinations and institutional narratives than the diverse dynamic ecosystem of creativity. We might never have guessed how well Edward Brezinski could stand in for so many other stories from his time, and while there are certainly many stories more compelling than his, few will be so lucky to have such a competent storyteller as Brian Vincent.

— Carlo McCormick

Make Me Famous is playing at New York’s Roxy Cinema on August 11 and August 15 and at New Plaza Cinema on August 13.