Many great works of art have been conceived in crisis. Edward Munch’s The Scream captured the artist in bouts of extreme anxiety; The Starry Night was composed shortly after Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear; and Frida Kahlo painted her first self-portrait while recovering from a debilitating bus accident. Guest of Cindy Sherman emerged from a different kind of crisis. In the film, its co-director and protagonist Paul H-O (Hasegawa-Overacker) recounts conceiving of the project while escorting his art-star girlfriend Cindy Sherman to a gala dinner in her honor. As per the standard for such events, he is relegated to a table somewhere in the back by the kitchen. While looking for his name on a place card, H-O instead finds a title that describes his current situation, "Guest of Cindy Sherman," and sets out to create a film to match it.
When we meet Paul H-O in 1993, he’s an artist who has just traded canvas for videotape, hosting Gallery Beat, a public access art show Ã la Wayne's World. From the beginning, the charismatic personality of H-O drives the film. As a host, his art-for-the-masses ideology pokes fun at the art world's serious posturing -- at one point, Julian Schnabel berates the Gallery Beat team for making light of his work in an earlier episode -- while celebrating the messy, informal splendor of the mid-’90s Soho gallery scene. H-O somehow finagles his way into landing an interview with already-established artist, notorious media recluse, and patented babe Cindy Sherman. The romantic relationship that develops frames the remainder of the film.
Along with the couple, Guest of Cindy Sherman documents their world, a contemporary art market emerging from the post-’80s price bust into the extremely lucrative, billion-dollar business it is today. For H-O and Sherman, the shift brings an increasing number of obligations and commitments, putting a strain on their relationship. H-O fails to sell his irreverent art-host shtick as a cable TV show, and the exploration of that failure and the subsequent anxiety it creates becomes the film's focus.
Like a character in a modern fable, H-O exhaustively solicits advice for an ultimately unsolvable problem: in this case, mediocrity. He interviews significant others of celebrities and even appears on a radio morning show trying to find the cure for “famous girlfriend syndrome.” But H-O is unable to cope. His delegated role, the film candidly admits, is one traditionally filled by women, which raises questions about gender roles and the dynamics of the modern relationship. Viewers are forced to question their own ideas about personal success and ambition, as well as who, if anyone, in a relationship should settle for the “woman’s role.”
The idea of auteurism is always a problematic one -- what would Annie Hall or The Godfather Trilogy be without cinematographer Gordon Willis, for example -- and it is especially so in this case. Although he never appears on camera, co-director and editor Tom Donahue’s personality is heavily imbued in the film. Further, as a condition of allowing her work in the film, Sherman was granted the power to review and revise its final cut. What exactly she excised is unclear, but the filmmakers indicate the edits she dictated were substantial. That such a request would be made over what is essentially a benign portrait speaks of the level of control Sherman exercises over her persona. She rarely conducts interviews, shuns press coverage, and maintains a silence so absolute she neglects to name even her art.
Whereas Paul H-O is clearly vulnerable in the picture, it seems that Sherman was unable to submit to the same level of open access and candor. Though, admittedly, the stakes are higher for her: Sherman’s work, most famously her enigmatic makeup-and-costume self-portraits, thrives on the ambiguousness and ambivalence of its creator. The minor controversy surrounding the film's release (Sherman put out a press release disowning it) only makes one further question the motives and intentions -- monetary and otherwise -- of the parties involved. It’s indicative of how much power and control today’s art dealers, gallery owners, and taste-makers hold over the market when even a messy, quirky film like Guest of Cindy Sherman is indelibly shaped by their influences. Indicative too is the fact that the filmmakers chose to challenge that money-driven focus under the ever successful and marketable "Sherman" brand.