Some people worry that art is stuck in the past—McDermott & McGough wouldn't have it any other way. For three decades, the artist duo have immersed themselves for years at a time in bygone eras: renovating a Gilded Age apartment, say, or an Eighteenth-Century farmhouse upstate, and assiduously building a period-appropriate lifestyle around it. They've made art objects, but this sustained performance comprises a quiet rebellion against everything that is shoddy, tasteless, frantic, and mass-produced in contemporary American life, and it may be their biggest statement.
Ever since David McDermott (who, unlike Peter McGough, does not use email, and travels only by boat or train) moved to Ireland in 1993, their collaborative relationship has been trans-Atlantic, although they speak every day. Their latest work, a short film shot in a 1930s period style, is by and large McGough's. He wrote and directed it, with input from McDermott, and brought a film crew into their rarefied world to help them make it.
Mean to Me has earned a lot of attention as the acting debut of British supermodel Agyness Deyn, but it's perhaps more interesting for the light it casts on McDermott & McGough's romantic, some might say hopeless, attempts to transcend the present.
Previously, they've painted painstaking replicas of classic Hollywood movie stills and created self-portraits using obsolete photography and printing techniques. McDermott & McGough are primarily illusionists, and one criticism of their work is that it's not all that different from the way plenty of specialists in the movie and theater worlds (set designers, costumers, etc.) earn a living. But they won't be adapting Pride & Prejudice for anytime soon.
Although the film ends on a darker note than the old Hollywood Production Code would have allowed, Mean to Me is a parlor drama depicting an escalating lovers' tiff; it plays out like the final scene of a rather average film noir, and McGough's script comes seems more than anything an excuse to escape into a luscious, black-and-white world of silk gowns, pearls, and nights at the Waldorf.
That world is evoked with fetishistic attention to detail. The chiaroscuro-washed films of Fritz Lang are one of the more obvious inspirations, but McGough stresses that he intended the film as "more of an homage than an exact copy," before adding, perhaps a bit optimistically, that he was channeling Buñuel (who was always more interested in symbols than texture) and Cocteau (not exactly a materialist either) more than Hollywood productions like Scarlet Street.
McGough gets up from the couch in his 1932 West Village apartment—a stunningly furnished time capsule that also served as the film's set—and draws back a folding Art Deco screen to reveal, with some embarrassment, a flat-screen TV. "I mostly use it for TCM," he explains. McGough is pretty particular when it comes to modern-day period films. Gosford Park was ruined for him the moment he noticed a butler had the best-starched shirt, and Public Enemies disappointingly incorporated a Diana Krall tune well ahead of its time. "But I always loved Merchant Ivory films, because they got everything right," McGough sighs.
"When people think of the past, they think about how horrible it was. As a visual person, as a metaphysician, I think of how beautiful it was," McGough continues. "The cars—everything was made more perfectly."
But 70 or 80 years ago, cars were a considerable luxury item. Class factors into this vision of beauty, and there's something aspirational about McDermott and McGough's desire to trade up to past eras. McDermott grew up in suburban New Jersey; McGough, whose grandmother worked as a maid in Main Line Pennsylvania, descends from several generations of household servants, and class is an explicit theme in Mean to Me. Deyn, the high-society mistress who comes from nothing, slips between her Manchester accent and the upgraded one her character has adopted, and the dramatic action revolves around her unwillingness to let go of the nice things with which she's managed to surround herself.
In particular, Guerlain perfume and Mikimoto pearls, sponsor placements are just one of several compromises McDermott & McGough had to make to get Mean to Me off the ground. While McGough rented period lighting, he filmed with a digital camera to cut costs. Casting Deyn, who'd been looking for her first film role, was an informed move, and McGough admits that the recent success that artists like Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor-Wood, and Shirin Neshat (who won best director at the Venice Film Festival last year) have had as mainstream directors gave him courage, if not outright inspiration. McDermott & McGough have back-dated their work in the past, but suffice it to say that that wouldn't fool anybody this time.
Having blurred the line between creators and historical re-enactors, McDermott & McGough are now in a tricky spot vis-à-vis movies and fashion. They're guided by a traditional idea of beauty that those popular industries embrace than the contemporary art world does, yet also cheapen by pandering to mass-market sensibilities. Even Clint Eastwood cast pillow-lipped Angelina Jolie as a 1920's head-turner in The Changeling, McGough notes. "They would have thought she was hideous!"
MEAN TO ME SCREENS TONIGHT, MARCH 4, AT 6:30, AT CHEIM AND READ, LOCATED AT 547 WEST 25 STREET, NEW YORK. IMAGE: MCDERMOTT & MCGOUGH. PHOTO BY PETER MCGOUGH/QUENTIN DIDONNA