For the first U.S. screening of his short films, Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli transformed the New Museum's Media Lounge into an old-fashioned movie theater, draped with red velvet curtains and dimly illuminated along the baseboards by tiny yellow lights. The space took on a hermetic, empowered feeling, which seemed appropriate to the spirit of campy idolatry that suffuses Vezzoli's art. Each of the five films on view featured a European screen star of a certain age, dressed to the nines and emoting dramatically, usually in an absurdly sumptuous apartment. Vezzoli clearly has an affinity for a particular kind of aging-diva urban lair, the sort that is as thick with ormolu as an 18th-century grotto, and his art seems to operate according to the same quixotic principle as this type of interior: it seeks to obliterate the very fact of quotidian existence through a strategy of rococo encrustation. He appears in each film, as a sort of numinous presence who sits hunched over a lapful of needlepoint, comically oblivious to his costar's histrionics. It's as if he's busily engaged in imaging the scene that's unfolding around him, conjuring it into existence through an act of will.
Steeped in nostalgia for the heyday of avant-garde cinema, the films are rife with allusions to Continental auteurs, but their esthetic roots are embedded in the American underground; they remap the territory where Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger overlap. Like Anger's Kustom Kar Kommandos, which fits itself to the length of the 1960s hit "Dream Lover," Vezzoli's films are brief, lyric reveries that seem to aspire to the condition of pop music. The Dream of Venus is a travesty of a New Wave music video in which Franca Valeri vogues to Kraftwerk's "Das Model." OK, The Praz is Right and A Love Trilogy: Self-Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf are hallucinatory musical numbers that feature lip-synching actresses. And in the hilarious The End, Valentina Cortese does a spoken-word interpretation of the Beatles sing "Help." Only the most recent film, The Kiss (2000), in which Vezzoli and Helmut Berger act out a scene from Dynasty, features actual dialogue. But even here, the background music—Jeanne Moreau, droning her way through a torch song- threatens to drown out the actors' words. "Each man kills the thing he loves," sings Moreau in reedy, exhausted tones that recapitulate the inevitable downward trajectory of every star's career. If these five films have a single mitochondrial ancestor, it is Warhol's double-screen short Lupe, in which Edie Sedgwick restages the suicide of the actress Lupe Velez. Like Lupe, Vezzoli's films are meta-cinematic halls of mirrors that use refraction to isolate and scrutinize the discomfiting ambivalences of glamour.
Francesco Vezzoli: Still from A Love Trilogy: Self-Portrait with Marisa Berenson as Edith Piaf, 1999, video; at the New Museum.