I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to laugh out loud at “A Brief History of John Baldessari” while watching it at the library. My friend sitting next to me gave me a weird look, so I paused the video, only at about two minutes in, to take off my headphones and giddily explain that “this video is actually way cool.” (I’m not sure if those were my actual words, but they’re still valid nonetheless). After first being amused at the decision of the video’s subject, artist John Baldessari, to have singer Tom Waits narrate the film, I soon realized that Wait’s unique gravelly voice immediately set this video portrait apart from the usual, as documentarians usually aim for smooth, pleasing voices for narration (I’m looking at you, Sigourney Weaver for BBC’s Planet Earth). Immediately I started paying attention.
Early on in the video, Baldessari says that he will be best known as in years to come “the guy who put dots on people’s faces.” Many artists would choose to be remembered for something grander, perhaps; after all, this is Baldessari’s chance to tell the world who he wants to be remembered as. But no, he goes with the dots thing, and the filmmakers take note of this tongue-in-cheek yet tellingly honest quote, and choose to use dots in their aesthetic for the rest of the video. The most notable example of this is towards the end of the video, which discusses Baldessari’s “blockbuster” art show and uses dots (the same kind of technicolor dots Baldessari uses in his art) to show the movement of the show across Europe, and then across the ocean to America. The filmmakers could have easily used another method to show the movement– simple moving lines, or a more cliche airplane– but the decision to use the dots creates and reinforces the theme of this video: that this is not a video about John Baldessari, but a video about Baldessari’s art.
Even without the narration by Waits, this video uses an unusual narration method. We find that Baldessari barely speaks in this film; instead, Tom Waits talks about Baldessari, about the things in his life and the things he did and the things he made. Baldessari occasionally juts in with a comment here and there, usually to the effect of humor, but looking at the narration, this video further confirms the theme that this is a film about Baldessai’s art, and not the man himself. We learn when he was born but not about his family, his loves, his losses, his favorite color, if he’s afraid of spiders or not.
And really, looking at the title of this work, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, what is history but the telling of a series of events caused by people, and not the people themselves? Does listing the achievements of a person constitute a true and honest portrait of a person?