I thoroughly enjoyed the short film “A Brief History of John Baldessari” for many reasons: because of its dry humor, because of it’s bright, flashy images and dramatic use of the William Tell Overture, and because of my interest in art.
One of the elements in the composition that particularly stuck out to me was the audio narration – specifically, the constant dialogue between John Baldessari and Tom Waits. Waits’ voiceover is less like a traditional narration and more like a conversation he is having with Baldessari. Several times throughout the film this is fairly obvious, such as when Waits introduces himself and Baldessari says, “You have a good voice,” to which Waits replies, “Thanks, John.” Other times the conversation is much more subtle. When Waits says, “He decided this film should be narrated by me, Tom Waits,” he is not just introducing himself as the narrator but also showing his deference to Baldessari’s opinions and creative vision. He could have said, “I’m Tom Waits and this is a film about John Baldessari,” but his specific wording (“John decided’) shows that they converse with and have opinions about one another, even though they are not directly addressing each other at the moment. Another good example of this subtle conversation occurs at the end, during the final montage showing pictures of Baldessari and his works, where Waits begins yelling, “I will not make any more boring art! I will not make any more boring art! I WILL NOT MAKE ANY MORE BORING ART!” The fact that he is yelling these words as if he is experiencing the same passion for art as Baldessari did when he wrote them shows Waits almost becoming part of the subject of the film as opposed to an objective narrator. Instead of just talking about the subject of the documentary, Waits is showing his emotional reaction to it.
The effect of this dialogue is a humorous, lighthearted tone for the film. It has a tongue-in-cheek attitude and doesn’t take itself too seriously, much like Baldessari doesn’t take himself too seriously despite his monumental career. The overall message of “A Brief History of John Baldessari” is that being funny and sardonic in his own biographical film does not detract from Baldessari’s accomplishments. The way he seamlessly converses back and forth with Waits while Waits describes his career and accomplishments juxtaposes John Baldessari, the incredibly influential conceptual artist, with John Baldessari, the down-to-earth and unassuming guy.
Not only does the lightheartedness of the film not detract from Baldessari’s accomplishments, it adds to them because it portrays him as a much more well-rounded, three-dimensional character. By conversing with Waits both directly and indirectly, Baldessari portrays himself as a whole person rather than just a celebrity. His interaction with the narrator of his own video portrait make him an instrumental part of the film rather than just its subject being spoken about and described. The fact that Baldessari has a running dialogue with the narrator shows that he’s not “above” talking to Waits; he does not place himself on a pedestal. He reacts to Tom Waits’ narration the same way Waits reacts very strongly to his claim of “I will not make any more boring art!”
The dialogue, along with its tongue-in-cheek humor, is what makes the film self-aware. Self-awareness of art, while it was one of the things I greatly enjoyed about “A Brief History,” is not exactly new. Other films, movies, and TV shows have experimented with the concept of “breaking the fourth wall.” My question relates this technique to our own future production of digital media. Will this concept of self-awareness be able to withstand criticism over time and continue to be a valuable element of art, or is it becoming more and more difficult for a piece of art to become self aware without becoming cliche? Are there constantly more, newer, better ways to use self-awareness, or did John Baldessari push it to its creative limits?