Raindance Film Festival – Art of Darkness – Review ★★★

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Documentaries penetrating the persona of bohemian artists have generally proven to be tantalising, like last year’s Oscar nominated Cutie and the Boxer. Artists living on the fringe are renowned for their controversy and nowhere is more apparent than in this intimate documentary of painter and performance artist Bryan Lewis Saunders.

It’s important to note that I, like a number of audience members at the screening, had never heard of Saunders’ work. The film, rather than building to a crescendo on his accomplishments, lays it out as bait for its audience, for Saunders is best-known for producing a self-portrait every day amounting to an astonishing 10,000 paintings. These are never, or seldom, accurate depictions of himself but are more akin to his self-proclaimed sociopathic tendencies and inner-demons manifesting themselves into these images, which, along with a number of drug-experiments and major catalysts in his life, have produced some interesting, macabre and unique portraits.

The film is predominantly him on-screen talking about his controversial and troubled life, and is done in a way that isn’t done for shock value or sensationalism, nor does filmmaker David B. Parker narrate with his own thoughts and interpretations. It is via Saunders’ own deadpan delivery that it produces moments of horror onto its audience. Many of Saunders’ most emotionally damaging chapters in his life are either done with black humour or are referenced in a fleeting moment, whereby only a moment of reflection from the audience does it later become apparent how devastating these were.

In what could’ve been a more intimate picture, most notably when he discusses his ‘Daku’, which is a Nietzsche homage, and his live performance pieces, which he calls Stand-up Tragedy, is unfortunately hindered by the overbearing music score. It never dissolves or becomes an underscore, but is forever present as a kind of over-score as though the film is insecure that natural ambient sounds wouldn’t suffice. The score, which isn’t poorly written but definitely misplaced, prevents it from having some much rewarded moments of quiet reflection to allow the audience to take in Saunders’ troubled life.

But, if audiences are able to overlook this hindrance then they will be satisfied. It’s an interesting tale of what it is to be a living artist in the modern world, and Saunders’ own personal philosophies will question the artist inside many artists. It’s an intimate and earnest documentary in allowing the subject to straightforwardly express himself with equal moments of deadpan humour and shocking revelations.

Matthew Lee is an undergraduate student in the field of Film Studies at King's College London and a freelance film critic with keen interests in World Cinema, Cult Cinema and Silent Cinema.