The sentence "this is not a true account" hangs at the beginning of Michel Auder's 2008 film The Feature, and it is not a reliable disclaimer. Something like "no exit" would have perhaps been more apt, because the film paradoxically refuses to help us escape to a dreamworld: The Feature prevents us from returning to daily life as though it were untouched by fiction.
In the first scene, a doctor lets Michel Auder, played by Michel Auder, know he has fallen from grace: the artist's brain is being eaten by a tumor. Auder refuses surgery, a decision that promises a rapid demise. From here, a three-hour long self-explanation begins, where new dramatic scenes by co-director Andrew Neel mix with excerpts of the 5,000 hours of film and video that Auder has recorded since the 1960s. Loosely constructed around his filmic persona's fight with a rampant cancer, The Feature spools out with a kaleidoscopic flow that mobilizes a vast archival memory to punctuate day-in-a-life scenes in an approximation of the mundane.
The Feature revisits Auder's life as he has recorded it, and continues his autobiographic project in a force field between the unrehearsed and the dramatized. In a retrospective chronology, we follow him from Paris in his early days, to the bustling downtown scene of New York in the '70s (where he moved to and "fell into the art scene in a big way," as he puts it to me over the phone), to a more sedentary New York of the '80s and beyond. Oddly enough, the only major European artist who Auder knew before he hit the Chelsea Hotel and Max's Kansas City was Giacometti, a bohemian of the old school, who would hang out with the hookers around Les Halles.
More than the film's actual plot, however, the cancer story is a nagging truth that occasionally erupts in fear and sadness. This, it turns out, is how Auder tells us about the certainty of death, as that which is doubly absent in life: something perforce elusive and with repercussions that we try to repress (a version of vanity at which Auder's character in The Feature excels). It is as if Auder is saying, yes, cancer kills, but the accumulation of recorded life is also evidence of our mortality.
Yet, as much as anything, the film is devoted to the women. In the middle-aged man's life, the ex-wives are still the scene-stealers: Viva Superstar, a Warhol actress who proposed to Auder while the camera was rolling, and the artist Cindy Sherman, whose conceptual photography carved her name into the art canon of the 1980s. Many other women populate Auder's Parnassus of desire - in his mind, his bed, and his camera, which, in The Feature, amount to the same thing.
In Auder's universe, something that "is not a true account" could still have happened, by slipping into one of those bright crevices where art and life intermingle. Neither accuracy nor happiness is ever striven for, if they figure in as criteria at all. Auder is the first to undo any plausibility, and hence nostalgia, to which his works could claim. For example, what's with the X-ray image in the background of the opening scene? The radiated person holds up bejeweled hands before his face, and clenches empty air in a gesture of theatrical fright, making it look as if his skeleton had known of the diagnosis before the rest of him did. So is Auder indeed terminally ill? It somehow isn't the right question to ask. He could really be dying - well, who isn't? - and still be taking a piss. A better question to ask is how could that which can be imagined not have a reality? And for that matter, why would anyone in their right mind try to convince a reader of the Marquis de Sade that what he or she reads is unreal and could not, should not, happen at home?
The French left didn't lose a big agitator in Auder. As he - or somebody - says in the film, apropos of the working class, "Their only ideal is to jump on their dishwater-smelling wives every night, to vibrate on top of them and make a new child, and to spend weekends in their compact car. I prefer the villainy of the ruling class - decadent and rotten."
Even if he isn't exactly a politico, Auder's sense of corruption keeps self-complacency at bay. In a paradoxical and self-deprecating move, Auder has cast himself in The Feature as a smug bastard who is more into his career, girls, guns, and jewels than the "real world" around him. The film's Auder is quite the French cat: audacious, profligate, and cool - and a pompous brute. Still, this asshole persona also makes for seductive effect, as such persons often do. One wouldn't mind being there with him on the shooting range, with an AK, looking smooth in a grey suit, smoking a wrecked car - enjoying a quiet William S. Burroughs moment with this dude.
Auder says of the film, "It is also a composite portrait of people we know in the art world: asshole, self-obsessed prick, hedonistic. It's a mix of artists, collectors, and myself. Sometimes I wouldn't mind being there, and sometimes I have."
The more or less obvious contradictions in the film don't help focus the crosshairs of biographic veracity. For example, Auder seems to be leaving his will to at least two young brunettes as next of kin. At another point he says, "Money runs through my hands like water... I can't hold onto the stuff." Then what about the Manhattan condo, the flashy cars, the hotel suites, and the collectors desperate for his work? We end up asking who exactly it is that appears, slowly, between the cuts of the montage, between Neel's vignettes and the patchwork of Auder's own, previous works. It's hard to say, but this is not because things are withheld from us: in its own strange way, The Feature is nothing but frank, and sometimes pathetically so. The movie alternatively opens up various possibilities for biographic narrative, and different kinds of duration. Auder uses his archive-memory to comment on how available the space between truth and fiction is to us. This is not just to make a new statement about the blurring of biography and invention; it is a meditation on the deadly serious necessity of fictionalizing life processes - of praising folly, fun, and masquerade - in order to grasp what the stakes in life really are.
The Feature is something like a home video adaptation of Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell. It is a long, meandering hybrid of the mundane (childbirth, television, divorces, college graduation), and a desire that is out of, or below, the ordinary - with plenty of sex (in groups, with prostitutes and strangers), heavy drugs (which, like the sex, are undeniably real and cover an impressive variety), and a stretched out cast of the ambitious and famous. There is some Pop art in there, but one cannot explain Auder by calling him a Pop artist. When I ask him about his take on Pop, the voice in the telephone laughs and says, "Well, you tell me!"
Okay. On the surface, Auder's work resembles Andy Warhol's sexed-up and deliberately uneventful film works of the '60s. And like Pop, it is not about originality, but about one's social competence in keeping a good flirt going with the insignificant. An Auder film is uneventful because one's life can't be an action movie if it's all day spent shagging and smoking opium. When watching an Auder, you don't just put yourself in the image, or blank out in front of it. You are moved, embarrassed, aroused, and affected, in unglamorous ways. He makes a garden party at John and Yoko's look as if it were your aunt's backyard, and we catch ourselves thinking, as if he were a family member, "What's up with your hair today, Jack Nicholson?" In short, Auder is about intimacy. If Warhol is the entrepreneur, then Auder is the French existentialist in New York.
Further, the anecdotal differences between Auder and the Pop artists are big. Auder managed to stay underground long after Warhol had become a snob beyond redemption in Club 54, and through the majority of his career Auder's marketing awareness has been close to zero, compared to the seemingly spaced-out but incessantly calculating Warhol. Nor does an Auder have much of the pathos of a Nan Goldin, another chronicler of NYC bohemia. In fact, he has a knack for not framing his subjects as exotic animals in a zoo of glamour and dependency. On this count, it helps to see the Warhol superstars having become old in The Feature, and, in the case of Louis Waldon, literally toothless, even if his lively philippics against Auder ("You tried to fuck my daughter!") prove that, metaphorically speaking, Waldon is anything but.
Another reason for Auder's distance to Pop is that he is, at heart, a writer. "I have always believed that I am closer to literature and writing than to cinema," he explains. "Probably the early reading that I did - Camus, Marquis de Sade, and so on - has marked me more deeply than I thought, and made me handle filming like a text, and editing like a continuous process of rewriting. My films are like cut-up writing, like Burroughs's experiments with text montage, you know. This is a very particular poetics of associating images by using text, or in my case [visual footage], as a material to be recombined beyond the meaning they were initially invested with."
Michel Auder is obviously not the lone scribe hunched over in his attic. He is nothing if not a social animal. He observes with a lens as if he were writing a journal, in a language that is embodied by the people around him. As a result, The Feature, with its multiple tenses, has the sticky temporal grammar of a diary, given that there is more to writing a diary than producing a memory about the given day that came and went. As the philosopher Henri Bergson tells us, while we customarily think in terms of the "present," the past is not strung out behind us, like some long tail of lived time. Memory's paradox is that the past is contemporaneous with the present; the past is here with us, and we live through it because it bleeds into the present. To compile a diary, whether with pen or camera, and with all of its delays, is to follow our multiple presents back to their pasts.
The Feature not only is about the complexity of biographic truth (i.e., an attempt to define the recorded life), but is also testimony about lived time. If memory is like a film, our mind is the celluloid that is being spooled in the projector, in the same way that writing a diary is not only the act of reconstructing, but the act of closing the book, and forgetting the particulars until you start writing again. The Feature has this kind of closure, the undoing of one's old self that confession makes possible. Auder's film is about a guy in his sixties who is pushing his past - a past that was lived very close to the bone - ahead of him, and relieving himself of some of its burden by teasing us with the possibility of illusion.
The first crowd Auder fell into in U.S., as he tells it, was the Factory, the industrialized Manhattan studio of Warhol's that was basically a gay commune of speed freaks. Filmed in the wintertime in New York City and in the legendary Cinecittá Studios in Rome, Auder's Cleopatra (1970) is populated with the usual Factory denizens: Waldon, Taylor Mead, Ondine, Gerard Malanga, Andrea Feldman, and Viva. The cast of characters improvises their way through the eponymous 1963 epic by Joseph Mankiewicz that stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Auder's version is a spoof on the movie industry that Warhol could never have pulled off. His freewheeling ensemble looks like a mime troupe rehearsing an unworried premonition of Caligula, replete with an orgy in a bathhouse and a no-holds-barred wrestling scene with some hairy gladiators.
"The film was my bid for the independent chapter of the Cannes film festival that year, even though my producer refused to acknowledge the film. He said it wasn't finished, and I told him, you know, fuck you, I know when my own film is finished."
Auder's beefs with the film industry continue. This year The Feature has not been accepted at the Sundance and Brooklyn film festivals - unsurprisingly, perhaps, when one sees how Auder still refuses to obey even the independent circuit's industry standards for narrative and duration.
There are many parallels between drugs and media. It is said that the self is enhanced when one is high or transmitted. Nevertheless, media - whether digital or narcotic - hypnotically massage one's personality. Media do not work for you as much as they work upon you; there is always something in them that goes beyond the element of pleasure. As the artist Henri Michaux wrote in his logbook of mescaline trips, Miserable Miracle (1956), "to enjoy a drug, one has to enjoy being a subject." So if you don't enjoy being yourself, you got another thing coming when tripping.
Auder read Michaux as a teen, and he counts Michaux as the reason why he first tried LSD. From there, Auder will go on to get more involved. Fast forward to 1986: My Last Bag of Heroin (For Real) shows Auder's aquiline profile, riding the dragon but never again, finally bidding his monkey goodbye. It is a piece redolent with drug slang and rituals, as equally fascinating and clichéd as they get. But his wife Cindy Sherman breaks the spell. "I'll just be a minute," he intones back to her as she shuffles through the room and asks when he'll be ready to go shopping. The title's parenthetic "for real" is the junkie's plea to be believed when he says that he - honestly, cross my heart, just wait and see - is going to kick the habit.
"Drug culture is what I come from," Auder says. "When I was young, in Paris in the sixties, it was the thing to do, and to me it meant living like Rimbaud did. I gradually went on to opiates, and towards the end of the '70s, they had made my life miserable, because they made me sick. When I did My Last Bag of Heroin, to film myself smoking was a control thing in relation to kicking. So the drugs ultimately made my life miserable, but they also saved my life, because they gave me the strength to go on when I was desperate or had no money."
My Last Bag turns up in The Feature as a way of making sense not only of Auder's past but also of his personality. For Auder, drugs weren't about breaking on through to the other side, and the Californian metaphysics of all that. They were about having fun, getting by, and ridding yourself of everyday bothers. Paradoxically, and much like his need to film what goes on around him, drugs were a way of staying if not exactly on the straight and narrow then at least socially functional, which is exactly what the prescription variety will do for you now, but without the hassles from the law.
"Today the doctor will give you what the fuck you want anyway, to make you function, uppers and downers, the exact equivalents of needle drugs and amphetamines. The flipside of that is that taking illegal drugs is not necessarily a very experimental thing anymore. I mean, now that we're all on something."
And did he finally kick the habit?
"I kicked it. But of course I am not going to poop on the party and say no if people are having a good time."
For all the effervescent uncertainty it generates, The Feature leaves no doubt that this man has lived his dream. This is not to say that living one's dream is always so hard as it sounds. After all, dreams have a way of taking over.
Another earlier project that gets a showing in The Feature is La Plage (1967), a fragment filmed on a beach in Morocco. Here a desolate stretch of bleached sand becomes an existential scene wherein Auder's camera dwells on a beautiful young woman and a lean man, the filmmaker Donald Cammell. The couple flashes their naked parts to the camel and donkey drivers that pass by and try their best to ignore these Europeans. Thinking about the experience, Auder can't seem to hide some surprise at his own past:
"Drifting around in Morocco for a month with Cammell and this model, whom we shared, eating cough syrup with codeine that makes you kind of dreamy, was something that happened in this world - but it was out of it too. It's amazing to have lived such moments."
Recall that, together with Nicholas Roeg, Donald Cammell was co-director of the feature film Performance (1968), starring Mick Jagger, James Fox, and Anita Pallenberg. Fox plays a goon from the London underworld who's on the run from his boss. While waiting for his passage to the continent, he hides out in a cavernous Notting Hill mansion belonging to a shopworn rock star, played by Jagger. Staying there, Fox is sucked down in a schizophrenic spiral of black magic, sexual ambiguity, and split identities. Cammell and Roeg hired real gangland characters to help the actors with the authenticity of their performances. Marianne Faithfull, Jagger's then partner, characterized Performance as "a psychosexual lab run by Cammell, with James Fox the prime experimental animal." Cammell and Jagger would spike an unknowing Fox with acid and film him while he underwent "personality changes."
Fox emerged shell-shocked after the film, took up fundamentalist Christianity, distributing pamphlets door to door. The next year, Mick Jagger went on to organize the Altamont rock festival, which would become infamous as one of the death knells of the Summer of Love. Pallenberg became a heroin addict. And Cammell, upon whom Hollywood never smiled again, shot himself in L.A. in 1996.
Apart from its obvious contempt for reality, Performance, and the reports that surround it, may seem to be marginal in relation to The Feature. But once you know about it, the darkness of Cammell's story taints the celluloid Moroccan beach scene. It makes you think of two things. Firstly, considering all of those who fell to drugs, AIDS, or from their own hand, one feels happy that Auder got away in one piece. Secondly, it is an indication of how Auder's incessant filming-while-hanging-out has made him a character witness: scratch the surface of one of his works and you'll see that its densely stacked subtext is a seminar's worth of subculture history and art world fables.
Like other independent filmmakers in the U.S. (particularly the two other New York greats, Jonas Mekas, and the Warhol of the '60s), Auder has kept, throughout decades, his Portapak trained on those who are intent on struggling with life. He has done so indiscriminately, in a moral sense, without any assumptions other than the imperative to keep filming - and not always with a particular exhibition or project in sight (in fact, usually without). This is not art that believes itself capable of scooping up life and expressing it in a definitive form, but art that is pushed ahead by the energy of life.
The Feature does not belong in the tomb of a movie theatre. It is seems so alive that we should instead project it in broad daylight to let its characters spill out onto the streets. That Auder has had a pioneering role for both citizen journalism and a large strand of contemporary video art is obvious. In a sense, he baptized the lay recording devices that we grew up with: our digital camera, our home video, and the one in our cell phone. However, consistent with the democratic spirit of new technology, it is a role from which he refuses to capitalize. He is not the maestro; he is more like the guy in your corner bar with a digital camera (who is probably right now likely using it to the best of his abilities as some kind of sex toy). Auder stands by his freedom in the Nietzschean way: out of respect of life and creation, and fuelled by contempt for law and hierarchy.
"After seeing the film for the first time in a theater, at the Berlin film festival, I blurted to the audience that it should have been titled The Trailer rather than The Feature. This is only the beginning. Just wait and see what comes next. L'esprit d'escalier."
This would be the necessary conclusion to his auto-biopic. It is the director's cut, sure enough, but still only a preface. Can there ever be a final version of anyone's life? Personally, I prefer to think that the camera is always rolling and the cutter is never quite done piecing it all together.
"I haven't used it yet," Auder says of some 30 hours of stock from the '70s starring Warhol superstar Brigid Polk.
It's as if to say the more of his past he has so the more of a future.