‘Make Me Famous’: Film Review

Brian Vincent’s portrait of the East Village painter Edward Brzezinski doubles as an examination of the perils of chasing success.

There’s an amusing story about the late painter Edward Brzezinski that endures even though his legacy hasn’t. It was 1989, and Brzezinski arrived at the Paula Cooper Gallery in SoHo for a show. On display that evening was Robert Gober’s Bag of Donuts, a simple sculpture displaying resin-covered donuts in a crinkled white paper bag. (The piece, quite literal in its construction, recalls Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian, which you might remember as the banana duct-taped to the wall.) Brzezinski, slightly drunk and maybe even hungry, stumbles into the gallery, lifts a donut from the bag and…eats it.

The baffling act landed him in the hospital (resin is poisonous) and solidified his reputation as an eccentric member of New York’s art scene. That time period — the ’70s and ’80s, to be exact — produced art world darlings who have since become household names: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Wojnarowicz, to name just a few. Yet despite Brzezinski’s proximity to some of these luminaries, he never managed to be one of them — much to his irritation.

Make Me Famous

The Bottom Line

An uneven portrait of a complicated artist.

Venue: NewFest
Director: Brian Vincent

1 hour 33 minutes

Make Me Famous, which premiered at NewFest, is a distressing and melancholic portrait of Brzezinski, who spent his entire adult life trying to make it. Directed by Brian Vincent, the documentary situates its subject within the context of more familiar characters and tries to understand why Brzezinski, a charmingly aloof painter, is not readily considered among this cohort. The answer to this question is less interesting than the shocking journey it takes Vincent on.

We begin in 1980 in New York with a now clichéd opening sequence of images: abandoned post-demolition lots, graffiti-strewn walls, boarded-up windows. Brzezinski, who grew up in Michigan, lived on East Third Street in a dilapidated apartment that also happened to be his studio and his gallery, called The Magic Gallery. The residence, a walk-up apartment, sat across the street from a men’s shelter, a fixture of unsettling fascination for some of the interviewees in the doc who viewed it as a marker of authenticity. When one unidentified speaker remarks, “The East Village was ours because nobody wanted to live in the East village,” I wondered about the faces of the “our” and “nobody.” It was here that Brzezinski would gather with friends and fellow artisans to drink and gossip. This seemed to be his way of trying to find community, although it didn’t seem to work.

Few of the people interviewed about Brzezinski, from artists Walter Robinson and Peter McGough to gallerists Sur Rodney Sur and Patti Astor, seemed to take him seriously and were perhaps turned off by his shameless pursuit of fame. They pepper their anecdotes with vague adjectives, repeatedly referring to his charisma, noting that he was a “character,” or commenting on how poor he remained. In a moment of unnecessary cruelty, McGough mocks the name of Brzezinski’s gallery. “Ed wanted it so badly, you could tell. That’s all he ever talked about, the stupidest name you could ever name a gallery.” When asked why she never showed Brzezinski at her gallery, Astor fumbles through a nonresponse, citing the size of her gallery and other random limitations.

However vague and sometimes ungenerous, these anecdotes do reveal the parasitic nature of that art scene and the lengths to which artists would go to get noticed. Brzezinski was honest about his desire to be famous and make money. He would hand out flyers for his own upcoming shows at gallery openings and occasionally copy other people’s methods for getting their work noticed. In one amusing recollection, he told a friend that he read not purely for pleasure, but to have topics of conversation. Life, he seemed to intimate, was all about performance. Yet the pursuit seemed to slowly displace the work, a tragedy in and of itself. His technical skills and craftwork come up occasionally in the doc, but they do not seem to be the point.

In fact, it can at times be difficult to pin down a larger thesis for Make Me Famous, let alone a point. Vincent’s film is a trove of thrilling interviews with survivors of a harrowing period. The onset of the AIDS crisis, which decimated lives and communities, shifted the mood of the scene. Archival footage abounds as well — take one interesting clip of the art critic Gary Indiana in Brzezinski’s gallery bemoaning Wojnarowicz, or another of Brzezinski refusing to undersell his large oil painting — and offers a less parochial vision of that time.

With so much information, it can be hard to keep up, and the film’s structure — or lack thereof — does not make it easier. The first half of the project breathlessly divulges as much information about Brzezinski as possible, sketching his character through his makeshift community’s vision. There is a straightforward tone, an uncomplicated visual style, and a focus on the interviewees’ stories and ideas, which occasionally take one too many tangents. Suddenly it all changes, and Make Me Famous adopts a true-crime quality. Vincent, who has remained offscreen until this point, suddenly takes center stage as he tries to figure out if Brzezinski, in perhaps a final attempt at fame, faked his own death. This turn is by no means unwelcome, but it’s clunky and makes watching the film more effortful than necessary.

Full credits

Venue: NewFest
Production company: Red Splat Productions
Cast: David McDermott, Marguerite Van Cook, James Romberger, Peter McGough, Frank Holliday, Claudia Summers, Duncan Hannah, Marcus Leatherdale
Director: Brian Vincent
Producers: Heather Spore, Brian Vincent
Cinematographers: Eugene McVeigh, John Sawyer
Editor: Brian Vincent
Composer: Jeremiah Bornfield

1 hour 33 minutes