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By Ron EnglishLike you would with a struggling-artist boyfriend orthis documentary's title character, you'll find yourself falling in love with TheArtandCrimesofRonEnglish, only to be let down like a two-ton billboard.
English, a fortysomething guy whose flowing locks and beard make him resemble Sammy Hagar's more studious younger brother, is a guerrilla billboard artist out of New York City. The photographer-turned-painter makes billboards—or "popaganda"—that look very similar to those you see along the 55 freeway, on the road to Phoenix or, especially, in the inner city. Only the slogans have been changed to protect our obliviousness.
"The Media is the Massage," declares one. "Saddam's SUV Oil Dependence Day Sale," states another, with the Chevy logo in the corner and the words "Like Iraq." Below the famous flowing red-and-white background and the words "Drink Coca-Cola": "It Makes You Fart."
English replaced a Camel cigarette billboard featuring the kid-friendly Joe Camel character with one starring a faux Joe Camel hawking a product called Cancer. One wag in Pedro Carvajal's movie credits English with helping to drive the stake through the diseased heart of the since-disappeared Joe Camel ad campaign.
His work is reminiscent of those Wacky Packages fake-advertising cards and stickers from the early 1970s, the heyday of Madmagazine-esque lampooning. One showed a bottle of mouthwash, only the product name had been changed from Scope to Scorch. Or the roll of toilet paper filled with bullet holes, which was called Shot instead of Scott tissue.
But that was done solely in jest. English wants people to laugh, yes, but also, hopefully, to take back the media.
Corporate America is not laughing. Especially after English's ads began popping up in the media around the world, he was sued by Disney, the rock band Kiss and King Features (over his misuse of "Peanuts" characters). Owners of the original advertising he slaps his popaganda over accuse him of violating their First Amendment rights to free speech. English counters that free speech belongs to the people, not corporations.
A clip from the late Morton Downey Jr.'s self-titled TV show has English explaining that what he does is a second-degree felony: criminal mischief. "I don't pretend what I do is not illegal," he says. "I knew I had that criminal element in me. I wanted to turn that criminal element into art." He sees himself like Robin Hood, committing crimes for the greater good.
The people love it. "This shit really makes sense," a man on the street tells Carvajal's camera.
"Yeah, I think they should legalize that," says an admiring lady.
No corporation seems to catch more grief from English than McDonald's. Next to a sad clown and the Golden Arches logo is the slogan "Better living through chemistry." An obese Ronald McDonald has been "McSuper Sized."
Dabbling in English
The film follows English's collaborations with other guerrilla billboard artists, such as Shepard Fairey, whose OBEY posters pop up all over the streets of Los Angeles and Orange County. Fairey and English made Marilyn Monroe with Mickey Mouse faces as breasts, an image they slapped over a plastic surgeon's ad.
"There is a brotherhood of people doing this," English says in closeup, but these guys look more like comic-book geeks who think they've somehow become superheroes. It's no coinky-dink that one guerrilla billboarder is named Jack Napier (the Joker's real name in the Batmancomics). He and English teamed up to contribute "ad-ons" to existing SUV billboards.
But one collaborator has become disenchanted. English's wife, Tarssa Yazdani, who participated in many early escapades, tells Carvajal that her husband's career is a source of conflict. He could be selling his posters to support their young family instead of essentially giving them to the public for free.
It is here that the movie hits its apex—and then quickly descends into something unpleasant: the artist's switch from damning the advertising world to essentially using their myth-making tactics to promote a "product": Ron English.
We see him in a gallery hawking his art, which the critics once dismissed as "cartoony," but which is now—according to the film—all the rage because the world's gotten so damn crazy "cartoony" now makes sense. Artist Robert Williams and guitarist Slash gush about English. And we see the now-great painter in a studio boasting how he can take what is essentially the same image and reproduce it hundreds of different ways as posters. Sure, that's a great way to get his work to the masses—and maximize profits. His Madison Avenue "foes" would be green with greedy envy.
But the whoring worsens. His billboard unveilings become events, complete with live rock music. He paints less of the outside world and more self-portraits. See Ron English as a Kiss figure, then a real rock musician (even though he can't play a lick), then finally, inevitably, Jesus Christ. English recruits bands and singer/songwriters to write songs about him so he can break a record supposedly held by Saddam Hussein for having more songs written about him than any other living person. He's no doubt coming at Christ next for that, too.
If Carvajal had subtly damned this transformation, he'd have a documentary that approaches Errol Morris territory. But the filmmaker is as enamored with the Ron English legend as Ron English is, and TheArtandCrimesofRonEnglishbecomes just another advertisement. My advice: theater hop about the time Yazdani mentions the marital discord—stopping to take a Sharpie to the latest Ashton Kutcher movie poster for good measure.
THE ART AND CRIMES OF RON ENGLISH SCREENS AT REGENCY LIDO THEATRE. FRI., APRIL 22, NOON. DIRECTOR PEDRO CARVAJAL ATTENDS.
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