Beautiful Losers is an infectious documentary that celebrates the loose artists collective that sprung up around the Alleged Gallery in New York in the early 90s. Totally outside the mainstream, these artists, often self-taught, were inspired by street style and the subcultures of punk, graffiti and hip hop, embracing a DIY aesthetic so they could ‘make something out of nothing’. Directed by Aaron Rose, who owned Alleged, the film features illustrators, designers, photographers and filmmakers like Mike Mills, Geoff McFetridge, Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Shephard Fairey and Harmony Korine, who are now busy remaking contemporary pop culture in their own image.
Sarah Cronin sat down with Aaron Rose to talk about inspiration, being an outsider and starring in his own film at last year’s London Film Festival.
Sarah Cronin: What did you want people to get out of watching the documentary?
Aaron Rose:I guess there are a lot of things going on in the filmmaking process, but the documentary really found its direction when I finally came to the realisation that our original motivation, before I got mixed up in what the movie needs to be and all that pressure, was that we wanted to inspire people. You can do pretty much anything you want in this world, and it’s not all that difficult – you just have to ignore the people who tell you that you need to go this way, and it’s the only way. If you just try a different road, nine times out of 10 it will lead you, if not to the same place, then to some place equally beautiful. More than anything, that’s the message that we wanted to get across in the film, it’s more important than the artists or the art in the film. They were just vehicles.
SC: Are there similarities between curating and directing a film?
AR:In an exhibition you create a narrative, there’s a flow to how things are laid out. There’s an order and you want to tell your audience a story as they go through the exhibition. I understood that part of it – storytelling – but that was where the similarities end in the creative process. Although editing is a bit like curating – when you curate a show there are a lot of things that don’t fit. It was like that with the movie, there were lots of things I loved that had to go because they didn’t work in the overall picture.
SC: What did you personally gain the most from making the film?
AR: The message that I wanted to put out – I should say we, because filmmaking is a collaborative experience. I’m reluctant to take all the credit, I’m the director but so many people put love and care into the film. Our motivation – that you can do anything – was something I had forgotten, even though I was putting out the message. After making the film and hearing the audience reactions, I was reinvigorated to constantly be doing that myself, so that was the most rewarding thing that I got from this process. Life hasn’t been easy for me in some departments, and I still need to go where it’s hard.
SC: I think one of the main themes is about being an outsider – do you still feel like one? And what about this idea of selling out?
AR: The word ‘selling out’ is like a 90s term (laughs).
SC: But in the film, Geoff McFetridge still seems defensive about the ads he did for Pepsi.
AR: Well, Geoff is a product of the 90s, of selling out, and punk. We call it punk rock guilt. Whenever we make money, we joke about what the punk rockers would say. I do still feel like an outsider, I think most artists feel like they’re outside society – no matter how many accolades they receive, or how much money is in your bank account, whatever is going on in your life on the professional side. I don’t think that feeling of being an ‘other’ really goes away, it’s essential to being able look at the world and interpret it. But unfortunately, it has its downside, which is that you feel alienated a lot of the time, especially from the real mainstream of the world.
SC: You’ve said that your alienation grows the more successful you become.
AR: Of course, because you get further and further away from what makes you comfortable, and that’s other alienated people. I’ve noticed in my life that as you work on more things with more people, you spend less time hanging out with other people who are artists, creative people who give you a sense of family. Because I’m always on productions, running around, working on projects, I feel less and less like I’m part of a community.
SC:So how do you feel about doing interviews to promote the film, is it another distraction for you?
AR: No, I’m a writer, so I interview people all the time, and I think of it as being a very creative process. And because you’re a writer, I feel like interviews are something that’s artist to artist, that we’re collaborating on something. Giving interviews is actually one of the most creative parts of the film promotion process.
SC: I like the passage in the film where Mike Mills says that the ‘nerds have inherited the creative earth’. I get the feeling that a lot of the artists had this suburban, middle-class childhood that they hated.
AR: The suburbs are incredibly oppressive. I actually believe that the suburbs are much more dangerous than the ghettos. In the ghettos, it’s all upfront, you can see what’s dangerous about them. The suburbs have this sheen, this facade that everything’s ok, but some of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen have been in the suburbs. Of course, now I like the imagery from suburbia, but when I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to get away from it.
SC: How much do you think gentrification has affected New York, do you still think there can be a similar scene there?
AR: There’s still a scene there, New York is New York, but it’s a moneyed scene, especially in Manhattan. The cool street kids in Lower Manhattan are pretty much all rich kids, who are slumming it in the Lower East Side. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people, and there are some good artists, but anyone who’s not from that background is pretty much excluded from that scene. It’s still vital and creative, but it’s not as diverse as it was. It used to be that any kid from the Midwest could show up in New York with $20 in his pocket and figure it out. That’s what I was, I had $100 and I spent it in the first two days.
SC: It seems like a lot of the artists have moved to California.
AR: A lot of artists in our group left New York for California because it was manageable. You could have a big studio, and have head space to create, whereas you couldn’t do that anymore in New York. The whole West Coast is like that, there’s endless space, you can spread out – it’s like a metaphor for your creative mind too. You can go there and make your work, and then go to New York and make your money.
SC: There’s a lot of cuteness in the art – pastel colours, teddy bears – where do you think that comes from?
AR: I don’t know, I try not to analyse it too much. I do know that for all the artists it’s very important to speak in a vernacular that can be understood by everyone. It’s not work that’s created for intellectuals, and that kind of imagery needs to be easily digestible.
SC: The DIY aesthetic seems very important.
AR: It’s the most rewarding. It takes a little bit longer, but it’s like a cliché, the journey is more important than the destination. Going about things in a DIY fashion just makes the trip that much better, it’s like a story generator.
SC: Did you find it difficult being in the film? It’s also your story, and the story of your gallery. Was it hard to stay objective?
AR: That was why I didn’t want to be in the film at all. I thought it was a huge conflict of interest to be the director and the subject – it’s very sketchy territory to be in. I’ve seen what’s happened to other directors who have done that – I won’t name them for this article. But in the process of making the film I realised that what bound all these artists together was the damned gallery. I had outsiders watch the film to tell me if I was coming off as authentic, and not just a guy who was making a puff piece about himself and his friends. I was constantly sending the film in a very raw state to people on the outside, and listening to their judgements, because I knew there was no way I could judge it.
SC: You mentioned having a chip on your shoulder when you began to lose some of the artists to bigger galleries. Do you still feel that you need to compete with the big guys? Was that part of your motivation for making the film?
AR: That shit sent me down a very dark and dangerous path towards trying to compete with people that I should never have tried to compete with. I lost my business, I lost my marriage, I became addicted to drugs, and it was all because of this ‘I can fight you, Power’. So I learned from that. To tell you the truth, I never really cared if this film came out, because the people who needed to see it would get it. You can get home-made DVDs, it would be out no matter what. It was about making a film that’s true and honest and tells the story of these people and what they’re about, and if the mainstream watches it, well, I still don’t care.
Interview by Sarah Cronin