Offbeat Films Ask `What Is Art?'

The Film Forum spotlights director Philip Haas's `Money Man' and `Singing Sculpture'

IT'S easy to forget amid the sound and fury of the Christmas blockbuster season, but the scattered army of non-Hollywood filmmakers doesn't close up shop during the cold-weather months. Independents keep plugging away at their endlessly varied projects, and some of these actually play in theaters that present alternatives to big-studio fare.

One such theater is Manhattan's influential Film Forum, which is spicing up January with the American theatrical premiere of two movies by Philip Haas, a director with taste, intelligence, and wit. His new documentaries, "Money Man" and "The Singing Sculpture," reflect the fascination with contemporary art that has led him to make earlier movies on such figures as David Hockney, Boyd Webb, and Richard Long.

The main character of "Money Man" is no ordinary artist. His name is J.S.G. Boggs, and the subject that interests him most is money. In his studio he makes drawings and engravings of currency that look very much like the real thing - to the displeasure of the United States government, which has confiscated some of his works and charged him with counterfeiting.

If the Feds had looked more closely, they would have noticed that Mr. Boggs's work isn't nearly as deceptive as charged. While the front of a Boggs bill might look like real money at first glance, the back is largely blank except for a thumbprint that marks it as a Boggs original. Whimsical details on its face may also distinguish it from a genuine greenback. Look under the President's portrait on one bill, for example, and where it ought to say "McKinley" it says "Willie" instead.

Boggs doesn't merely enshrine his bogus bills in picture frames, moreover. His projects involve not only painstaking work at the drafting table but also a good deal of performance art and interaction with the real world.

After completing a piece of money, Boggs takes it to a place of business - a restaurant or art-supply store, perhaps - and attempts to spend it with the cooperation of all concerned. If a clerk or manager refuses to accept "art" money in place of "real" money, Boggs explains how hard he worked on the bill and asks why his labor shouldn't have as much value as any other kind. Sometimes he winds up defeated. But often the transaction is consummated, and everyone involved reaps a bonus of novelty and amusem ent.

"Money Man" follows Boggs through a number of transactions, and although he insists that Mr. Haas's camera makes no difference in his encounters with the business world, it's likely that the film crew's presence does exert some influence on the events we see.

The transactions are still enjoyable to watch, though, and all of Boggs's activities provoke new ways of thinking about the real meaning of money, labor, and exchange. Also enlightening are Boggs's confrontations with the Treasury Department as he tries to get a straight story on the whereabouts of his confiscated bills - which remain confiscated at the end of the film, even though the government has decided (not surprisingly!) to drop its counterfeiting case.

Haas's other current film, "The Singing Sculpture," is a brief visit with Gilbert and George, respected British artists who work as a team and often include their own likenesses in their pictures, as a way of confronting their audience as directly as possible.

They carry this to an extreme in their "Singing Sculpture" presentation, which consists of Gilbert and George themselves - wearing immaculate outfits yet smeared with paint on their hands and faces - crooning a music-hall number on a little art-gallery stage.

Haas's movie shows the work from many perspectives, intercut with Gilbert and George discussing its place within their overall career as "disturbed and desperate" artists who want to stimulate thought about the darkest secrets of human existence.

Are they joking about this, or does their "Singing Sculpture" act really have hidden and somber meanings? As with such quintessentially modern works as Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot" and Kafka's novel "The Trial," both possibilities are equally valid.

Thoughtful laughter and existential angst are often hard to keep in separate compartments, and the mingled propriety and absurdity of the "Singing Sculpture" presentation captures this 20th-century ambivalence with impressive subtlety.

Haas's film echoes the mood set by Gilbert and George with its own deadpan style, making it an ideal record of a performance-art work that continues to resonate more than 20 years after its first appearance.

"Money Man" was photographed by Tony Wilson and "The Singing Sculpture" by Mark Trottenberg; both were edited by Belinda Haas.

"Money Man" features music by the Microscopic Septet and Friends. The movies are distributed by Milestone Films, a New York-based company specializing in offbeat cinematic fare.

* "Money Man" and "The Singing Sculpture" do not have ratings, but neither contains any material likely to be found offensive.

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