By chance, or perhaps by fate, Oren Jacoby’s absorbing feature documentary, Shadowman, premieres, fittingly, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in the neighborhood where the director first stumbled upon street artist Richard Hambleton’s stark silhouettes back in the early ’80s. He recalls, “I first encountered Richard’s work in Tribeca — at night — in what were then dark, abandoned streets in a neighborhood, with only a handful of residents or businesses.”
Little did the acclaimed director know back then, that the mysterious downtown artist, whose startling street art had invoked a certain visceral fear in him, would — a few decades later — become both the subject and object of his own filmmaking pursuits. In the future, Jacoby would be drawn into the ghostly world of the shadow men’s maker: Richard Hambleton — a provocateur, street art king, whose work began to haunt the combustible city of haves and have nots; while he himself traversed back and forth from underground rascal, to part-time art-world darling, to homeless junkie. With contemporary rivals and friends including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Hambleton was on his own channel, haunting the city with his stunningly menacing art; while becoming an enigma; anticipating the works of Banksy, by more than a decade.
Jacoby furthers, “I was lucky enough to live downtown in the early 80’s and got enthralled by the scary, life-size human “shadows,” that started springing up on walls all over the neighborhood.” Now we’re lucky enough to get a taste of Hambleton’s 1980s NYC, from Oren Jacoby, who actually eye-witnessed the arrival of the shadow men in his youth!
By: Lisa Collins
LISA COLLINS: Please tell us about Shadowman and your mission with making the film?
OREN JACOBY: It’s a story about an artist full of contradictions: wants the limelight but pushes fame away, acts like a seductive charmer but is really a loner, creates huge roadblocks to his own success but will overcome any obstacle to keep painting. I was invited by a friend to meet Hambleton in his studio under very charged circumstances, and stumbled onto a story I couldn’t resist. I plunged into making a film I would never have started if I knew how difficult it would be to finish. Filming Richard eventually made me think about what it might have been like to watch Van Gogh in his final years, struggling with his afflictions and last burst of artistic passion. I wanted this film to come out while Richard was still alive to see it.
LC: Your first impressions of meeting Richard Hambleton, and how they evolved over the course of the filming?
OJ: He was charming and witty; but also self-conscious, almost anti-social. He was articulate and really lit up remembering and talking about his earlier life and career. As filming progressed Richard’s living circumstances and health problems made it harder and harder for him to go on communicating this way. After a while, his struggle became so dramatic he didn’t need to “talk about it”. When he did, it had more impact.
LC: How did it make you feel — looking at Hambleton’s work, or at images of his work?
OJ: When I first saw Richard’s “shadowmen” on the street in 1981, my reaction was visceral. I didn’t think of them as art — they were scary. I didn’t know who put them there or why. You engaged with them on a primitive level. I think the paintings he does on canvas have that same raw power; they also inspire a feeling of awe and whatever beauty makes us feel — which I guess is love.
LC: The significance for you of debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival, with your profile of a quintessentially downtown NYC artist?
OJ: The Tribeca FF has been an important home for me over the years, launching both my film Sister Rose’s Passion which went on to an Academy Award nomination, and Invisible Man, a stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s novel, which was first performed as a reading at Tribeca. Shadowman is a story about New York in the 80’s, an unforgettable time and place for anyone, like me, lucky enough to experience it.
LC: Your thoughts on the clear parallels between Banky’s work, and that of Hambleton, who pre-dates him. Any thoughts on artists sampling from (or inspiring) each other?
OJ: Banksy remains anonymous and unapproachable; his longtime collaborator and agent Steve Lazarides, who grew up with him in Brighton England, told us that Banksy openly admires Hambleton and cites him as a crucial influence. Banksy also said he came to NY in 2013 because this is where Street Art started in the 80s. I was excited when I first saw Banksy’s work — it connects with your unconscious mind the way Richard’s does. Sampling is cool; but if you know the original, it doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact.
LC: How was it poring through all of that archival 1980s NYC footage? Were you living here then? If so, what do you miss?
OJ: Born and bred in NYC, I’ve always wanted to make a film about the city — especially the city at night. The streets of New York seemed scarier and really were more dangerous than they were when I was a little kid or than they are now. But NYC — especially below 14th Street — was cheap, and it had an energy and vibe of young people coming together to make the city their own playground. There was unforgettable music — generations of blues, jazz, R&R, punk and hip hop overlapping and exploding around town. It could be weird and — as Richard says, “there was a lot of bad art — but it was exciting.”