San Francisco has a long history of attracting and incubating outsider artists — people whose art doesn’t conform to the commercial or aesthetic trends of the mainstream, and which is often all the better for that, even if they may suffer in terms of conventional (or timely) recognition. One has to wonder whether that reputation will carry on into the future, however, as we’re becoming a city that many art-makers can no longer afford to live in, let alone move to in the first place.
In that context, it’s both reassuring and poignant to spend 75 minutes with the subject of William Farley’s documentary Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish, which opens at the Roxie this Friday. Still highly active in his mid-70s (this portrait ends with him getting the significant validation of a major public-art commission), Barrish is a native San Franciscan of a type we likely won’t see again. He grew up “surrounded by tough Jews” in his working-class family, with many of the menfolk amateur or pro boxers; his father was friends (eventually to his regret) with some gangster types of national notoriety.
Jerry’s more artistic leanings weren’t really understood by his kin, or helped at school by his dyslexia. After an Army stint, he began Barrish Bail Bonds in 1961, a business that grew in a unique way: Unlike most others in the biz who were politically conservative and/or wary of upsetting their policeman pals, this [bail] bondsman was very much in sympathy with the various civil rights movements and other left-driven changes of the era. So he found himself the go-to bailer for student radicals, Black Panthers, Native American activists, even pioneering porn star Marilyn Chambers.
With the advertising jingle “Don’t perish in jail/Call Barrish for bail” ringing in locals’ ears, business was good enough to let the boss go to art school—SF Art Institute, to be exact, where as a filmmaking major he fell under the giddy influence of the late, inimitable George Kuchar. “He just loved to humiliate me. We became very, very good friends” Barrish recalls, as we watch him spout George’s uniquely purple dialogue in 1974’s B&W
Kuchar short I Married a Heathen. Soon Barrish was making his own movies, early “Amerindie” features. They’re little-remembered today, but laid path for the tidal wave heralded by 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape — which broke through the same year he found his own film career “dead and buried.”
That full stop came after three features that won acclaim along the film festival circuit, starting with the 1982 narrative omnibus Dan’s Motel. After 1984’s Recent Sorrows, about one gay couple and one straight couple “whose relationships fall apart for the same reason,” he followed the likes of Susan Sontag and Jim Jarmusch in winning a prestigious prize to live and work in Berlin, during which period he played a role in Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire. Yet he remained a stranger to the film “industry” and in particular its financiers. After he mortgaged his house to fund the low-key 1989 drama Shuttlecock, there were no takers. (The film did play SF’s Roxie Cinema where it will return this Sunday.) He loved filmmaking, but decided he had no option but to give it up.
That forced decision led to what dominates most of Plastic Man, however: Barrish’s sculptures, which he began making the same year. He estimates having created “thousands of pieces” in the decades since, “mostly animals and people,” whimsically and ingeniously formed out of discarded machine parts and other detritus. (A constant scavenger, we see him wearing a T-shirt that reads “Junk is a dirty word.”) He’s also organized shows for other artists at the arts center he voluntarily curates in Pacifica. His work is noted for its originality by some art-world figures here (one classifies him as a “figurative modernist”), yet he’s gone without the gallery representation and greater recognition one would assume to be his due at this point. The reason, many speculate, is because his preferred material is plastic—something still so stigmatized that one colleague in Plastic Man earnestly pleads he switch to bronze.
Having made so much art and gotten so relatively little appreciation for it over his lifespan to date, Barrish says “I never forgive and I never forget … my job is to maintain this anger. I like to know who my enemies are.” Yet we see very little of that manifested, either in his art or his seemingly amiable personality. He’s still fighting the good fight on all fronts—advising Occupy Wall Street protestors on their bail options, for one thing, even if the corporatization impacting SF on so many levels has recently shuttered his longtime Bonds storefront.
A charming look at a singular life and talent, Plastic Man features plenty of other Bay Area heroes both on and behind the camera, including producer Janis Plotkin (co-founder of the SF Jewish Film Festival), and composer Beth Custer of Club Foot Orchestra. In addition to the documentary’s nightly showtimes through next Thursday (opening night Friday has the director and subject in person) the Roxie will host a retrospective of all three Barrish features plus some shorts on Sunday. (Plastic Man also plays the Rafael Film Center in Marin on Thursday, August 27 and Sunday, August 30, and there’s an exhibit of Barrish’s sculptures at the Studio Gallery at 1641 Pacific Avenue in SF through August 31.)
Maybe some day we’ll get a similar showcase for the documentary’s director Farley, whose often San Francisco-themed films go back to 1975. They include such intriguing rarities as the 1982 full-length narrative Citizen, which features then-local stage performer Whoopi Goldberg in her sole film role before 1985’s The Color Purple.PLASTIC MAN: THE ARTFUL LIFE OF JERRY ROSS BARRISH
Opens Friday, August 21, 2015 at Roxie Theater in San Francisco, and plays Thursday, August 27 and Sunday, August 30 at Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. www.plasticmanbarrish.com
Sunday, August 23, 2015 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Read our interview with Jerry Ross Barrish.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.