During the opening credits of Guest Of Cindy Sherman, an unidentified voice explains the entire documentary, saying, “She’s famous for doing photographs of women who don’t have an identity—it’s all surface—and he gets together with the women who does those photos and loses his identity. So what can he do to get his identity back?” The “she” in question is Cindy Sherman, a reclusive photographer renowned for examining images of women in the media; the “he” is Paul Hasegawa-Overacker (a.k.a. Paul H-O), a middling sculptor who made himself a semi-celebrity in the ’90s by hosting the tongue-in-cheek New York public-access show Gallery Beat. Guest Of Cindy Sherman documents the couple’s decade-long romance, much of which happened under the eye of Paul H-O’s video camera. As stated upfront, it’s a documentary about a wannabe celebrity and the internationally famous artist who almost makes his dreams come true. And like Sherman’s subjects, it’s all surface.
Really, two different documentaries could’ve been made here. As insufferably self-involved as Paul H-O seems, his Gallery Beat show looks like it was a lot of fun, puncturing the pretensions of the New York art world by sending a facile twit out to stick a camera and microphone into the faces of geniuses and bullshit artists alike. When the ’90s began, the art market was at a low enough ebb that people welcomed Gallery Beat’s attention, even if it was rarely serious. By the end of the decade, the dot-com money was flowing, artists were getting rich again, and Paul H-O was being shut out of openings. There’s a good standalone movie just in that story.
Alternately, Guest Of Cindy Sherman might’ve been solely about Sherman, a pleasant, attractive, down-to-Earth woman who’s made millions by taking pictures of herself in gaudy makeup. Sherman largely avoids the spotlight, but since her work spans several cycles of the New York art scene—from the early ’70s to now—a fascinating movie could be made about her life even without Paul H-O’s self-aggrandizing interview footage. Instead, Guest gets sidetracked by his obsession with the two levels of fame—his minor, hers major—and gets hobbled by the creeping realization that while he started this project with Sherman’s consent, he ended it without. It all begins to feel tawdry, especially since Paul H-O never seems to realize that even though he wants everyone to know who he is, he’s never given a good reason why we should.