Visual Arts Side Bar Navigation Bar
Visual Arts Header
Introduction | Larry Clark Interview | Robert Longo Interview | Kerry Brougher

Discussion with Robert Longo

by Michael Cohen

Robert Longo's movie "Johnny Mnemonic", just released on video, features Keanu Reeves as a high-tech data courier who puts a memory chip in his head up for hire to the highest bidder, and spends the rest of the movie keeping from getting that head removed by Japanese corporate yakuza who covet that information. Longo is perhaps most emblematic of the '80s generation of Pictures or appropriation artists (who reprocessed mass-media imagery via disjunctive materials and methods). He collaborated on "Johnny" with seminal Cyber-punk author William Gibson, best known for his novel "Neuromancer". Michael Cohen spoke with Longo from his SoHo studio.

How did your fine arts strategies
determine your approach on "Johnny"?

Scene from the Film

Critics had trouble with "Johnny" because it was marketed as a straightforward, summer action movie. But Gibson and I were actually playing with those conventions. I wanted the film to work and compete in the same genre and arena of American films such as "Rambo" and "Total Recall". But at the same time I wanted to undermine, to intervene in those conventions. An example; our tampering with the Hollywood action-film formula of "The Wham-Mo"; an "action piece" every 10 pages or so of the script. We deliberately altered the expected pacing of the viewer ... the actors moved slowly, or they sped up their rhythms, camera angles inverted, edits became disjointed, the "action pieces" would happen at weird, off moments, and then be right in your face and brutal. The actors, like Keanu's movements began to take on this weird Haiku effect.

Reusing media tropes, but throwing them "off," reminds me of your earlier works, like "Rock for Light" and "We Want God".

Right, I tried to use the same jerkiness or between-space that much of my art works dealt with in the past, such as the Men in the Cities Series or the Combines. Collision of styles and filmic techniques were my tools. And since the film was about memory, the images we made quoted movies, and the memories of movies, much like my earlier work. Even when I would explain to the actors or the cameraman what I wanted for a scene, I would make reference to other movies: "Touch of Evil", "Alphaville", "Sweet Smell of Success", Japanese cartoons, "The Conformist", etcetera. Hollywood understands that language, just not in an ironic way.

What's different then, about making film and art?

Art and movies aren't that separate for me, or for that matter, my work in the theater. Making movies is just part of my investigation as an artist. In my studio I was always the director and editor of my paintings and sculptures -- with my team of assistants, and fabricators (Note: Longo would silk screen their names on the walls of the galleries during exhibitions, like movie credits). Now I'm just extended through many more people.

Scene from the Film
Scene from the Film
Let me put it this way, are there any limitations on expression in making a big-budget film as opposed to making art?

In "Johnny" I had to fashion a dramatic structure simple enough to convey the complexity of Gibson's original story. That's why art is still an important venue for me to work in, because it allows, with that smaller, more specialized audience, for more complex juxtapositions and avenues of thought. And that critical edge is what attracted Columbia and people like Gibson, Keanu, and Henry Rollins to work with me in the first place.

Could you elaborate a little more on this memory idea? I've never heard it used before in relation to your work.

My works always been concerned with memory; I've tried to locate the space between the personal and abstract symbols and social metaphors.

In the story, Johnny's memory has been erased, he has no back story, so sending Keanu into that role was like throwing him out without a net. I directed him using this Smithson writing about memory. He describes it as being like these layers of rock sediment covered by this lava bed. They slowly erode over time, making new abstract shapes. That's what I told Keanu, that he should act as if he just had these imprints and traces of a personality. Or like when I was working on my gun pieces,

Scene from the Film I found out that if you erased the serial number, the carbon data could be read by the FBI. Keanu's such a great actor that he played "Johnny" just like that, full of gaps and erasures revealing themselves over a period of time. And those remnants of memory determined the way I presented Johnny's memory sequences, revealing themselves in these rough, crystal-like formations.

Tell me about your film influences.

I was raised on T.V. and Hollywood movies, then I was educated on art films, Godard, Fassbinder, Sharits and Brakage. Chris Marker's "La Jette" had a huge influence on my work as did Walter DeMaria's films. For "Johnny" though Hollywood played the biggest influence, it's more accessible. When you really look at them, those structuralist movies are pretty boring.

In making these big-budget films, is there any danger of becoming the type of high powered corporate entity you originally wanted to disrupt?

It is risky but you have to become the thing you wish to criticize.

More Interviews:

Introduction | Larry Clark Interview | Robert Longo Interview | Kerry Brougher

Navigation Bar