A Solitary Mann
“How do you make paint make reality when it’s just crazy weird marks?” That’s the question Jeremy Mann poses to the viewer at the beginning of A Solitary Mann (2015), filmmaker Loic Zimmerman’s moody and atmospheric documentary on the globally renowned urban painter. “Crazy weird marks” are, at first, exactly what he seems to be rendering with an ink brayer on the blank canvas before him. But as he paints—his voiceover expounding on the logic behind his choice of referent, his process, down to his very artistic philosophy—the ostensibly disjointed marks come together into one of the breathtaking cityscapes for which he is most celebrated.
Actually, this is the second scene. The film opens on an extreme close-up on Mann’s face in profile, the light of a television casting a blueish glow on his face and eyes as the all-too-recognizable sounds of channel-changing between commercials fills his—and our—ears. It is a “meta” beginning for a very “meta” little film about one of the defining artistic prodigies of our era: a man who is both enthralled by and within the chaos of modern life.
When I was first viewing this heavily stylized documentary, a quote from a review by critic Norman Berlin of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot materialized unbidden in my mind: “Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation,” wrote Berlin in 1999, “with Beckett himself placed in different schools of thought, different movements and ‘ism’s. The attempts to pin him down have not been successful, but the desire to do so is natural when we encounter a writer whose minimalist art reaches for bedrock reality. ‘Less’ forces us to look for ‘more,’ and the need to talk about Godot and about Beckett has resulted in a steady outpouring of books and articles.”1
The same might be said of Mann (b. 1979) and his paintings, and throughout the film he repeatedly expresses his strong aversion to being typecast both personally and professionally. Certainly his cityscapes are stylistically difficult to place. Unlike with purely abstract art, the scenes that Mann so painstakingly renders are unmistakably cityscapes. The car on the wet road, the streetlights casting a glow on a nearby billboard—all of these elements are instantly recognizable for what they are. And intentionally so: Technique-wise, Mann has spent the past fifteen years consciously perfecting the craft of conveying “the minimal information it takes to get that idea [of a car on a wet street] across in the brain.”
Thus, neither can they be called pure Realism, in which more detail or more brush strokes often equates to better. Mann himself doesn’t place his art in either camp, claiming that he employs “very abstract thinking, and in the end, very realistic painting with absolutely no realism to it.” For him, it seems to be more about capturing the visceral, emotionally distorted experience of inhabiting these urban spaces, the duality of which he describes to the viewer with words like “dark and epic,” “violent” and “beautiful.” He goes on:
Realism to me involves something that’s beyond trying to make a painting look like reality. You’re never going to "get it" if you’re trying to get every detail. That detail is not reality. To me, it’s the emotion. That’s reality. When you’re in a cityscape, or you’re on the street, you can’t see the entire scene in front of you. Some areas are completely blown out, wiped out, rained out. A car is just a black blur. That’s how it feels to be in reality.2
Contrast that ideology with say, painter Scott Prior, and the hyper-attention he pays to details that are arguably unseeable with the human eye but are captured (before being painted) by hundreds of enhanced photographs, as in Valley in Winter (2014). Mann relies heavily on photographic technology as well, but it plays a far different role in his art-making. For him, the selection of his referent is primarily about composition: “I’m not looking at anything other than light and where forms are on the whole thing.” He then snaps a photograph “knowing full well that [it] will be garbage,” using the camera simply to memorialize “how he felt” at the time of the viewing.
Director Loic Zimmerman, who identifies as both “French” and “LA-based,” blends the best of both worlds in capturing this tension between internal and external reality, which remains an ongoing theme throughout the film. Though the auteur in Zimmerman is clearly evident in the elements of direct cinema and cinema vérité, his more mainstream background—as a visual effects concept artist for comic-book blockbusters—clearly pays off: A Solitary Mann boasts a meticulously selected, frame-by-frame color composition as well as the overall gritty and metallic tonality that is strongly reminiscent of, say, a DC-universe or Zack Snyder film. These choices, of course, were intended to evoke Mann’s own cityscapes, the supersaturated palette of which Mann describes as “my own palette of greys based off the tertiary system of colors that Monet used.” Perhaps in a “lower-brow” life (as in a different decade and different city in California), Mann could’ve made an acclaimed illustrator for a more underground version of DC Comics. Or perhaps he’d be offended by such a remark. Either way, one gets the sense that only a filmmaker like Zimmerman could have faithfully translated Mann’s story onto the screen; the two are philosophical brothers across media when it comes to their artistry.
And the dark bluish-grey tonality is not the only homage that the film’s visual style pays to Mann’s cityscapes. Zimmerman consistently employs a highly evocative selective focus as Mann drives through the city and transitions from space to space—blurring streetlights, car lights, neon billboards, highways in the background, signs. The camera often highlights the perspective of the reflection of the setting—either framing the scene through car or wall mirrors or focusing on the light as it is reflected in Mann’s own eyes. These techniques augment the sense that we are thoughtfully exploring Mann’s perception of the world around him rather than that world itself, with a debt to external reality only insofar as it can be both clarified and distorted through his artistic perspective.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that Mann is zealously protective of how he himself is perceived by the broader art world. An introverted, pensive person by nature, he seems to have agreed (I suspect/speculate) to do this film largely out of a desire to correct any misperceptions and make himself accurately understood—which, ironically enough, is arguably the point of creating art in the first place (to make oneself and one’s own perspective known and understood and validated). But fame has a funny way of distorting such an endeavor, adding the illusion of grandiosity where there is none. Mann clearly struggles with that, mentioning repeatedly that people believe his life as a successful artist to be “something that it’s not at all.” In reality (that officially fraught word), Mann spends vast swathes of time “alone or with my cat” or “walking by myself, place to place, sometimes just sitting there while this war [of city life] is going on all around me.”
This strong preference toward solitude—and the equally fierce desire for control over how his story, character and motivations are laid out to the public—is further bolstered by how difficult it is to find biographical information on him: for an artist of such renown, the lack of a Wikipedia entry is particularly noteworthy, and there is no “about” page on his own website. The information I could find online about his background comes from the galleries that represent him and the site for A Solitary Mann: After graduating with a degree in Fine Art-Painting from Ohio University, Mann moved to San Francisco, where he has remained, earning his master’s degree with Valedictorian honors at the Academy of Art University there.
As an aside, San Francisco might seem like a strange choice for Mann to set up shop, if you go by its reputation as the home of the tech-savvy New Bourgeois alone. But by following Mann through his subculture, the film offers a pleasurable glimpse into the surviving artistic underbelly of a city that is supposedly past its countercultural, revolutionary heyday. Thankfully, this is not the San Francisco of Silicon Valley.
And speaking of the tech world, Mann does seem quite willing to situate himself in a broader reactionary movement toward rehumanization in the post-modern wake of modern life:
I think we’ve realized we still need to connect to the public, we need to connect with people. I mean you look at the times we’re living in. People are starting to refocus on community, like ahhh, the world got pretty fucked up. Let’s focus a little bit more back on ourselves. There’s this group of fine artists now, we work representationally. It looks like cityscapes, it looks like figures, stuff like that. But we’re trying to break the boundaries. How does it make you feel? How do we apply paint in a way that is still modern, but still [in a] way that you can understand?
That is the ultimate question. And “understand” we do, now—at least a little bit better than we did before this documentary was made. Thanks to A Solitary Mann, the average Jeremy Mann fanatic can catch an eye-opening glimpse into how painful it truly is to be the only person so attuned to “the changing channels”; the liminal space between coming and going that the rest of us take for granted or willfully ignore. Throughout the film, he oscillates about the psychological nature of his incentives as an artist, caught between his desire to “force” the viewer to see as he does and the need to simply work out his own internal angst. What emerges is a striking portrait of a genius who is deeply conflicted. “Maybe I am, maybe I’m not,” he repeats, when discussing whether he’s trying to “show us” a scene that exists outside of himself. Either way, we can all perceive a little bit more profoundly now: both of Mann and of the “dark and epic” city in which he dwells.
A Solitary Mann premiered in San Francisco, won Best Feature in Los Angeles Underground Film Fest 2015 and became an official selection in seven film festivals in five countries. For more information or to purchase A Solitary Mann for streaming on Vimeo, visit http://asolitarymann.com/
1. G. Genest, “Memories of Samuel Beckett in the Rehearsals for Endgame, 1967” in Women in Beckett: Performance and Critical Perspectives (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), X. As quoted in the Wikipedia article on waiting for Godot: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot
2. All quotes by Mann taken from the film A Solitary Mann (2015), dir. Loic Zimmerman.