Art in America // August 2017
“Loads of people are scared of me. I guess it’s all the savoir vivre I have,” drones Anita Pallenberg, played by the German artist Cosima von Bonin. It’s one of a handful of lines spoken by this title character of The Anita Pallenberg Story, a seventy-six-minute video made between 1999 and 2000 by cultural critic Laura Cottingham and filmmaker Leslie Singer. Cottingham’s recent Artists Space exhibition featured the film, framed production stills, and an essay, titled “Love, Sex, Fame and the Life of the Image,” that she wrote about the project at the time. Inspired by the directorial methods of Andy Warhol and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who cultivated a family atmosphere among their nonprofessional actor-muses, Cottingham writes that the video was “‘curated’ more than cast.” In the work, she does not attempt an exhaustive biography of Pallenberg—the model and actress who became famous as the lover of Rolling Stones members Brian Jones and Keith Richards (for whom she left Jones). Rather, with her cast of hip New York artists, dealers, and critics, she aims to draw a parallel between the Stones’ decadent rock-and-roll lifestyle circa 1968 and a late-’90s art world newly flush with money.
Investigating the Stones’ place in the cultural imagination, Cottingham splices clips of other films between scenes she and Singer filmed. These bootlegged clips include footage from Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil), 1970, and Robert Frank’s controversial Cocksucker Blues (1972). Fresh off the release of her important video essay Not for Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA in the 1970s (1998), Cottingham undermines the Stones’ “dick rock” image with queer feminist politics. She recasts the band as lesbians, playing Jones and Mick Jagger herself, with painter Nicole Eisenman as Richards. Exaggerating the Stones’ androgynous glam look, Cottingham’s Jagger is in full drag, with glittery blue eye makeup and a cherry red lip.
In most of Pallenberg’s scenes, the model-muse pleads with the Stones to take her to meet Andy Warhol. In a hotel room, Jagger and David Bowie (Art Club 2000 member Patterson Beckwith) compare the commercial prospects of rock music with those of the art world, while art collector Peter Norton makes a cameo as a pizza delivery guy. But the headiest scene departs from the loose narrative about the relationship between the Stones and contemporary art. Here, two journalists (one played by artist Ghada Amer) interrogate the Stones about cultural appropriation. When asked whether they would give money to the African American communities whose culture they have borrowed and capitalized on, Richards scoffs, “Not even Elvis does that.” Pallenberg remains silent when the journalists ask her about her experiences with the band. “To live with a rock star, a woman must find her ways of independence,” she says in the next scene, alone.
Like Warhol’s films, The Anita Pallenberg Story serves to document a social scene as much as to tell a cinematic story. We see future art stars: Eisenman, von Bonin, and dealer Gavin Brown (who appears as Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham). We see legends who would die premature deaths: artist Steven Parrino (as a Hell’s Angel) and art dealer Colin de Land (as SoHo dealer Robert Fraser). Most important, through Cottingham’s glancing depiction of Pallenberg, we see the impossibility of reenacting a woman’s story that has been dominated by male relationships and sexist perspectives.
Cottingham’s accompanying essay fleshes out her methodology behind the film. She muses on the power relations between rock stars and groupies, the lesbian-feminist precedents to her film, the anti-violent cinematic choices she makes, and how even the leftist art circuit replicates exploitative dynamics of past cultural eras. Over the nearly two decades since Cottingham made The Anita Pallenberg Story, those dynamics have continued while her own name has grown relatively obscure. Looking back, the film seems almost prophetic.