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Guest of Cindy Sherman

If a doc manages to inform and entertain, it's ahead of the competition. If it features engaging personalities (or penguins), so much the better. And if it manages not to lose its assets while dipping its toe into murkier issues -- becoming, say, a brow-knitting thumb-sucker -- then it's really a work of art; such is "Guest of Cindy Sherman."

With:
With: Paul H-O, Cindy Sherman.

If a doc manages to inform and entertain, it’s ahead of the competition. If it features engaging personalities (or penguins), so much the better. And if it manages not to lose its assets while dipping its toe into murkier issues — becoming, say, a brow-knitting thumb-sucker — then it’s really a work of art; such is “Guest of Cindy Sherman.” Co-producing Sundance Channel should immediately allow the film to run free in the theatrical playground, where art lovers/voyeurs will adopt it as their own.

“Guest of Cindy Sherman” was how co-helmer Paul H-O found himself described on a seating card one night at some glitzy art-world dinner, thus inspiring this good-natured, engaging and uncensored autopsy of male ego and strip-searched celebrity. H-O’s “girlfriend” was Sherman, the reclusive artist-photographer whose “Untitled Film Stills” are considered to be among the more important works of ’80s American art. How the two became girlfriend/boyfriend (or whatever they call it in the lofty regions of lower Manhattan) is included in the movie. But so is the issue of bruised selfhood, when the man is less famous than the woman, and traditional roles get flipped on their heads.

H-O (which stands for Hasegawa-Overacker; need we say more?) was the creator and host of a cable access show titled “Gallery Beat” during the Koons-Schnabel-Sherman-fired New York art boom of the ’80s. Irreverent and always an outsider, H-O was an ointment-occupying fly on Manhattan’s gallery scene. That he and Sherman would hook up was unlikely.

But thanks to H-O’s relentless taping, we see that they did, the evidence being a real-time budding, and blooming, of romance. Sherman, who usually never consented to do anything close to “Gallery Beat,” was clearly smitten with H-O and he with her. Watching their playful interaction, with the remote art goddess acting like a flirty schoolgirl, is alternately wonderful, and appalling: Should we be watching this? One of the film’s more ironic aspects is how H-O, who eventually found his second-banana status untenable, has now found his own vehicle, albeit one with “Cindy Sherman” in the title.

But he’s a likable tour guide through his own checkered romantic/professional history, never taking himself — or the art world, for that matter — too seriously. Which is likely what attracted Sherman in the first place. She is unseen save for the archival footage, but the fact that she OK’d its use is testament to a generous spirit, and perhaps a few tender memories the viewer gets to share.

Production values are iffy, grainy, sketchy.

Guest of Cindy Sherman

Production: A Filmlike presentation in association with Sundance Channel. Produced by Paul H-O, Tom Donahue, Anura Idupuganti. Co-producer, Christopher Trela. Directed by Paul H-O, Tom Donahue.

Crew: Camera (color, mini-DV, Hi-8 video, DV), Dane Lawing; editor, Donahue; associate producers, Hertzel Abraham, Elissa Birke, Patty Casby, Ted Greenberg, Andrew Herwitz. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 28, 2008. Running time: 88 MIN.

With: With: Paul H-O, Cindy Sherman.

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