Too scattered to sustain interest beyond academic or anthropological circles, “Excavating Taylor Mead” will fit best at film festivals and perhaps an occasional symposium on the Beat Generation, Andy Warhol or the history of underground film — all of which involved Taylor Mead and none of which would likely have been the same without him.
Clip-rich docu assumes a knowledge of the subject without making a pitch. Yes, there’s an captivating opening title, quoting Tennessee Williams (“All art is a scandal. Life tries to be. Taylor Mead succeeds. I come close”). But it’s a long time after that before auds are given any reason to think of Mead as something other than a lonely old barfly living in a squalid apartment who feeds cats and nurses inarticulate memories.
Those memories — of 100 movies (“only 10 with Andy”), acting, poetry, performance art and some of the seminal films of the American indie movement (“The Flower Thief,” “Lemon Hearts,” “Lonesome Cowboys”) — are vivid and make Mead, if not a national monument, then certainly a bona fide resource.
It is a bit unkind, however, to train a camera on such a man — who, during the film, faces eviction from his Lower East Side hell-hole apartment, cadges free drinks at various Manhattan saloons and seems to subsist on chocolate milk — and not tell auds right off what the point of the story is. Director William A. Kirkley and producer/editor Erik Laibe seem to have scant material to work with — they never mention Mead’s work with George Kuchar or Errol Morris, for instance — and a bit of difficulty arranging what they have.
Likewise the narration by Steve Buscemi, who not only resembles the young Mead physically but sounds like him, too. But his voiceovers aren’t integrated properly, so what seems to be Mead is often Buscemi. This is not a huge distraction, but trying to get a grip on Mead’s contribution to the culture often is.
Born in Detroit to wealthy parents, Mead grew up gay at a time when it was not just scandalous but dangerous (although it happened in Morocco, the yard-long scar Mead bears on his torso, and matter-of-factly displays, is a mute testament to the perils gay men faced everywhere). When performance artist Penny Arcade finally says that Mead and Jack Smith helped originate “what performance is considered today,” the viewer gets an overdue sense of who the guy is and what he did.
Those who think American indie film began with Quentin Tarantino will be surprised to know — and to see evidence of — the ’60s-era cinema that laid the groundwork for much of what helped create the entire independent movement.
Mead is charming, with a wry outlook and dry delivery (“He was a genius,” the straight-faced Mead says of Warhol. “Of course, Hitler was a genius, too …”).
What one sees, especially in the Taylor Mead-Bill Rice two-hander that Jim Jarmusch included in his 2004 omnibus “Coffee and Cigarettes,” is that Mead might have been one of the greatest interpreters ever of the plays of Samuel Beckett, if he hadn’t been so busy with so many other things. It’s a subtlety that may elude some viewers. It seems to have eluded the filmmakers.