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Directing what she knows

Madonna, an expert in shaping images, adds to her myth by helming an indie film -- an ode to her bohemian youth in New York. Yes, she likes to do it her way.

October 26, 2008|Dennis Lim | Lim is a freelance writer.

NEW YORK — Some showbiz cliches exist for a reason.

For nearly a quarter of a century, Madonna, who turned 50 this year, has been a music megastar, a pop culture provocateur and a global brand name. But what she really wants to do is direct.

"I've been in relationships with a lot of filmmakers," she said with a laugh in a recent interview. (Long before Guy Ritchie, her soon-to-be ex, there was Warren Beatty, and before him, Sean Penn, not yet a director at the time.) "I've been awfully envious of them. I guess I got tired of just wishing I was doing something and decided to do it."

Madonna was speaking in her Upper West Side apartment, at the start of a week that was shaping up as a media perfect storm. It was the day after she completed the sold-out New York run of her Sticky & Sweet Tour, a few hours before the downtown premiere of her directorial debut, "Filth and Wisdom," and two days before news of her split from Ritchie made tabloid front pages around the world.

In a lavender-walled drawing room overlooking Central Park and filled with photographs of her children, she sat beneath an angular nude by the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and discussed her new incarnation as scrappy indie auteur. Madonna, it goes without saying, is a take-charge interviewee: by turns gracious and brisk, easily amused by herself and actually quite funny. Irony is not part of her repertoire, though, nor is self-deprecation. Her sense of humor seems to revolve around an almost gleeful sense of her imperiousness. She speaks in clipped, semiformal cadences and she has a habit of finishing her interviewer's questions.

Madonna's turns in front of the camera -- in hall-of-infamy disasters such as "Shanghai Surprise" and "Swept Away" -- have long been the stuff of punch lines. But the leap to directing is perhaps not such a huge one for the high priestess of the music video. This pop star's great talent -- some would say her greatest -- is as a maker and manipulator of images. Who would deny that she is a visual artist in her own right? In the heyday of MTV, no one could match her flair for iconographic reinvention, whether channeling Marilyn Monroe in the "Material Girl" clip (directed by Mary Lambert) or playing the dominatrix queen of a "Metropolis"-like kingdom in "Express Yourself" (David Fincher).

When the conversation turned to her music videos, she declared theatrically, "I discovered David Fincher." Madonna has long sought out arty up-and-comers to direct her promos (Mark Romanek, Chris Cunningham, Jonas Akerlund), but she made clear that her involvement did not stop with hiring them. "I take at least 50 percent of the credit for directing and coming up with concepts," she said.

When she decided to write a screenplay, she said, "I would try and pick Guy's brain. He said, 'Just write what you know,' which was simple and good advice. The fact of the matter is that all the work I do is very autobiographical, directly or indirectly, because who do I know better than me?"

"Filth and Wisdom," which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is indeed proudly Madonna-centric, but it looks back on a distant chapter of her life -- you could call it a drama of the Madonna origin myth. Just as her last two albums, "Hard Candy" (2008) and "Confessions on a Dance Floor" (2005), summoned the electro beats of her early-'80s club-going days, this scruffy roommate comedy -- although set in a drably anonymous present-day London -- is a sweet-tempered ode to her bohemian youth in New York.

The aspirations of the film's three friends -- singing, dancing, charity work in Africa -- broadly represent the Madonna career project. At its center, though, is a seemingly un-Madonna-like figure: the Ukrainian-born indie rocker and poet-philosopher Eugene Hutz, ringleader of the Gypsy-punk troupe Gogol Bordello, basically playing a version of himself.

After hearing Hutz's music and seeing him in Liev Schreiber's 2005 film "Everything Is Illuminated," Madonna detected a kinship. "I connect to people who I recognize as having gone through the struggle," she said.

By "struggle" she means the plight of the artist who has not yet found an audience -- a subject that is still dear to her heart. "She wasn't born selling out Madison Square Garden," Hutz said in a separate interview. Or, as she put it, "You must realize that I once was a struggling artist. I'm now a struggling filmmaker."

"Filth and Wisdom" recasts in playful, romantic terms the creative drive that, in Madonna's case, has often registered as careerist calculation (the Material Girl who once titled a tour "Blond Ambition" is herself partly responsible for the image). "Longing is such a charismatic thing," Hutz said. "It speaks to dedication and passion."

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