Black Picture Show

Institute History

  • 1991 Directors Lab


BLACK PICTURE SHOW is a film within a film . . . a complex story about the relationship between two filmmakers, a father and son, Alexander and J.D. J.D. has come home to his father's house to view a film he has made about the last few days of his father's life. It is his way of saying goodbye. J.D.'s film lovingly portrays his father as an artist who, for the longest time, had been able to hold on to his own very special brand of artistic integrity, but he finds himself, suddenly, in desperate need. He is deeply in debt. His mortgage is way past due, he is being sued by a studio, and the pressures to sell out in order to survive have broken him down to the point of mental and emotional collapse. It is the breakdown that ultimately leads to his death.

The central core of the story takes place between Alexander and J.D. in the hospital. We see Alexander's inability to recognize his circumstances, where he is, or at times, to even recognize his son. We also see the depth of love between these two men and J.D.'s ferocious protection of his father. J.D. wants more than anything in the world for his father to be proud of him . . . to recognize him. Alexander would love to remain cloistered in the safety of his writing and the beauty of his house. He would love for J.D. to pay off his own debts, but J.D. forces him to confront his situation; and Alexander is not in his own house, but a nuthouse in the Bronx. The shock value of this sudden view of reality that Alexander is forced to accept works. Alexander pulls himself together in a most profound way, and the two men express their love for one another in the tenderest of terms.

In the final third of the film we meet Rita, Alexander's second wife. Rita is beautiful and all business. She is down to earth though her manner tends toward eccentricity. She loves Alex in her own way. She wants him to be successful. She is not impressed by art, although it is probably Alexander's artistry that turns her on. She is easily and willingly seduced by money and all its trappings yet she can as easily succumb to the greater depth and longevity that art, intellect, wit and beauty have to offer. She is a world of contradictions.

It's a week after Alexander's release from the hospital. Rita has invited Philippe DeValois and his wife, Jane, to dinner. Philippe, Rita tells Alexander, is going to offer him a job. She demands that he take it; she reminds him of their financial circumstances. Alexander is terrified of the prospect, for he is convinced that Philippe is the devil coming to take his soul. Rita suggests that he learn to take the better things that Hell has to offer. J.D. is also at the dinner party and tries to ruin the deal. He doesn't quite understand why his father is so willing to discard all his principles and sell his soul. Finally, he sees the ugly truth of his father's own self-destructive nature that he can only act when it's too late; when the crisis has already happened and when he does finally act, it's all a matter of patchwork, no real solutions.

After this harsh realization, J.D. bids his father farewell and leaves. Immediately following J.D.'s exit, Philippe and Jane lay out the rules of the game to Alexander, in no uncertain terms: when he is to write, what he is to write and how he is to write. Alexander is made to stand naked before them and then he and Rita are ritualistically bound and executed.

BLACK PICTURE SHOW is a powerful story that probes deeply into the artist's dilemma. One becomes an artist because one is compelled by a vision, a voice, an idea, but then that very complicated moment arises when one must choose to sell that vision, that voice, that idea, or not.

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