Burden, film review: Warts-and-all portrait of a performance artist

Baby-faced and drug-friendly Bostonite: Chris Burden
Baby-faced and drug-friendly Bostonite: Chris Burden

Performance artist Chris Burden once arranged for himself to be shot. The baby-faced and drug-friendly Bostonite also nailed himself to a car, put a knife to a journalist’s throat and publicly confessed to an affair his wife knew nothing about. David Bowie and Laurie Anderson have both saluted his work in song. Basically, if Burden hadn’t existed Don DeLillo would have made him up.

The Seventies footage is electrifying. But what makes this documentary special is that it doesn’t put its subject on a pedestal. You worry at first that some gormless gertie such as Johnny Depp will pop up, gushing that Burden was “one of the first punks”.

Instead, directors Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey lend an ear to critics of Burden’s work, as well as people who knew him, including his first wife and the woman he so infamously screwed on the side. These people calmly acknowledge that he could be manipulative, untrustworthy and unhinged. They also illuminate Burden’s change of direction in middle age.

We watch the man at work in 2015 (the year he died). Whether or not you like his later stuff (technically intricate, popular installations) the sheer scale of his conversion is impressive. For his MA project Burden squeezed himself into a school locker and asked visitors to come and watch him squirm. Routinely compared to Evel Knievel, he emerges here as more of a Houdini. Burden the escape artist. He trapped himself; then, for better or worse, he broke free.

No cert, 88 mins