THE STORY – The father of video art and coiner of the term “electronic superhighway,” Nam June Paik was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Born in Japan-occupied Korea, Paik studied as a classical musician before moving to Germany in the 1950s. Forever changed after encountering avant-garde composer John Cage, Paik became a member of the influential experimental art movement Fluxus, which created new forms of art and performance. Eventually immigrating to the United States, he became fully engaged with television and video art in a way that would revolutionize how the world thinks of image-making in the electronic age.
THE CAST – Vaibhav Gohil, Nam June Paik & Steven Yeun
THE TEAM – Amanda Kim (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 107 Minutes
The name Nam June Paik may not be familiar to those outside the realm of his artistic specialties: modern video and television art. But as the new documentary “Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV” shows, his impact on both the contemporary art world and general popular culture is enormous. This biographical exploration of both his life and creative achievements provides a helpful explainer as to his general importance. Still, curiously, the film about this extremely unique avant-garde artist is told in a surprisingly standard fashion, despite some occasional original visual flourishes.
With documentaries, an interesting topic or figure can do much to make up for the filmmaker’s efforts. In “Moon is the Oldest TV,” the man the film delves into is fascinating enough on his own to make for a compelling watch. And director Amanda Kim does a laudable job compiling, selecting, and editing archival footage of both the artist’s pieces and moments from his life. But the one thing that the friends and collaborators being interviewed all agree upon is that Paik was never anywhere close to average or typical when it came to his artistic output. He vehemently rejected standardized artistic practices in an effort to expunge European and colonialist ideals and methods from both his work and himself. It’s therefore disappointing that this documentary about him follows such a linear path in exploring his life, guided by the types of talking head interviews that are featured in most films of this kind. Some moments of visual ingenuity seek to capture some of the same feelings that Paik’s work effortlessly evokes. Still, for the most part, the film abides by expected documentarian guidelines.
Where the film does wildly succeed is in its ability to get audiences who have, likely, never heard of Paik at the film’s start to leave the theater with a solid understanding of why his work matters. The film’s best sequence shows side-by-side comparisons of some of Paik’s work and the subsequent commercials and music videos that specifically aped his style. It’s a striking scene that demonstrates how even the most underground artists can impact popular culture and the lives of everyday people, even if said folks may not know it.
Early in the film, Paik is quoted saying, “I use technology in order to hate it properly.” It, therefore, seems right that a film would come along to be the thing that teaches the public about this groundbreaking artist. In that way, it’s both understandable and a shame that “Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV” is such a typically structured documentary about an artist that was anything but typical.