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DOC TALK

Doc Talk: Art as life; art as business; art as theater

Dash Snow taking a Polaroid, from "Moments Like This Never Last."
Dash Snow taking a Polaroid, from "Moments Like This Never Last."Cheryl Dunn/Apple TV+

Dash Snow’s life was a mess. He died of a drug overdose, in 2009 at 27. So was his art, a whirling, inchoate collage of detritus, drawings, and Polaroids of his determinedly decadent existence. That’s the style that Cheryl Dunn brings to “Moments Like This Never Last,” her intimate documentary about the meteoric career of the artist. She evokes the scene with rapid-fire montages, hand-held video, and interviews with Snow, his family, his collaborators, and an assortment of pundits. With a soundtrack boasting music by Nick Cave, Grinderman, and Cat Power, the film is disorderly but compelling, its Rimbaud-like subject both enigmatic and obvious.

Born Dashiell Alexander Whitney Snow, he was a scion of the de Menil family, known for its philanthropy and founders of Houston’s Menil Collection museum. Snow was a problem child, rebellious and near feral until his mother sent him to a residential treatment center in Georgia, when he was 15. He escaped to New York City, where he lived on the streets, or as a squatter, and sometimes with his wealthy grandmother. There he became involved in the graffiti art movement. Drawn by his wildness and charisma, a crew of the like-minded called IRAK gathered around him. Among those were Ryan McGinley, Dan Colen, Kunle Martins, and Snow’s wife, Agathe.

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In 2001 the group shared the heightened sense of chaos and nihilism following the destruction of the World Trade Towers and thrived on it. Dunn met Snow around that time and began capturing his life on film, a life which consisted in part of him also capturing his life — in photographs, sketches, assemblages, and ‘zines. These found their way into some of New York’s most prestigious galleries, as well as the 2006 Whitney Biennial. The works included a front page of the New York Post smeared with his semen, scrapbooks with titles like “In the Event of My Disappearance,” and an installation called “The Nest,” which was a gallery room filled with shreds of torn-up phone books in which Snow and his friends scrambled about like intoxicated, horny hamsters.

Was he a poseur, a rich boy slumming as a bohemian artist, or a tortured soul aspiring for perfection through squalor and extreme, evanescent experience? Maybe a combination. He displayed his elitist privilege at times, like with Papa Smurf, a homeless old man and neighborhood character whom he posed wearing a red robe and singing on a grubby sofa as part of a gallery installation. That smacks a bit of the “Derelicte” fashion line in Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander” (2001). But much of Snow’s work packs primal power, as does this film at its best.

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“Moments Like This Never Last” can be streamed on AppleTV. Go to linktr.ee/momentslikethisneverlast.

Bob Ross, in "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed."
Bob Ross, in "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed."Netflix

The other side of the canvas

On the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from Dash Snow you’ll find the subject of Joshua Rofé's “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.” From 1983 to 1994, Ross showed viewers how to paint landscapes (he was not good at portraits, he admitted). This was on his PBS series “The Joy of Painting,” broadcast from a studio in Muncie, Ind. He would complete a painting in 26 minutes, the length of the show. It may not have been great art, but with his soothing voice, his trademark permed Afro, his mastery of the 16th-century painting style called alla prima, and his genuine effusiveness and generosity of spirit, Ross did bring joy to millions.

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It also made millions for Ross’s partners, Annette and Walt Kowalski, who took care of the business end, setting up Bob Ross painting classes across the country and selling Bob Ross painting supplies, T-shirts, coffee cups, and other merchandise. When Ross was diagnosed with cancer and the future looked uncertain, the Kowalskis moved in and took over.

Or so the film argues. The Kowalskis refused to participate in the documentary, so the film’s point of view is one-sided; but it argues a strong case. Its conventional style is lucid and cogent; and in a clever variation on the requisite reenactment sequences, Rofé employs images in the style of Ross’s own paintings

“I paint because I can make the kind of world I want and I can make it as happy as I want to,” says Ross on one of his programs. But the real world would not be denied. It was darkened by misfortunes, including the death of his beloved spouse, his own grave illness, and betrayal by trusted friends. But the joy of painting Ross engendered lives on.

“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” can be streamed on Netflix. Go to www.netflix.com.

New York's Theater Row, as in "On Broadway."
New York's Theater Row, as in "On Broadway."Kino Lorber

Many singular sensations

Broadway will raise the curtain again in September, after the 18-month shutdown imposed by COVID-19. But will the theaters bounce back after such a long hiatus? As Oren Jacoby’s fond portrait “On Broadway” demonstrates, it has overcome formidable troubles before.

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Covering five decades of show-biz history, Jacoby looks back at the desolate 1970s, when Times Square was a sinkhole of crime, drug addiction, and prostitution. Theater attendance dwindled, and some talked of tearing it all down to make way for parking lots. Searching for material, theater owners turned to nonprofit companies, where they found more audacious productions such as “A Chorus Line” (1975) and “Annie” (1976), shows which attracted new audiences.

Subsequent decades saw similar declines reversed by vital new stories and voices. Jacoby includes August Wilson and his sequence of eight plays in the 1990s, Tony Kushner and his “Angels in America” (1993), and more recently Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” (2015).

What will save Broadway this time? Will the lights go out for good? Commenting on the appeal of sitting in the dark with strangers watching strangers pretending to be other strangers, Helen Mirren says, “It’s ridiculous, when you think about it. I mean . . . what a weird thing to do.” Perhaps not as weird as people staring at phones all day, or as challenging as convincing them to turn their phones off and watch the show.

“On Broadway” can be seen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Kendall Square Cinema beginning Sept. 3. Go to kinomarquee.com/film/venue/60fb10104911f20001c71a85.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.