Monday, 27 April 2009


'I said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Lexxie reckons he is Jesus. Dozens of Jesuses' John Lennon, 1975.

We find secondary evidence everywhere; we see it there, on the screen, the famous Beatle talking, in that famous voice, and saying things, but where are we? When are we? And most pertinently, Who? Appearances deceive; for, if you were to watch this document to Lexington Saffron-Digard, you might believe him to be one of the most notorious artists of his day; you would believe him to be, if you trusted the producers (and do we not, always), an enfant terrible who died only weeks after his difficult memory was pieced together here; he apparently expired of a coma overdose in 1995, but don't look through the archives of obituary fame and infamy: He is not there, and the latter part of this documentary, in contrary design, confronts us with a proposition as to why this is (besides the more probable: the people forgot; they grew bored; he didn't compel us to remeber, et cetera, et cetera): We are expected to hang our disbelief from the ceiling as fanciful decoration, and instead swallow a claim so big that, we must surely believe it, heartburn and all.

But first: if we take the narrative at face value, then, and this happens:

Saffron-Digard was 62 when he died, so the story goes, and left behind him a trail of carnage that perhaps might have made him a household name, had his fitful creativity matched it. Born John Saffron in Marseille in 1933, John's mother, (famed?) English starlet of stage and screen Joan Saffron, gave up her career to be a mother and raise her boy overseas. John never knew his father, but was soon taken with his stepfather, anarchist painter Jean Digard. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the celebrity family moved to New York, where young John went to art school with other rich refugees. We see interviews with many of the people whose bodies were subsequently touched by Digard, and are offered a compendium of quotes, a veritable billboard of taglines. 'His life and art swung from the deliciously peurile to the fabulously bland', says Andy Warhol, seen here in a genuine talking head appearance, whereas William Burroughs (appearing sideways, bust-like) describes him as 'a morality vacuum, sucking lizard-like the freshness from stony-broke sonnofabitches'.

Chronologically, then, if we are to follow this string... continuing with how, when at art school he grew disillusioned with the limitations of his mediums, and became obsessed with inventing a new primary color. He was vindicated when the Federation of American Gradings included his new tone 'Vari' alongside Red, Yellow and Blue in their Annual Completist Encyclopedia (the collated data of 'everything', the eighty-sixth edition of which in 1966 ran to twenty five thousand volumes, and by 2001 had hungrily expanded to almost twice that). The invention of a new primary colour hugely infected the fashion industry, and a loving montage of late sixties mods in various Vari outfits (including the timeless Vari-toned vest that Clint Eastwood wore in One Fun Gun (Segio Leone, 1968) acts as a triumphant pivot in the middle of the film.

After Vari, things grew harder for Saffron-Digard. His ambitions caused his subsequent life to be an unsatisfying one, and his dreams only grew larger. Dozens of Jesuses doesn't disappoint, lingering on never before seen video of Saffron-Digard in action during these times. We see the derring-do of the time he covered Manhattan Island in red paint thrown from five hundred Red Baron style biplanes in his 'live art show' Paint The Town Red (1969), a stunt which granted infamy, and we also witness the building and firing of an oversized handgun for Shoot The Moon (1972). The pistol, three hundred feet high, managed to down an orbiting satellite, to the delight of a roaring audience and the consternation of NASA.

Subsequent art shows were increasingly extreme, but got him less attention: His carving of his initials into the sun using laser technology in LSD (1973) was deemed a failure when no-one noticed, and it wasn't until his retooled muse came up with Invisible (1985) a show at the Museum of Modern Art, that he regained some credibility in critical circles. The show featured three walls of a room, containing a chair, a table and a TV. Digard sat in the chair, in a shirt that was the same colour as the walls. He stayed there, completely still, for months, until he grew faint and vague to the eye, for the minor camouflage combined with the lack of movement rendered him almost unseeable. 'I didn't become like a stick insect, or a chameleon. There was no magic, just a performance of the concept that we are visible through our actions. If we are inactive, we disappear, forgotten' said Digard himself, on leaving the room.

And so we get to the final, thrusting claim of the film, the twist which casts doubts over the entire enterprise: that this fidgeting prankster, in an age of impossible visibility, performed the greatest vanish of all: He not only disappeared from view, but he managed to eradicate all memory of his life from the collective consciousness. No mean feat: even the most minor of artists leaves a bloody tooth or a layer of skin in someone's basement. But Saffron-Digard managed it: To erase himself. The last scene of the documentary involves Williams himself explaining how a strange man came to him one day, saying that he was Saffron-Digard, and that this meant nothing to anybody on the planet, due to a 'humungous sleight of hand'.

'He was sickly. Ill. He knocked on my door in New York. He told me he was dying, and that he wanted someone to document his life. He gave me a scrapbook and a reel of film, and left.'

The reel contained the period footage that appears in this film: The filmed interviews with Warhol, Lennon, Burroughs and Onassis that provide the testimonies about Saffron-Digard's character. But they were the only evidence that Williams found about the artist's existence. Says Williams in the film: 'I realised then that this documentary was not to be a recap of a minor artist life, but the single proof of his existence. Somehow, he had managed to make us forget all of his stunts, with some kind of cosmic will. Obscurity is one thing. But to make us believe he never existed.... that's quite something else.'

Williams had several phone conversations with the artist, including one in which Saffron-Digard, when asked by Williams why he wanted a film made, said 'It ain't a good trick if the audience don't clap'. As Williams pieced together footage, he heard more and more from his subject, right up until his death. 'Part of we wonders if his death was just another evasion' Williams says. He only man at Saffron-Digard's funeral. His headstone bears the Baudelaire line, oft plagiarised: 'My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist'. And so, things come to pass.

What of the artefact, the testimony? The film has since been treated with suspicion: some see it as a grand prank, an invention of a fake hero; others as a work of wondrous fiction. But there are those who suspect that there may be a certain integrity in the work- individuals have come forward claiming to remember the day Manhattan was painted red, bemused that no-one else remembers, or neighbours who knew Digard, models who claim a child was fathered by him. A small band of Digardians claim his stunt as the biggest in the history of performance, and priase his act of wiping himself from history, rendering his own biography fictional, something which was later unproved to be false, over and over.1

But ultimately, we ask ourselves: Was Saffron-Digard's best trick that he convinced the world that he existed in order to convince them that he didn't exist, in order to then convince them that he did? Or not?

Who knows.

Dozens of Jesuses: The Bigger, Truer Life of Lexington Saffron Digard Directed by Bob Williams Produced by David Lynch Music by David Boeddinghaus Sony Pictures Release Date US: March 1995, UK: March 1995 Tagline: 'The Man That Time Forgot'

1. One extreme group of Digardians, calling themselves 'Anonymiads', have even started eliminating all evidence of their own existence: Deleting Social Security numbers, social networking profiles, burning photographs, and are believed to be so widespread that entire towns are threatened with disappearing from the map.

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