The year was 1986. Performance art was still considered scary and threatening to noninitiates, part of the conspiracy of superiority that David Byrne was in on but you weren’t. That summer I saw a movie called Legal Eagles. I remember virtually nothing about it except that it was a waste of A-list talent (its stars were Robert Redford and Debra Winger, its director Ivan Reitman) and that it featured a preposterous sequence in which Daryl Hannah, playing a forbiddingly nonemotive performance artist, previewed her latest conceptual piece for Redford’s character.
Even though I was young and relatively unschooled in the ways of the avant garde, I remember Hannah’s “piece” as an abomination, a Beverly Hills person’s idea of what conceptual artists were doing in subterranean performance spaces in Manhattan’s East Village: way too literalistic, not nearly open-ended enough, and just... astonishingly wrong. I’ve never been able to get it out of my head. And now, thanks to the YouTube Memory Retrieval Machine, I’ve been able to watch it again. It hasn’t grown any less ridiculous. In fact, Robert Redford’s wide-eyed expressions of gobsmacked disbelief and fear are even sillier than I remembered, like Stymie’s reaction shots in old Our Gang shorts. Watch for yourself: