NAM JUNE PAIK: MOON IS THE OLDEST TV -- A Conventional Biography for a Revolutionary Artist That Deserved More
Review by Sean Boelman
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to a pretty enthusiastic reception, becoming one of the earliest pick-ups out of the festival. The documentary offers a conventional biography of its subject, and while it is bolstered by its extensive use of Paik’s library of work, it feels much more straightforward than it should be.
The film tells the story of experimental artist Nam June Paik, who is considered to be the father of video art. Anyone who has worked in the realm of video before knows Paik’s name thanks to his influence (he coined the term “electronic superhighway” after all). That being said, many in the general public might not be aware of his extraordinary work and story, and they are who this documentary is aimed at.
Unfortunately, despite Paik having made a name for himself as an ambitious avant garde artist, filmmaker Amanda Kim’s form is frustratingly conventional. The movie tells its story in exactly the way that one would expect — through a combination of archive materials, talking head interviews, and footage from the subject’s work.
The film also contains narration by acclaimed actor Steven Yeun (Minari, The Walking Dead) — who also serves as an executive producer on the movie — reading Paik’s personal diaries. The practice of having a celebrity speaking the words of a documentary’s subject is nothing new, but it is used too sparingly here to make much of an impact.
Instead, the more impactful moments are those in which Kim allows Paik’s work to speak for itself. The kinetically-edited sequences of Paik’s experimental video art are what is most likely to leave the audience with a feeling of respect and admiration for the film’s subject, more so than hearing his praise sung over and over again by interviewees.
There are also a few interesting ideas to be found in the movie, such as the portions that discuss Paik’s experience as an immigrant or the legacy he had on the art industry as a whole, but these are often neglected in favor of a more broad survey of his career. One of the most interesting bits of the film shows Paik’s work side-by-side with the derivative works it inspired, including some hugely recognizable music videos.
If the purpose of the movie was merely to bring broader awareness to the existence of an undersung figure in the experimental art community, Kim has succeeded at doing so. However, this ultimately feels like the bare minimum that this film should have been. There are so many deeper levels with which Kim could have engaged with this material, yet it feels disappointingly shallow.
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV is a straightforward biographical documentary, and while there is nothing poorly-made about it, the fact that it is so straightforward makes it somewhat underwhelming. Someone as revolutionary and ambitious as Paik deserved an equally ambitious cinematic treatment, and this is not that.
Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV is now playing in theaters.