All About My Father: Artist Karl Haendel and His Friends Have Lots of Questions

After his mother, a homemaker, died 15 years ago, his father remarried, and now lives in Saugerties. “I’ve seen him twice in the past decade,” he said. His drawing of questions “came straight out of me wanting to have a relationship with him.

“I don’t know if he’s ever seen a lot of my work,” Mr. Haendel said. They met in Manhattan two years ago and his father went with him to see a drawing Mr. Haendel had made on the side of a building, then they had lunch. “He probably looks my work up online. In the film, that’s a question I ask: ‘Do you search my name on the internet?’ I’m pretty sure he does because I hear that he kind of knows what’s going on. We talk occasionally. But it’s pretty tense.”

Mr. Haendel is a fan of American novels of the family—Franzen, Updike. “There’s this idea that you’re a selfish kid for a while, and then you grow up and realize that your parents were interesting people.” When he reached his 30s, there were things he wanted to know about his father. “Did he protest something? Did he smoke pot? Did he listen to Beatles records over and over?

Was he scared of going to Vietnam?”

In the film, these and other questions are grouped by theme, with quick cuts from one man to the next. “I was interested in how you could go from sex to politics to religion to sex,” Mr. Haendel said.

As directors, he and Mr. Ringbom were both coaches and therapists. “There was a little psychiatrist thing going on,” he recalled.

“Sometimes a guy would say something like, ‘No, he wasn’t scared of talking about sex, he was just a little puritanical.’ And I’d say O.K., you can say puritanical, say it that way.’”

If a subject proved exceptionally difficult for one of the men to ask about, Mr. Haendel would usually let it go. “There are things it’s really hard for people to talk about, like things about sex.”

Some questions, though, were avidly asked by many of the men, the most common one being about sex: “How many women have you slept with?”

“Maybe it’s this masculinity competition,” Mr. Haendel posited. “Even though you love your father you still want to be like, ‘Ahh, I’ve slept with more women.’ Or maybe not. Maybe the son’s only slept with one or two women and the dad was a playboy.”

The other popular subjects were cheating (“Have you ever cheated on mom?”; “Has mom ever cheated on you?”); failure (“Do you think of me as a failure?”); and pride (“When were you proud of me?”; “Were you ever proud of me?”). Personal sacrifice was another hot topic, and one that particularly interested Mr. Haendel. “Because there’s a kind of difference between our fathers’ generation and our generation maybe we kind of follow our dreams a little more because our parents sacrificed to get a job they didn’t really like. So there’s a lot of that’s bound up with the success/failure thing.”

It was crucial to the two filmmakers that they cast men in their own age group, ones who, like them, had just made major life decisions. “The guys in the film are getting married, starting to have kids, maybe things our parents did a bit younger,” said Mr. Haendel. He’s getting married this week; Mr. Ringbom is engaged. “One guy had his young son sitting on the sofa while we were filming.”

He was interested in capturing a moment in which he and his friends are, as he sees it, finally reaching adulthood. “There is this sort of delayed coming of age thing that goes on in the film.”

That’s something he doesn’t see a lot of in art by his peers. “It wasn’t something that I sensed was subject matter for male artists—masculinity portrayed in an emotional, honest way. You see a lot of art that portrays masculinity, but it might be in a kind of Richard Prince sense, or a Jeff Koons sense.”

What exactly is missing?

“There’s not a sensitive father/son thing going on in art,” he said. “A lot of feminist work has this kind of mother/daughter thing. It has a relationship to identity politics and feminism. I thought it was interesting that that kind of stuff was absent in men’s work, predominantly.”

In his own work, Mr. Haendel continues to make drawings, and he has started on another film, for his next show in Los Angeles, this one about why people choose to have children. (He recalled asking his father, “Why did you have kids?” and being told, “I don’t know. That’s just what people did then.”) He’s also putting together a book called Shame, a compilation of stories that people post anonymously on the Internet. “Addictions, eating disorders, cheating, low self-esteem, a lot of sexual things,” he explained.

The Observer wondered whether some of the tension in Questions for My Father resulted from the idea that the men might not actually want their questions answered. Ignorance is, after all, often bliss when it comes to one’s family; it’s not every man who wants to know, for instance, whether or not his father ever had a homosexual experience. Mr. Haendel acknowledged this might be the case for some, but, like many artists, his general curiosity about the world tends to overrule such sheepishness. “When people say, ‘I don’t want to know that,’ I never understand them. Because I always want to know everything.” He paused.

“Maybe I’m an emotional voyeur. Maybe I just want to know what the truth is.”

sdouglas@observer.com

All About My Father: Artist Karl Haendel and His Friends Have Lots of Questions