The art documentary obligatory scene of museum or gallery viewers milling around a show of works by the subject of the documentary is one of the most boring tropes of the genre. People holding their coats while looking at art are just not that interesting as film subjects. The Eva Hesse documentary that is finally being screened in New York and around the world is so good that when those scenes come, towards the end of the film, you are glad and moved to see old friends (the art works) and in one case you feel triumphant, as the work returns to the city where she was born and from which her family had to flee for their lives.
The genre of documentary film about artists has acquired a number of tropes or requisite scenes: the studio visit if the artist is living or was filmed previously, the archival pictures, the talking heads, the letters and diaries read out loud, and those scenes of viewers milling around the museum retrospective. Emile de Antonio’s 1973 Painters Painting both consolidated, established, and transgressed the rules and in the past twenty years series such as PBS’s American Masters and, in general, the Ken Burns effect have increasingly homogenized the genre, creating dominant stylistic guidelines for how such films should be if they want to be funded and distributed: it is a circulatory aesthetic system that is efficient and informative but also most likely quite constricting to the creators. Despite these strictures and against difficult financial odds to which documentary filmmakers are particularly prey, important documentaries are made and this year it has been a particular privilege to have been able to see a number of fascinating and moving films about artists who I greatly admire including Beth B.‘s Call Her Applebroog about her mother Ida Applebroog and Kristi Zea’s Everybody knows…Elizabeth Murray. Eva Hesse is an excellent new documentary that adds to this important filmography.
Director Marcie Begleiter–Academy Award please–has created a deeply moving film. Given our familiarity with the forms of this type of film it is interesting to think about how she accomplishes her task. Often documentary music choice is unfortunate, but here it is the music of the time. The director avoids the temptation of using new animation tricks and established commercial formats and video style to get the contemporary viewer’s attention but rather sticks to a graphic style that feels more period specific. The story is particularly and tragically compelling. The passage of time may have served to distill the information. And the script is largely the words of Eva Hesse herself, an exceptionally articulate, intelligent, and present woman.
Begleiter did everything right to bring us into Eva Hesse’s head and her studio, bringing along also the feeling of the times she lived in, New York in the sixties, both the uptown glitz of pop art and the experimentation of downtown, including my old neighborhood on Canal Street, which I realized I moved to only 8 years after she died, same stores I remember, same lost New York.
At the viewing yesterday, as soon as the film began the need to concentrate on every image and word was so intense that I nearly knocked the giant bag of popcorn out of the hands of the two women next to me because their crunching seemed audible across the tiny theater. I would say that you could have heard a pin drop for most of the movie people were so intent on every word and image, except for the sniffling and eye dabbing with Kleenex that started midway through. What Eva Hesse accomplished in a decade of art making is astounding, humbling, inspiring–if one can find within oneself an ounce of the talent, inventiveness, courage, and energy she had.
The movie is playing in New York at the Village East Cinema starting today and the website below indicates screenings around the world, all short, it’s like sightings of a rare bird, so run to see it! It should run and run and be required viewing for all art students, particularly those who have lost interest or faith in drawing and making things with their hands.