This week, the film critic Robert Horton looks at films about artists.
In Virginia Bogert's study of Philip McCracken, the distinguished Northwest sculptor opens his studio and shares a lifetime's worth of philosophy; in Peter West's film about Martin Blank's Crystal Skin, the exuberant glass artist demonstrates the inspiration and heavy lifting that goes into creating a massive installation. These admirable short studies are part of a tradition, a long line of films about artists. The popularity of these kinds of movies is kind of strange, when you think about it: yes, there are visual opportunities, but these films can never truly explain the mysterious alchemy that happens between artist and artwork. Even with the articulate musings of McCracken and Blank in our ears, the art has a mystery and a resonance beyond explanation. (Although if that were true, there'd be no need for critics, and I'd rather not go there.) Here are a few movies that speculate on art and artists.
“The Mystery of Picasso” (1956). A unique collaborator with the great Spanish painter himself: in an admittedly gimmicky (but hard to resist) set-up, the camera is set behind a transparent "canvas," upon which Picasso weaves a series of on-the-spot ideas. The director Henri-Georges Clouzot was better known for his dire suspense pictures “The Wages of Fear” and “Diabolique,” but this frequently playful documentary study creates a liberating look at an artist "in the moment."
“Rivers and Tides” (2001). A stirring look at Andy Goldsworthy, who is seen creating some of his impermanent works in collaboration with nature: loops made of icicles, snakelike chains of green leaves, driftwood cairns that vanish at high tide. Transitory as they are, some of these pieces must rely on the film itself to be the main record them, and that adds an especially poignant layer.
“Pollock” (2000). As subjects for dramatized biography go, Jackson Pollock is even more inscrutable than most; in director-star Ed Harris's movie, "Jack the Dripper" is a brilliant, self-destructive raging bull of the New York art scene. The movie's a tough slog at times, but the performances by Harris and Marcia Gay Harden are spectacular.