Monday, December 1, 2008

Two Great Documentaries

Two of my favorite films in the past year have been documentaries, one chronicling the unusual and poignant long-term relationship between the writer, Christopher Isherwood, and the portrait artist, Don Bachardy, the other an intimate and visually gorgeous portrait of the rock icon, Patti Smith

In some ways, Chris & Don: A Love Story and Patti Smith: Dream of Life are very different films, the former a skillfully made though conventional documentary, the latter a meandering artistic life collage with few nods towards standard documentary formats. But they both deal with loss and the wonder of life, even in the aftermath of loss. They grapple honestly with grief yet seem celebratory, defiant even. 

The relationship between Isherwood and Bachardy seemed, on the surface, all wrong. The famous writer well into middle-age beds the pretty young boy, who becomes his boy toy and protégé. And yet, in spite of the age difference, and in some ways because of it, the relationship ultimately worked. Bachardy, while hugely influenced by Isherwood (he even took on Isherwood's vocal mannerisms), developed into his own person with his own artistic interests. Now in his seventies, Bachardy is fit, wise, and completely charming. Seeing his and Isherwood's love through his eyes (literally, since his portraits of Isherwood are a major part of the film) is both historically illuminating and touchingly romantic.

Steven Sebring's portrait of Patti Smith was a dozen years in the making and says as much about his sensibility as it does about Smith's. Every frame has his artistic fingerprints on it and, as such, it's an evocative poetic collaboration between artists, short on biographical details and long on sensibility. The style fits the subject, and I imagine that Smith wouldn't have participated for so long in a project that didn't hold her artistic interest. She's eternally cool and charismatic, aged and ageless, homely and beautiful. Not naturally gifted (as her rudimentary guitar picking and raw, inelegant singing demonstrate) but naturally visioned. She's treated as an icon, but there are wonderfully funny, human moments, like when she returned home to visit her elderly parents in their cow figurine-filled home, and, in my perhaps my favorite scene, when Smith and Flea hang out on a beach and trade peeing in a bottle stories. 

Both films, as different as they are, offer deep meditations on the passage of time, mourning it on the one hand, while featuring people who are living fully in the present. Smith and Bachardy clearly embrace their pasts (and, in their shoes, having lived fascinating lives surrounded by fascinating people, who wouldn't?), but they don't seem nostalgic for any past glories. These aren't "Behind the Music" falls from grace with contrived happy endings. Smith and Bachardy soldier on because they are both still invested in life, in the future. What the films brought most clearly home to me was the worthiness of an artistic life. If, as an artist, you are able to stay engaged and inspired, the passing of youth and the passing of loved ones becomes bearable. There remains something to live for. Love remains. I can't imagine that anyone in middle age (and beyond) who seeks an artful life would not be moved by these exquisitely sad and hopeful films.

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