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by David D’Arcy
The 27th International Festival of Films on Art (otherwise known as FIFA) closed in Montreal on Mar. 28, 2009, with awards going to documentaries on the obscure Polish composer Boguslaw Schaeffer, the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston and the newly opened Oslo Opera House designed by the Norwegian firm Snohetta.

With its global reach, FIFA is now the most important event of its kind. Where else can you see a films on Richard Serra cheek-by-jowl with ones on the image of Africans in 17th-century Dutch art and the wondrously compact design of the FIAT 500?

Yet the festival remains a well-kept secret. In fact, winning a prize at FIFA hardly makes any difference to a film’s commercial prospects, since few films tht play at FIFA have much chance for a commercial release?

Commercial is the key word here. Most of the films, if they are not experimental, are not even actual films. They are made for television, and shot on video rather than on celluloid. Nor are they shown in movie theaters; 35 millimeter film is a rare thing at this film festival.

Whatever the format, whatever the budget, moving pictures about art seem to have a narrower audience than art itself. Even blockbusters, like the planned drama about the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre (with Antonio Banderas and Dustin Hoffman reportedly in the cast) are a risk at the box office.

No matter. Enough of an audience can still be found at film festivals, in museums, and on television (as long as we’re not talking about North America) to ensure that documentaries on art will continue to multiply. The evidence from 280 films at FIFA this year was reassuring.

Among that evidence was Villa Mairea, a Finnish documentary by Rax Rinnekangas that takes a meditative tour of a house that Alvar Aalto designed with his wife in a pine forest on Finland’s west coast in 1938, just before Finland entered World War II (on the side of Germany). It was a pivotal project for Aalto, softening what had been a cold modernism with wood, curves and abundant landscaping. Rinnekangas’ company is called Bad Taste, typical self-mocking Finnish humor. His film is an elegant look at an architectural masterpiece.

It’s part of a five-film series, The Five Master Houses of the World, which is also planned as an exhibition devoted to the theme in Finland and Mexico. Rinnekangas is currently seeking an American venue. The pitch is nothing if not ambitious -- "anybody want to watch five Finnish documentaries on architecture?" Take my word for it. The payoff is worth it.

The first of these films, The Melnikov House (FIFA 2007), took a similar tour of the Moscow residence of architect Konstantin Melnikov, a cylindrical structure studded with diamond-shaped windows. It was built in 1928-29, just as Stalin was tightening his grip on the Soviet Union. Its experimental shape as well as the art inside were everything that Stalin despised. Visionary architects quickly became reclassified as enemies of the people, as did Kasimir Malevich. Preserving the house, filled with art from other Soviet artists condemned by the regime, proved as difficult as preserving the family.

FIFA’s architectural offerings also include the obligatory project documentaries that come with the construction of almost every new major building, and plenty of minor ones. These boosterist films tend to be self-congratulatory. What building project isn’t when it finally opens?

In Peter Eisenman: University of Phoenix Stadium for the Arizona Cardinals, the architect rhapsodizes about his new structure, stressing its form as an architectural embodiment of the desert vegetation around it. Consider it the Bird’s Nest of the Southwest, although the workers who built it were guaranteed a few more rights than their Chinese counterparts. Like most such structures, despite the high-blown archi-speak rhetoric, it will pay back its costs with football and Springsteen concerts.

The project films like the one lauding Eisenman’s stadium tend to take their esthetic from PBS -- not a good sign if you are looking for style or imagination. Still, as works of journalism, they do offer more information than you’ll find about architecture in newspapers. (In spite of technology that accelerates the process of filmmaking, filmmakers are still chasing new developments in art. We’ll have to wait until next year for a documentary on the collapse of the art market. There should be a few.)

A building that received minimal coverage in the U.S., if any, is Snohetta’s Oslo Opera House. From an unlikely site in the mud of Oslo harbor, the opera and ballet’s new home rises like an ice sculpture, to be topped by a marble roof that slants down to the water and doubles as a public plaza -- all observed with the predictable civic triumphalism that you see at many building openings. Build it and they will come, even if they can’t afford opera tickets.

(The film is worth seeing if only to get a glimpse of Pae White’s stage curtain. Begun as a topography of folded aluminum foil, it looks like a de Kooning canvas that has been transferred to a digital weaving.)

Some perennial art-on-film genres have emerged in addition to the architectural formula. There is the artist-at-work documentary, as well as the bio-doc surveying an entire career, often seen through a particular late work, as was the case with the feature-length French documentary, Anthony Caro: Sculpture as Religion, by Alain Fleischer, who may have made more films on art and artists than any living filmmaker. Fleisher’s film focuses on one of the largest public commissions ever awarded to an artist in France in recent years, Caro’s commission to install his own sculpture in the choir of Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Bourbourg, a church that was severely damaged and never fully restored after World War II. A meditation on the past and the regenerative powers of art as it observes Caro’s work in progress, the film also points to a new development -- contemporary art in religious buildings. (Watch for another film on an artist in a sacred space when Bill Viola takes on his upcoming commission, in cooperation with Haunch of Venison, to create works for two altars at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.)

Caro didn’t set out to commemorate Dunkirk nearby, or to create anything Christian. The steel sculptures look like rusticated trees of life, populated with various animals, alongside which Caro said he hoped visitors might "find themselves."

If Caro, a former military pilot, explored the contemporary meaning of religion or tested the spiritual depth that a religious space might bring to contemporary art, religion hulked its way into the picture differently in the life and work of Sam Francis in a new documentary by Jeffrey Perkins, The Painter Sam Francis. Mandalas and Zen figure in discussions of Francis’s connections to Japan, where he met his first wife and married his second. (Japan and Europe were also strong markets for Francis, who got rich as an Abstract Expressionist after the initial wave of that movement. Call it Ab-Ex, the Next Generation.)

Yet Perkins’s journey through Francis’s life, built around an interview with the painter filmed in 1973 and sequences of painting footage (with Francis in his socks and underwear dripping paint onto white canvases), discovers a tough scrapper struggling against obstacles -- a military injury, odd strains of tuberculosis, marital problems, the burdens of fame and a losing bout with prostate cancer. It’s anything but Zen as Francis fights his own mortality at the end, refusing to undergo the prostate surgery that might save his life while threatening his sexual potency. If only Norman Mailer were around to write this one.

It’s always easy to draw connections between male sexuality and the spurting of drips, especially with Francis, attired in Japanese headband, attacking a canvas on the floor in filmed scenes that seem intended to outdo the famous dripping sessions that Hans Namuth shot of Jackson Pollock in 1951. In Francis’ case, as we learn from the documentary, there’s harder evidence than you might expect. After a diagnosis of genital tuberculosis in the 1960s -- and successful treatment in Switzerland that saved his potency, and his life -- Francis took to his new Blue Ball Paintings (nothing if not well-named) with the energy of a man who dodged a bullet.

Religion raises its head again. "It’s almost like God put on a pair of shoes, and I’m those shoes," said the painter, who walks all over his canvases in historical footage, avoiding stepping in the puddles of paint. Watch the documentary for Francis’ self-portraits after his first marriage fails. He returns to figurative painting to address the ugliness that he finds in his subject, an ugliness that doesn’t seem reachable in abstraction.

Ugliness, we learn, drove Julius Shulman out of his vocation of architectural photography in Los Angeles in the post-modern 1970s. As the architectural historian Reyner Banham said, "post-modernism is to architecture the way a female impersonator is to femininity." Yet in Visual Acoustics, the Modernism of Julius Shulman, Eric Bricker takes us through Shulman’s professional life, beginning in 1936, when the young man photographed a new house by Richard Neutra. The job endeared him to several generations of Los Angeles modernists, who were looking for legitimacy for their new style in unschooled southern California -- and for work. Shulman’s pictures were crucial. As the numbing narration by Dustin Hoffman reminds us, most of us know most of our architecture through photography. If a few hundred people enter a modernist private house, many thousands will know that house from its picture. If it’s a modernist house in Los Angeles in the 1940s or 1950s, that picture is likely to have been taken by Julius Shulman, who is now 98.

Architects like Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé John Lautner (subject of another documentary at FIFA, Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner) hired Shulman. They and a succession of others, including Frank Gehry, acknowledge Shulman’s feel for the way that light recorded in his photographs could capture the magic of their interiors -- and get them more work from clients who weren’t convinced by plans and pitches. Shulman’s pictures also recognized how landscape completed a work of architecture. As the film tracks the emergence of Los Angeles as a center for bold architectural design -- and not just for the rich -- it also surveys the environmental degradation that clouds the city’s legendary light and makes it an unpleasant place to live. It’s a threat that has outlived post-modernism, and has turned Shulman into a committed environmentalist. Few architects can afford to be as honest about the environment as he is in this film.

As with any cultural event in Canada, even an international festival such as FIFA, Canadian offerings seem present in abundance, as if to compensate for the neglect of Canadian works outside the country.

A few of the films do stand out. Battle of Wills, directed by Anne Henderson, observes the campaign by Lloyd Sullivan, a gentlemanly retiree in Ottawa, to win recognition that a picture that his ancestor John Sanders painted in 1603 is in fact a portrait of William Shakespeare.

Few likenesses said to be of Shakespeare are certified to be those of the bard himself. Sullivan goes through scientific testing that shows the picture to date from the early 17th century, probes the playwright’s alleged Catholicism (punishable by death under Elizabeth I if he practiced it), and collides with unbelieving Shakespeare scholars, one of whom simply dismisses the picture, saying, "Canada? Oh, dear." It’s a David vs. Goliath story that still hasn’t ended, a reminder of the biographical murkiness around such a major figure.

Karsh in History, a portrait of the portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), can be seen as other side of the Julius Shulman story. Whereas Shulman built awareness and support for the unknowns who were defying fashion to make new architecture, Yousuf Karsh buttressed the imagery of the powerful and glamorous. The photographer with the voice of a soothsayer and the demeanor of a consigliere went to the Canadian backwater capital of Ottawa. He knew that it was the seat of political power. From there he built a reputation as the creator of official portraiture. His pictures are like statues in the town square, whether they are of popes, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy or Gina Lollobrigida. If you needed to be reminded, the official portrait doesn’t probe beneath the surface; it ensures that the surface has no cracks. Andy Warhol made his real fortune once he put that principle into practice.

(If Karsh hadn’t pulled the cigar from Churchill’s mouth when the British prime minister posed in December 1941, his famous picture of Churchill might have looked more like Picasso portrait of Gertrude Stein. You have to look elsewhere to find the man behind the monument.)

Karsh didn’t talk much about himself publicly, only to say that the Armenian Genocide, which he survived, did not make for happy childhood memories. He left it to others to unearth any complications behind the thousands of pictures that he took.

In Colville, the Canadian painter Alex Colville (b. 1920), in his everyday life in a small town in the Maritime Provinces, is the subject for the German filmmaker Andreas Schultz. Colville’s paintings, often of his wife Rhoda, are compared to those of Edward Hopper for their muted realism and their emotional minimalism. He shares a fate with Hopper -- plenty of critics don’t think Colville is much of a painter at all, which might explain why such a compelling film did not win a prize at FIFA. He couldn’t be less fashionable, despite a mysterious side that invites comparisons with Balthus or with Ingmar Bergman as much as it does with Hopper.

Schultz and his crew follow Colville everywhere, which doesn’t take much in his circumscribed life. The painter, who has been married some 60 years, isn’t a star. His reflections are like his paintings -- understated and closely observed. In a sequence that could be described as the film’s crescendo -- if such a term could be used in connection with such a painter -- Colville rides a bicycle to the local cemetery, which he visits with his wife. It’s a scene that you hope he’ll paint some day. Just as sad as that scene is the likelihood that neither Alex Colville’s pictures nor this film will be seen by much of an audience.

Colville doesn’t come with a laugh track, but several films at FIFA should have had one. Marc Newson, Urban Spaceman, from the BBC (by Zoe Silver, hosted by Alan Yentob) has a subject who delivers zinger lines every minute. He’s as prolific with the wry observation as he is with product design, and that’s certainly prolific.

Newson has charmed the glitterati with his furniture and restaurant design, but he is also drawn to the most ordinary of objects, which tend to be the most in need of being rethought. A car that Newson designed for Ford is a stunning piece of industrial simplicity. Try to find it anywhere on the road. Talk about strange bedfellows. But the fate of that firm reminds you that there are plenty of problems that design can’t solve. Newson now has his eyes on outer space. You wonder whether he’s kidding, but he seems to have done everything else. And then, what is design about if not new frontiers?

Marc Newson can look to the planets and beyond, but the frontier that is just as real in design, and more challenging, is the literacy of the consumer. In this field, filmmaker Danielle Schirmann (the wife of Alain Fleischer) has made a huge contribution, examining everything from the BIC Cristal pen to her latest subject, the FIAT 500, Italy’s "Volkswagen" from the late 1950s. Should the Italian firm burn in hell for putting so many Italians behind the wheel of an inexpensive car? Others will answer that question. Schirmann presents the vehicle as an engineering and design triumph, viewed by Italians as a symbol of popular modernity, and viewed by everyone else as a symbol of Italy.

Witty, sophisticated, and adroit as a storyteller, Schirmann makes an inspiring film about design for the Centre Pompidou’s series every year -- each one is all of 26 minutes long. Why they are not shown more widely in museums that claim education as their mission has been a mystery to me. Perhaps it’s the need for subtitles, or an English narration. It’s our loss.

DAVID D’ARCY is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper, a contributing editor at Art & Auction and a regular critic on the "Front Row" program on BBC Radio.