This week’s pair of releases reflect an oddball first-person symmetry of the nature of art as it comes to define the artist: Finding Vivian Maier attempts to piece together the psychology behind an artist who rarely spoke of her work, while Jodorowsky’s Dune features a man more than happy to offer as much material about his creative id as 90 minutes could hold. Both are reminiscent of a third recent documentary: In Tim’s Vermeer, released late last year, inventor Tim Jenison got interested in classic painter Johannes Vermeer’s technique seemingly on a whim and decided to reconstruct one of Vermeer’s paintings. That documentary spends a lot of time on the mechanics of Vermeer’s groundbreaking gimmickry and the process of painting itself, but the film also deliberately records Jenison constructing a replica of Vermeer’s studio, including tearing down walls and making furniture and leaded glass by hand.
An artist’s obsession with their art has been a familiar story since Ovid presented us with Pygmalion pining for his own statue, Galatea. This myth, in which devotion to one’s art is an act of creation in itself, underscores a common thread through these documentaries: the tendency of art to transform under the eye of the beholder. For Jodorowsky, that means developing a robot double for Dune’s Galactic Emperor who’s terrified of assassination. For Maier, it means discoverer, curator and filmmaker John Maloof’s bemusement at the popularity Maier’s photography has reached even while institutions like MOMA are reluctant to acknowledge her. And under Jenison’s hands, the Dutch master painter of light is exposed as a master of mirrors, which quietly solved a centuries-old mystery as to why Vermeer left no sketches under his masterpieces.
But even then, Ovid’s tale is something of a double-bind, since the beholder is usually at greater risk of being changed by the eye of the art. Of late, there’s been a boom in this niche genre of documentary in which an everyman gets overtaken by art—civil-servant art collectors Herb and Dorothy, the minutiae-hounds of Room 237. These Galatea vignettes always unfold in parallel, and when they work, the art and the bewitchment unfold in equally interesting revelations.
Oddly, too much self-awareness can work against this particular dynamic. Jodorowsky’s Dune is undeniably interesting dish on a lost film, but there’s enough distance to invite self-reflection, which smooths the edges of this romance. It also has the unique position of being able to compare and contrast Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune with the completed adaptation David Lynch filmed later; Jodorowsky’s acid-trip vision would have been no more effective than the grotesque, Baroque tangle of Lynch’s, which demonstrated a time-constrained film would devastatingly hamstring the story. While Maloof’s more understated (having perhaps the advantage of directing himself), every moment of Finding Vivian Maier reflects his obsession. From buying Maier’s negatives off other auction winners to crossing oceans to investigate her childhood, Maloof is a cipher who constructs his own legacy for Maier, herself a work of art on whom he’ll have the final word.
Still, studies of art and artists along the lines of Jodorowsky’s Dune are evergreen. There’s been an audience hungry for behind-the-scenes secrets for as long as there have been scenes. Finding Vivian Maier carries a slightly more rarefied air in its layered mystery, and this particular type of documentary will, I suspect, only get more popular. Discovering an analog treasure and making it famous is the dream of the Internet age in which so many things are so easily accessible. But Tim’s Vermeer might be the best example of this genre. His love story unfolds in real time before the camera, his folksy mien precluding any discussion of self-awareness behind the effort he expends to bring back a ghost room as a setting for a painting he can’t forget, giving no other reason than he loved it so much, he had to know. Art becoming life in the worship of art? Pygmalion couldn’t ask for more.