Two artist documentaries: a good one about a bad artist and a bad one about a good artist. Glib certainly but close enough.
The good film is In the Mirror of Maya Deren (Martina Kudlácek 2002). Deren certainly led an interesting life and this film follows her childhood in Russia, immigration to the U.S., excursions to Haiti, jaunts through the NYC avant-monde, dance and of course her films. Deren was one of those people who seemed to know everybody and be everywhere though of course that’s just PR. What isn’t an illusion is her films which as ground-breaking as they were at the time today are leaden and obvious. They’re sort of like reading Spenser or Bunyan - you need them for historical context but their aesthetic value has long passed by. In the Mirror helps pin down why. First Deren considered herself mainly a poet and that must be why her films have so little visual imagination - they are actually verbal images that have merely been filmed. (Cloaked figure with a mirror for a face, check.) Deren was not a person of the cinema, she was a person of words. And second she insisted on proper interpretations. Put another way, she wanted the films/images/poems to mean one thing and not something else - she lacked the openness of a real artist. (The DVD includes fragments of unfinished films that are of no interest whatsoever.) But even as a boring filmmaker Deren certainly is the subject of a not-boring film, not just because of her life but because the film traces the (or at least some) relations among life, art, ethnicity, cities, the usual fun stuff.
Much less interesting is In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (Jessica Yu 2004) which attempts to bring Darger to a wider audience and to that end consistently dumbs down everything. Instead of simply showing Darger’s art Yu adds animation to it so that the figures move, not completely flexible like cartoon characters but still enough that she’s basically saying the art isn’t good enough on its own. (And if you’ve never had the chance to see a Darger in real life it’s like seeing a Pollock or Van Gogh the first time - reproductions don’t really prepare you for the experience.) Darger also left very little in the way of biography or documentation (well other than his massive pieces) so the film fills out with info about Chicago though it’s not at all clear this is even remotely relevant. Darger lived so much in his own world that his physical location seems unlikely to have affected his work. And the film just very briefly touches on a topic that I think occurs to anybody who encounters him - was he sane? Darger never hurt anybody or acted bizarrely but could art like his have been made by anybody who wasn’t, well, seriously disturbed? In a way that doesn’t matter but In the Realms just glides over the entire topic. I suppose it’s better to have one inept, uncomprehending film about Darger than none at all but that’s a close call.