Directed by: Marion Cajori
Starring: Chuck Close, Alex Katz, Robert Rauschenberg, Leslie Close, Elizabeth Murray
The late Marion Cajori’s Chuck Close (2007)—Cajori died in 2006—is an expanded version of her acclaimed 1998 documentary on the painter. As filmmaking, it’s a fairly straightforward work—nothing flashy and it certainly doesn’t reinvent the form. In terms of content, however, this is one of the more compelling documentaries I’ve seen. It’s ostensibly about following the creation of one of Close’s huge self-portraits. On another level, the film is also a portrait of Close himself. But there’s a third level, because Chuck Close gets right down to examining the artistic process in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen done quite this well.
As noted, the film follows the creation of one of Close’s gigantic self-portraits—and intersperses this with interviews with Close and the people who know him—but it does so in an interesting way, because while we note that Close is in a wheelchair, that someone else is often doing things for him, and that the paint brushes are strapped to his hand, the film offers no explanation of these things until very far into it. It’s almost as if the film refuses to play on audience sympathy for Close’s disabilities, which is probably a good thing in more ways than one. The major strength of this, however, comes from the fact that Close very obviously doesn’t ask for sympathy and doesn’t want it—certainly he doesn’t want to be defined by it.
I’m going to step out of the realm of the film for a moment to say that the attitude that the film mirrors is neither unique, nor do I suspect that Close feels its stoic or heroic or anything else. I say that from personal experience. I was taught photography and darkroom technique back in the first half of the 1970s by a man, who would then have been about 30 and had been in a wheelchair since he broke his neck at the age of 14. His name was Frank Elkins and he had even more limited upper-body movement than Close, though he did use similar strapping techniques to the ones depicted in the film. Frank had a small tripod-like device that fit on the arms of his chair and fired his motorized camera with his tongue, using a shutter release held in his teeth. He found none of this remarkable—it just was—and there was no self-pity in his make up. (We sometimes played wheelchair polo with a croquet set with me in an unmotorized wheelchair.) Cajori’s film gives me this same sense about Close.
In any case, if you’ve any interest in the creative process and want an intimate look at an important painter and how he works, you won’t do much better than this film.
The Asheville Art Museum is screening Chuck Close at the Fine Arts Theatre at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 8. Admission is $10/$8 for museum members.