As David Hockney once said, “new ways of seeing mean new ways of feeling.” Life inflects art, art inflects life, and biographical documentaries often strive to capture these inflections as they go both ways. That’s why Randall Wright’s Hockney combines the genre’s near-obligatory interviews and still images of Hockney’s paintings with simple reenactments of his nocturnal wanderings of London and Los Angeles. It’s also why the film ends with a quiet tour of Hockney’s current residence, given by the artist himself. So much of his work depicts the homes, gardens and pools of Southern California with bright light and color. Now he lives in the environment of one of his paintings.
This sort of experimentation isn’t confined to Hockney. This spring has brought with it a strong handful of these films. Two of them open this week, Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse and Christian Braad Thomsen’s Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands. While working in different forms, these two figures have something in common. Both artists died far too young. Eva Hesse passed away in 1970 at 34 years old, the result of a brain tumor. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was only 37 when he succumbed to a lethal combination of cocaine and barbiturates in 1982. And yet both were also extraordinarily prolific. The retrospective of Hesse’s work after her untimely death filled the entire Guggenheim Museum. Fassbinder, meanwhile, directed well over 40 films in 14 years.
And a short life in no way implies a short documentary. Begleiter and Thomsen have curated their feature-length flms from the raw material of life, in the same way that Wright did with Hockney. Yet they could not leave the audience with more different impressions. This is not simply because of Eva Hesse’s animation or Fassbinder’s treasure trove of previously unseen interview footage with the director himself, though such surface distinctions are important. Rather, it’s how these two filmmakers use biographical information to shed light on the art.
Adopting a fairly common structural conceit, Begleiter tells Hesse’s story in two parallel tracks. Most of the film follows her professional career, charting her growing success in the international art world. Stories of her childhood, her parents’ efforts to escape Nazi Germany, and her mother’s suicide weave in and out of an otherwise linear narrative. The growth of her character underlines the impact of her work.
After all, one of the most important things to understand about Hesse is the way in which she resisted categorization. She started as something of an abstract expressionist painter, but her journey toward sculpture led her through elements of surrealism and minimalism. She shows the influence of both Pop Art and its opponents. Many of her friends were important figures in the Land Art movement, which got a documentary of its own earlier this year.
Hesse’s work stands both with and apart from these varied influences. From a place of intellectual distance, her fusing of painting and sculpture can be understood as a midpoint between surrealism and minimalism. But the context of her life, her friends and her journey are a different, perhaps more emotionally resonant way to present her work. Suddenly they are all quintessentially the thoughts and ideas of Eva Hesse, works that stand as an expression of character rather than simply images squished into a survey history of 20th century American art.
Now, very little of this is articulated in Eva Hesse as a specific, point-by-point reading of her pieces. That makes it something of a polar opposite to Thomsen’s portrait of Fassbinder, which wields the filmmaker’s childhood as a cattle prod weapon against his films. Fassbinder also moves in a linear fashion, kickstarting with the boos that met his debut feature, Love Is Colder Than Death, in Berlin and then jumping back to his childhood. Fassbinder’s mother actually acted in some of his films, so there’s a lot to work with.
In Thomsen’s hands, this material becomes little more than a plodding explication of Freudian concepts. After explaining the Oedipus Complex via the film’s near-constant voiceover, he lays out how the director’s filmography originates in this initial array of simple psychological impulses. He locates the absent, murdered father in everything, from the director’s early French New Wave-inspired period all the way through Berlin Alexanderplatz. As he moves forward, addressing both masterpieces such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and worthy lesser-known works such as I Only Want You to Love Me, his project remains essentially the same. He is looking for beloved mothers and the anarchistic young men whose political and criminal projects are really just more Freudian efforts to erase their fathers.
Now, this is not to say that the interview footage of Fassbinder, particularly that taken by Thomsen himself during the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, isn’t fascinating. It’s probably the only thing that makes this documentary a must-see for fans of the director. But the film is really more about Thomsen’s relationship with and interpretation of Fassbinder than it is about Fassbinder’s art. It isn’t even about some of the most significant themes or characters in his filmography; Thomsen struggles to deal with the many female characters who aren’t mothers, but he mostly just circles back to the same confused statement about the impossibility of “women’s liberation.”
The brilliance of the art slips underneath all of this logically arranged interpretation. So do most of the masterpieces, but that might be because they’re all primarily about women; or because neither Margit Carstensen nor Hannah Schygulla were interviewed by Thomsen for this film. Either way, much of the real power of Fassbinder’s work is eschewed in favor of a single set of recurring tropes and lots of harsh clips from Martha. And so the horrible, inevitable conclusion comes with a bizarre flavor. Death isn’t a great way to end an argument.
The conclusion of Eva Hesse, meanwhile, is quite admirably heartbreaking. A lack of familiarity with the details of the artist’s abrupt but sustained battle with cancer certainly helps, of course. But it is also beautifully measured by Begleiter, who treats Hesse’s illness as a creative period and a time for reflection rather than simply a brutal twist of fate. The result is not simply among the truest tears you’ll have in any film this year, documentary or otherwise, but also a powerful buttress for the unique quality of Hesse’s creative voice.
And the lights come up. In a way, cinema is little different from Hesse’s conception of her own sculptures. She never cared that her materials would eventually decay. “Let them worry about that,” she used to say, meaning museums and collectors. One of her friends relates a story in which Hesse, after explaining her views on the impermanence of her work, took a glass and threw it against the wall. Nothing lasts forever, least of all documentaries. But maybe what they can do is leave an impression, one that enriches every future encounter with the work of the artist. Eva Hesse, at least, does so beautifully.