By Ray Pride
Movies are about watching, but movies about watchers themselves are rare and rarer to get right.
While film festivals make their own brave attempts at categorizing the dozens of hundreds of documentaries being made, each in its own fashion, the Siskel Film Center’s annual January survey, “Stranger than Fiction,” is a valuable taster, with ten titles, several with Chicago connections, such as Bob Hercules’ “Senator Obama Goes To Africa.” One of the most haunting films I saw in 2007 was Esther Robinson’s “A Walk Into the Sea,” an exploration of the life of her late uncle Danny Williams, who had been Warhol’s roommate and lover, who left behind striking black-and-white films of his own, mostly edited in-camera as he shot, to stunning effect. The way Robinson uses the footage is remarkable: over the movie’s running time, footage that’s never been seen before attains archival weight. The use of sound and score is exemplary as well, suggesting not only Williams’ way of weaving through the world, but Robinson’s as well. I haven’t seen Jennifer Venditti’s “Billy the Kid,” about a 15-year-old in Maine who acts out for her camera, but the responses elsewhere range from the ecstatic to the damning, which is always a good sign.
One of the more engrossing entries among the hundred-plus documentaries I saw last year at festivals in Chicago, Thessaloniki and Toronto was Jack Youngelson and Peter Sutherland’s “Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project,” which encompasses the implications of watching even more so than “Walk” and “Billy.” Gearon, a former model and dancer, chronicles the members of her family in her fine arts photography, most recently, capturing her manic-depressive, schizophrenic mother who lives in a dilapidated upstate New York home. The contrast between Gearon’s mother’s flights of fancifulness and her children’s sense of play is engrossing, but more so the intensity of mother and daughter to understand one another. It’s one of the best recent movies about how an artist’s perspective is formed that I can recall.
Youngelson, whose credits include co-writing and producing Rory Kennedy’s documentary, “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” says he and Sutherland had a compatible shooting style in the months they spent observing Gearon. “If the two of us were working together, Peter would typically shoot, and I would handle the sound recording. But, if one of us was alone with Tierney and her family, whoever was with her would handle it all, shooting, sound, the works.” Gearon’s work is intimate, often strange, mostly quite beautiful. “Esthetically, we wanted the look of the documentary to match the spirit of her photos. We used available light ninety-nine percent of the time. Plus, we didn’t rely on traditional interviews to drive the story. And, when we did do interviews, we wanted the spirit of the words to be as if you were inside Tierney’s head, as if she were in the process of working things out.” He adds, “Which she was.”
“As you can imagine, depending on who was with her produced much different results, but the overall look is quite seamless,” Youngelson says of the 100 hours of material shot over four years. The pair became aware of Gearon’s photos when they appeared in the Saatchi Gallery’s “I Am a Camera” Show in 2001. “They were not images from the Mother Project, but focused on her two children, Michael and Emilee. This was the show that created the controversy in London, a public firestorm erupted over the content of the images, were they pornographic, or were they art? The British police threatened to shut down the show if two or three of her works were not removed from the gallery walls. In the end, the controversy went away, in large measure due to major London papers publishing Tierney’s photos, clearly taking the position that the work was legitimate, and not pornographic.”
What did they find striking? “Their beauty, their sadness, the sense that amid all this chaos, there is somehow calm at the center. Their humor and their ability to snap you into another world that seems foreign yet familiar at the same time. Their color palettes, their deep backgrounds dropping to infinity. Their warmth and honesty. Their ability to push buttons, to take chances. The sense that all of her subjects are together in the frame, yet somehow alone.”
Gearon was a game subject as well, coming across as fiercely open as her work. “There were no boundaries or rules. She did not see anything, really, until we were at the very end of the production. If anything, Tierney sometimes says now that she wished we had pushed the envelope even further, that we somehow had not fully captured the essence of her mother in the way Tierney experiences the relationship. My feeling is that that would be impossible. We could never fully capture the pain or hurt or love that travels in both directions, we can only observe and hope to get close to the truth. Which Tierney would probably say is bullshit anyway, that truth is purely subjective, especially when it comes down to a fraction of a second captured on film. And she’s right.”
“Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project” plays Monday and Thursday at Siskel. Other listings at siskelfilmcenter.org