Watch 5: Distracting Documentaries

We’re deep into our second lock-down here in Toronto, and I need something to watch while I fold laundry or sweat in place on my stair-master. I’ve developed a strong preference for arts & culture documentaries, probably to compensate for the gallery exhibitions and concerts I can’t enjoy in person right now.

Here are my five recommendations:

Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint (2019)

This doc is a look at the life and work of the Swedish painter and mystic Hilma af Klint. A prolific painter who lived and worked in Sweden, Hilma is considered by many to have made the first abstract paintings in Western art. A breakthrough that that art historians usually accredit to Wassily Kandinsky. The film explores Hilma af Klint’s artistic development and interest in Theosophy and Spiritualism alongside her nephew’s ongoing efforts to establish her as a canonical Modernist painter alongside her male colleagues Kandinsky, Mondrian et al.

Carmine Street Guitars (2018)

A super laid back documentary that will appeal to anyone who’s interested in guitars, craftsmanship or New York City. Rick Kelly salvages timbre from torn down landmarks in NYC and turns them into custom guitars. He and his apprentice Cindy Hulej run Carmine Street Guitars, a small, cluttered independent shop in Greenwich Village that has managed to avoid gentrification. This slow-burn of a film is a celebration of three-chord rock’n’roll, artisanship and the little guy. 

Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (2016)

An Animated Life is an affectionate documentary about Floyd Norman, the first African-American artist employed by Disney in 1956. It feels a bit more like a tribute film than an examination. But, if Disney cartoons were among your first artistic influences, and they were for many of us, you’re going to want to listen to Floyd and his stories about working on everything from Sleeping Beauty to Scooby-Doo to Toy Story.

The Wrecking Crew (2008)

“The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to a loose collective of Los Angeles session musicians who played on many hit songs in the 1960s and ’70s. Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco and Earl Palmer et al. are far from household names, but they played many songs that have become so popular they’re practically ubiquitous.  Wrecking Crew is a snapshot of big studio music-making at its peak, and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the life and contributions of these overlooked musicians. 

Surfwise (2007)

Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz was a successful doctor who gave up medicine for surfing after his second failed marriage. He eventually remarried and fathered nine children with his new wife, raising his brood in a twenty-four-foot camper van on the best surfing beaches of the West Coast. None of the Paskowitz children received a formal education. Many became professional surfers. All of them are a bit screwed up by their unorthodox upbringing, but they don’t seem worse off then anyone else. The documentary is either a cautionary tale on transient bohemian living or a how-to manual depending on how you feel about such things. While Doc’s choices are extreme and his many of his parenting decisions questionable, it’s a good watch for a time when so many are reconsidering how they’ve organized their lives. 

Honourable mention: The 100 Years Show (2015) a short-length documentary about Cuban-American minimalist painter Carmen Herrera. A trained architect and artist who worked in Paris, Havana and New York City, her work was rejected by the NYC art establishment until the mid-2000. Herrera finally received a career retrospective at The Whitney in 2016.

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