A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man: Michael Smither, Gordon Crook

FILM, Film Festivals,

An artist in residence; a life of art.

No disrespect to either Michael Smither or Gordon Crook with the ‘old man’ description, but the spectre of death (or at least old age) does hang over both these documentaries. Beyond that, these two portraits of local artists take up quite different approaches to examining their subjects.

Shot last year as Smither was re-examining his relationship to the art world, Michael Smither: Artist in Residence isn’t the first film director Tony Hiles has made with or about the painter. As such, there is an assumed knowledge that the viewer knows who Smither is and what he does. This is not a biography in any sense, but it is a strong portrait, albeit a reflective one.

Taking a cinema verité approach, the film is narrated entirely by Smither—not specifically talking to camera, but certainly talking to an (assumed) audience. Some of the first words we hear Smither say are “I’m ready to die… these [paintings] are the last messages I’m leaving.” It’s not maudlin, just a matter of fact statement from a man comfortable with getting older.

While only 40 minutes in duration, the documentary packs in plenty of information. We see Smither’s last dealer gallery show in August 2009—a collection of abstract geometries, quite unlike the work he is known for. As he enters a new phase of his life, he discusses his reasoning for no longer showing with dealers: the desire to slow down, to not have to produce x-amount of works every year.

In addition to commentary about Smither’s painting methodology and career, we observe him working on a commissioned piece, and chatting about the work. To this non-painter, it is an interesting process to watch. These scenes are alternated with ones following Smither around his Coromandel home, espousing his thoughts about the environment, its influence on his work, his plans for his land, and his concerns for the direction humankind is heading. The leap from painting, to environment, and back again—while an uneasy jumble of two naratives—is not completely jarring and reveals Smither’s current concerns without suggesting one is more important than the other.

Smither, who writes and plays contemporary classical piano, also provides the soundtrack to the film. It is not unpleasant though more discordant than his paintings, jumping around scales and occasionally shying away from traditional melody/harmony. It works well as a soundtrack, and shows yet another side of the artist.

I understand that this is the second of a planned series of 20 short films on Michael Smither. If 20 might seem like overreaching the mark somewhat, Artist in Residence is an intriguing watch, and one that, by rights, should screen on television in the not too distant future.

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The informality of Artist In Residence leaves one with the impression that they’ve caught up with an irregularly seen mate. Gordon Crook: A Life Of Art, on the other hand, seems too intent on honouring its subject’s artistic career that it ends up in limbo between intimate portrait and homage.

More formalised than the Smither documentary in terms of its filming and narrative, A Life of Art is also loosely biographical, if avoiding much in the way of examination. Intercut with the backstory are contemporary interviews with Crook and friends. Ironically, when compared to Hiles’s making of Artist in Residence, the filmmakers here are perhaps too close to Crook to produce the kind of objective document they are aiming for.

Crook is definitely a character (some may say larger than life), and he seems to have led an interesting life. The story of Crook’s career began in the UK post-WWI, included a stint in the Middle East during WWII, before moving on to art school where he ended up teaching. His move to New Zealand is only briefly mentioned—something to do with escaping a girl. Interspersed throughout are pieces of autobiographical narration, often recent poems from a yet-to-be-completed memoir project.

There’s also considerable discussion of his art—by students, dealers, curators, friends, and Crook himself. Revealed is a frivolity in much of Crook’s work, something not so common in the artists he mentions as influences (“serious painters”). At one point he says that he is interested in colour and shape, a theme that is present in whatever medium his art takes.

While some of the informality conveyed in the Smither documentary could have found its way into A Life Of Art—and as a result allowed Crook more freedom to tell his story—this is nothing if not a welcome (re)introduction to an artist who, while still making and exhibiting work, doesn’t have the profile he once did.

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Something else entirely, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a fantastic piece of (what I strongly suspect to be) japery. On the face of it, it’s a documentary about street art, and Banksy in particular. As the film progresses the cynic in me started questioning things. I’ve no doubt that everything that happened in the film occurred largely in the way documented, however I doubts about the honesty behind and authenticity of certain people and events. This is, after all, a film by the elusive Banksy, who made his name creating beautifully subversive, witty, and politically astute pieces of street art, so why shouldn’t he make an equally subversive, witty, and pointed film?

‘Michael Smither: Artist in Residence’, Dir. Tony Hiles
NZ, 2010; 40 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington.
‘Gordon Crook: A Life of Art’, Dir. Clare O’Leary
NZ, 2010; 60 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.