Most documentaries tell rather than show. I’d rather be shown and make my own mind up.
It takes a lot more discipline to let go than attempt to control the course of every interpretation — that sounds like panic to me. I think that’s why there are so few good critics — no discipline.
Sophie Fiennes’ Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow has discipline. Although it’s being marketed and discussed as a documentary, it attempts a kind of arts criticism via film, and the parts that work, work wonderfully.
It works because the critic filmmaker shuts the fuck up. Instead, what we’re presented with is the critic’s eye in the form of a camera gliding over and observing the overwhelming, extensive sculpture and art installation cum decaying village complete with catacombs created by Anselm Kiefer in the French area known as Barjac.
I knew nothing about Kiefer before seeing Over Your Cites. Despite including that Wikipedia link above, if you don’t already know anything about him and his work, my advice is to not click the link in order to come at the work as fresh as possible.
One way I know that a critic has done her job is if my absorption in the artist or art at hand continues after I’ve read the review. Part of a critic’s job is to begin the process of engagement, not end it or become its last word.
Fiennes did her job here for me. I’ve watched the film 3 times through and the long passages of nothing but tracking shots even more often than that. I’ve done research. I’ve read reviews. I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve interrogated what I’ve seen. I listened to the director’s commentary.
I want to go to Barjac.
In an atypically clueless review — hey, everybody writes them now and again — NYT film critic Manohla Dargis complains that:
… because [director Sophie Fiennes] won’t or can’t engage the complexities of the art and the arguments that have long surrounded it (involving, for instance, Mr. Kiefer’s appropriation of Nazi imagery), she embraces a silence that nonetheless clamorously draws attention to itself through the cinematography and some of the same music that Stanley Kubrick used in “2001.” It’s unfortunate that in gliding through these ravaged spaces while dodging time and its traumas, she embraces the role of tourist rather than of the vigorous, questioning participant that Mr. Kiefer’s work solicits and demands.
Dargis would rather hear interpretations and certainties, I guess. Not me.
She wants her questions answered. Me too, but not necessarily all at once and not by Fiennes, and least of all by the artist himself.
For instance, I was intrigued to find out that the presumably Algerian men helping Kiefer construct his ruins were artists in their own right. Fiennes offers no commentary on their presence during the film. I took that, not as an omission, but a provocation.
Finally, Fiennes does ask questions and ultimately the most important question of all:
What do you see?