17 Jun 2019

Preview: Rialto Channel’s Creative Minds season

From Widescreen, 3:45 pm on 17 June 2019

Dan Slevin previews four documentaries from Rialto Channel about the lives of some very different artists.

Cinematographer Robby Müller on set.

Cinematographer Robby Müller on set. Photo: Rialto Channel

Programming Rialto Channel must be one of the great jobs in movies. With a seemingly never-ending supply of quality arthouse and international cinema to choose from, and the seven other Sky movie channels not being terribly interested in that territory, opportunities to be creative abound.

This month they’ve packaged up a quartet of documentaries under the banner 'Creative Minds' – engaging with inner and outer lives of four very different artists. On some levels the connection between the four films is tenuous but each one makes excellent viewing, and, without the packaging they might have flown under my radar so congratulations to whoever spotted this potential.

I’ve seen three out of the four – I haven’t managed to catch up with Every Act of Life about the New York playwright Terrence McNally (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune and Love! Valour! Compassion! Are two highlights among many) but the three that I have seen were utterly absorbing in very different ways.

The straightest of the documentaries is the detective story Batman & Bill in which a (not-quite caped) crusader discovers a miscarriage of literary justice and is determined to make it right. Most people would assume that Bob Kane created Batman. After all, his name appears as sole credit on every comic book, TV and movie adaptation and he parlayed that credit into fame and fortune.

But Kane had help. When he sold the idea of Batman to (the company that became) D.C. Comics in 1939 he had already sub-contracted most of the creative work out to a writer named Bill Finger. Finger died penniless and alone in the early 70s and writer Mark Nobleman has made it his mission to ensure that Finger, and his family, get the credit that he deserves.

Batman & Bill unwinds its story cleverly, finding increasing levels of drama in ways that also make clear the utter commodification of comic book intellectual property.

According to my records Peter Greenaway (The Draughtsman’s Contract, The Pillow Book, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) hasn’t had a film in the New Zealand International Film Festival since The Tulse Luper Suitcases: Part 1 back in 2004, so imagine my surprise watching The Greenaway Alphabet to discover he has made seven feature films since then.

Peter Greenaway and his daughter Pip in a scene from The Greenaway Alphabet.

Peter Greenaway and his daughter Pip in a scene from The Greenaway Alphabet. Photo: Rialto Channel

A contented elderly resident of Amsterdam, Welshman Greenaway, is one of the great avant garde artists of late 20th century cinema, taking the technology of motion pictures and laying it across his obsessions with fine art (especially classical painting), the human body, his own childhood and his adult fear of drowning.

Playful, prolific and proudly intellectual, Greenaway becomes the subject of a biography structured in a way he clearly appreciates. Written and directed by his wife Saskia Boddete (perhaps not uncoincidentally Saskia was also the name of the wife of Rembrandt, a powerful influence on Greenaway’s own image making) with the help of teenage daughter Pip acting as interviewer, we learn about the artist, the parent and the man.

Split-screen images, complex-but-elegant cross-cutting, and formal compositions are delightfully undermined by an extremely normal (and often very funny) family dynamic. For a filmmaker who has spent so much of his life celebrating the naked human form, I’m pleased to report that Greenaway isn’t spared the same exposure in this film.

The late Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller was also inspired by the great masters, but his art form took on a very different character, adapting to his collaborators including Wim Wenders, Lars von Trier, Jim Jarmusch and others among the greatest names of the 70s and 80s indie cinema heyday. Like Greenaway, Müller believed in focus – when you look at a great painting, is any of it out of focus, Greenaway likes to ask – but he also believed in combining meticulous preparation with an ability to change tack instantly if the director, the actor – or even a bird flying across the shot – demanded it.

Robby Müller frames Dennis Hopper on the set of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977).

Robby Müller frames Dennis Hopper on the set of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977). Photo: Criterion

Living the Light is directed by Claire Pijman and she shows us many examples of how versatile and alive he was, as well as how inventive. Much of the film is taken from Müller’s own home video footage, although home video isn’t quite the right word for the restless images he constantly shot while he was on the road, always testing, experimenting, and looking for the light.

He was a man of few words at the best of times, but late in life cerebrovascular disease (like a series of small strokes) took his ability to speak. Luckily, many of those collaborators fill the gap here with Jarmusch even providing the soundtrack music.

Rialto Channel launches each film in the Creative Minds season every Wednesday night at 8.30pm from 5 June to 26 June and then each film continues to play several times during June and July following its premiere. Check the Sky schedule for details and ratings.

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