Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review: Artists in Wonderland

Artists in Wonderland (1998, Sato Makoto)

Walking down the halls of a painting gallery can be a pleasant experience for many people. One observes the scenes and objects put to canvass, the technique used to create the piece (provided one understands such things), and in all likely will live some kind of emotive or intellectual response. What is the picture about? What do I think it is about? Why were such colours chosen? Why is she smiling at me? How come Goya likes drawing death and decay so much? What is that itchy feeling in my pants? Etc.

Of course, for the most part the paintings you and I study and observe at the gallery were created by respected artists, some of which are known the world over. Their art tells a story, releases or relieves frustrations, challenges. Whether the work be as clear as another one of those ‘Jesus on the cross’ paintings, or as abstract as that one with the spheres and the thingy, we can appreciate the effort.

Japanese director Sato Makato takes those ideas and documents them for the viewer to observe in a slightly different light with his film Artists in Wonderland. Makato visited several different mental institutions where patients were encouraged to channel their capacities and emotions towards creating art, most notably paintings and sculptures. The mind of a mentally challenged individual is fit only for the specialists to even attempt to understand, but by and large the regular societal members will agree in saying that a mentally ill individual simply doesn’t ‘think’ or ‘function’ as, or the lack of a better term, ‘normal’ people do. What kind of art would they create if given the opportunity? If a monkey can make art, then there’s no reason why a mentally handicapped person can’t. After all, it is said that the activity of creating a work of art can be a soothing and possibly a healing experience.

The concept of the film starts off in promising manner. The viewer witnesses a mental patient drawing an elaborate if somewhat confusing picture of a plant with one of the employees supervising him providing some comments which were recorded off screen and hence narrate this segment. Her comments are intriguing and give some insight into how these patients approach their work. She briefly comments on what techniques she, as a student, had been taught to adopt when drawing plants and various objects. Her educational background provided her with rather technical strategies and guidelines to follow and help channel whatever inspiration she had. What she notices is how the patient, lacking any formal training and probably with a radically different thought process, is creating what she sees as an impressive picture, full of detail and rich textures of emotions. Whereas she was instructed to begin a picture of a plant with a particular part of the organism, she explains that the patients tend to start their pictures with whatever leaves the biggest impression on them. It is the impression from whence the art is derived.

From there Makato takes us to a couple of other facilities, each one populated by patients who have struck a love affair with the arts. One in particular, an elderly man, invests his efforts in the moulding and solidifying of clay sculptures. He is a colourful character who, despite his overall good nature, consistently mentions ‘what a pity it is.’ What exactly is ‘a pity’? I’m not entirely sure, but it made the chap rather comical. His works are not representations are clear, easily discernable objects or people, but rather abstract shapes and forms. Yet another patient, who demands that all name him She-chan, is a bit of an eccentric (even for his condition) who shouts that he likes high school girls in mini skirts. Although it never occurs on screen, it is hinted that She-chan sometimes becomes a bit physically violent with those around him. Yet, he channels his emotions as well as love for beaches and bikinis on a very art-house-esque program which features him as the star narrating whatever he feels like. Each of these patients eventually sees the results of his and her efforts displayed in some galleries.

The crust of the film, as you can probably imagine, is the reality that impressive, curious and noteworthy art is emerging from these handicapped minds. I don’t think the film is trying to prove anything necessarily. There is no spoon fed message of ‘look you insensitive fools, these people can create beautiful things!’ The idea of simply following these people as they work on their respective projects in preparation for the expositions is a fascinating one. There is absolutely no intrusion whatsoever on the part of director Makato. He doesn’t interfere with any of the depicted moments. He lets the camera, and hence whomever the camera is capturing at a given time, show reality. There are a few shared moments with the family members or friends of these patients and even a glimpse or two of She-chan being told that shouting at and pinching people doesn’t leave a good impression of him with others. Mostly however, we see these outcast artists at work. For that reason, the film does put the concept of art in an interesting perspective. As I mentioned earlier, the movie isn’t hammering home any specific argument, but I was captivated by the art given life by these supposedly stupid people. What’s more I found the fruit of their efforts to be very beautiful, at least most of the time. I was particularly taken by the sculptures created by the elderly patient (we even see him one night working with a kiln, which is a fun scene). It was equally rewarding to see that the time and efforts put into the preparations were treated with respect by and large by those helping them at the institutes. The film never tries to make up a ‘villain’ in order to construct some artificial conflict.

And yet, despite that major strength, I was hoping for a bit more. By the end, I longed for some more comments and analysis, the likes of which the viewer is given at the beginning regarding technique and inspiration. It would have been nice to hear from some of the visitors to the galleries once all the works are put on display. Some comments from the friends and family members would have added some context to these talented people we follow around for 90 minutes. Anything to add some meat to what is on display in the film. The value of art, what is means to different people, what it can do for these mentally handicapped people, what it might mean for them, etc. There is absolutely none of that. It’s 90 minutes of them working in their projects and putting them on display, with a few scenes featuring them in interaction with family or the people working at these facilities.

The absence of any of the above elements doesn’t hurt the documentary all that much. I like the film. It has an interesting topic, it spends a lot of screen time observing the patients toiling away on their art and unlike some documentary filmmakers, Makoto chooses to remain impartial throughout. It could have been more is essentially my complaint. Good but by no means great.

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