Without Gorky: LAFF Review
Spender's documentary about her grandfather offers an intimate and sometimes repetitive and uncomfortable look inside the late artist's life and family.
As the title of Cosima Spender’s documentary suggests, the painter Arshile Gorky both is and isn’t its subject. The filmmaker acknowledges the enduring power of his work and his profound influence on Abstract Expressionism, but the true focus of Without Gorky is the reverberations of his suicide on the family he left behind. More than 60 years after his death, they’re still grappling with the emotional fallout, Spender included — she’s the artist’s granddaughter.
The director’s closeness to her material is its strength and, to a lesser extent, its weakness. Her interviews with Gorky’s widow and children — her grandmother, mother and aunt — lend the film an undeniable intimacy. At the same time, the evidence of rifts and tensions grows repetitive, and occasionally an uncomfortable feeling seeps into the film, the sense that Spender is making a private point to her relatives more than she is speaking to a public audience. But Gorky’s story, with its secrets, mysteries and torments, is nonetheless a fascinating one. The doc, which screened in the International Showcase section of the recent Los Angeles Film Festival, is a natural for arts-oriented cable and broadcast outlets.
Self-invention is elemental to every artist, but for Gorky it was extreme. It wasn’t until after his death in 1948, at about age 46 (there’s no sure documentation of his birth date) that his wife learned his real name, Vosdanig Adoian, and that he was Armenian. His psychological instability in adulthood takes on a different cast in light of the revelation that he experienced genocide firsthand, as a boy, and watched his mother die of starvation.
Spender’s determination to quiet the “white noise” of her life, the pain that Gorky felt and inflicted, leads her and her family to previously unknown relatives in California and, most poignantly, to the peaceful shores of Lake Van, in Turkey, one of the sites of unspeakable atrocities during the Armenian massacres.
But much of her film’s running time unfolds stateside, as she visits with her mother, Maro; her aunt, Natasha; and Agnes “Mougouch” Magruder, her elegant and flinty grandmother. Spender takes Maro and Natasha, 5 and 3 at the time of Gorky’s suicide, to the Connecticut house where it happened. Now well into middle age, Natasha has no conscious memories of her father, feels no connection to her mother and says she has been in shock most of her life.
Firstborn Maro still struggles to forgive her mother for having an extramarital affair and for sending her daughters to boarding school after she was widowed.
It’s evident that Mougouch was never a warm maternal figure. An aspiring painter when she met Gorky, 20 years her senior, she welcomed the dimension that he brought to her bourgeois life. When she speaks of the literal heaviness of his canvases, thick with elaborately worked paint, her admiration is clear. No less clear is the anguish she felt as his setbacks, deepening depression, drinking and cruelty drove her away.
As a force both creative and destructive, Gorky persists. Any truces that Spender captures onscreen feel provisional, and however many answers she finds about her grandfather, Without Gorky never suggests that this traumatized family will easily achieve resolution or peace.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
A Peacock Pictures and Arshile Gorky Foundation production
with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Dadourian Foundation
Director: Cosima Spender
Writers: Cosima Spender, Valerio Bonelli, Saskia Spender
Producers: Cosima Spender, Valerio Bonelli
Directors of photography: Benjamin Kracun, Ula Pontikos, Cosima Spender
Music: Jason Cooper and Oliver Krauss with Matteo Cipollina
Co-producer: Anna Teeman
Editor: Valerio Bonelli
No MPAA rating, 80 minutes