'Aggie': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An ordinary doc about an extraordinary woman.

Filmmaker Catherine Gund pays tribute to her mother's longstanding impact on the modern art world in her new documentary.

Even though she’s a millionaire art collector, Agnes Gund does not like being in the spotlight. Her daughter Catherine Gund, who produces and directs a new film about the elder Ms. Gund, is keenly aware of this. In an early scene, she asks Agnes to share her thoughts on being the subject of a film: “I really hope not too many people will see it,” she says in a voice that’s part whisper, part cough. It's a humorous quip that is quintessentially Aggie, an introvert who speaks frankly and enjoys lifting up other voices — particularly in the art world — rather than raising her own.

Aggie is an extraordinary figure, and the doc is interesting enough. But don’t expect much invention or surprise here. The overall tone is frenetic and imprecise. And that Gund uses drab-colored paint brushstrokes as a motif throughout the film is more than just a little on the nose. But the director does ground the film visually with a cascade of works of modern art; getting to actually see the art Aggie and others are talking about is one of the most compelling things about the flick.

The film covers a lot of ground and plays with the structure of a traditional character-driven doc. Aggie is of course about its eponymous subject, but it’s also about so much more: the artists she champions, the curatorial politics around decisions to purchase modern art from them and her charitable fund that promotes nationwide criminal justice reform. By the end of the movie, it feels more like a daughter’s loving tribute to her mother than anything else. Catherine seems to be wrestling with who her 80-something mother is now and her apparently strong belief that more people should know who this woman is.

Aggie comes alive most when she’s engaging with artists about art, so it was smart to enlist a handful of them — like Julie Mehretu and Glenn Ligon — as on-camera interviewers for Aggie. While it is undoubtedly where the film elicits the most interest, other stretches of the pic are aimless and muddled. After a while, you can’t help but wonder whether or not this is the best vehicle for Aggie’s story. Even as she speaks with great passion and depth about her relationship to the arts, she seems less than thrilled about being on camera. Unfortunately the doc isn’t able to overcome this fundamental obstacle.

And then there’s the attempt to connect art with a more equitable society. Back in 2017, Aggie sold the famous Roy Lichtenstein painting “Masterpiece” from her extensive collection and used $100M of the proceeds to launch the nonprofit Art for Justice Fund. She was inspired to start the fund by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir Just Mercy and Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated doc 13th. (Both Stevenson and DuVernay appear in the film singing Aggie’s praises.)

Catherine Gund is ambitious for attempting to pull together so many aspects of her mother’s life. Unfortunately, that ambition doesn't always make for the strongest film.

Cast: John Waters, Thelma Golden, Abigail Disney, Maria Hinojosa, Julie Mehretu, Glenn Ligon, Xaviera Simmons, Darren Walker, Bryan Stevenson

Director: Catherine Gund

Producers: Catherine Gund, Tanya Selvaratnam,

Executive producers: Sarah Arison,
Geralyn White, Dreyfous George Gund IV Family,
 Adam and Melony Lewis, Regina K. Scully,
Jack Shear,
Jon Stryker, Slobodan Randjelovic, Alice and Tom Tisch

Director of photography: Catherine Gund, Rachel Lears, Karen Song

Editors: Gil Seltzer

Original Music: Jason Moran

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

91 minutes