Child of Giants: My Journey with Maynard Dixon & Dorothea Lange -- Film Review

Artistic talent trumps parenting skills in this uneven, sometimes illuminating documentary.

MILL VALLEY --The famous and exceedingly talented don't necessarily make the best parents.

This bit of received wisdom that certainly proved true for Daniel Dixon, the oldest son of two towering figures of contemporary art: Maynard Dixon, the painter of arresting Southwestern landscapes, and Dorothea Lange, the iconic documentary photographer whose austere black-and-white photographs defined the Great Depression. Through recollections of family members, private and archival photographs and excerpts from Lange's oral history, Tom Ropelewski's meandering, informative documentary, Child of Giants, drives home the sad fact that the childhood of Daniel and his brother was sacrificed on the altar of their parents' ambitions, while offering a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the personal lives and professional accomplishments of the artists.

Technically rough around the edges, this memoir focuses on Daniel, who does most of the on-camera reminiscing abour his troubled relationship with his self-absorbed, mostly absentee parents, whom he admired but whose outsized reputations he couldn't escape. The film could find a place on cable or PBS.

With the inclusion of a few too many anecdotes from relatives, the film at times devolves into an insular family affair. (Daniel is Ropelewski's father-in-law). For the most part, this is Daniel's vehicle: Long overshadowed by his parents' legacy, he shifts attention to himself. Their singular pursuit of work meant the kids' welfare took a backseat, creating another legacy of grievance and lasting damage.

The complex portraits that emerge of Mom and Dad are less than flattering. Maynard Dixon, a playful though elusive free spirit, took off for months at a time. A photo of the lanky painter in black cowboy garb, walking away from the camera and receding into the distance, says it all.

Nurturing didn't come naturally to Lange. The omnipresent camera made the children feel watched and tacitly criticized by a detached observer rather than accepted. "Photography came first, maternity second" is a common refrain. A step-mommy dearest incident, in which she advised her second husband's daughter that all roads to her father went through her, is a chilling revelation. Evidently, Lange and Dixon put their best selves into their art. The family got shafted.

The early years were relatively happy ones for the Dixon clan but the situation for the boys turned Dickensian when the Depression hit, an event that also led to Lange's her big breakthrough. (Her Dust Bowl photographs reportedly inspired John Ford's adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath.") Richard Chon's score and an excellent compilation of blues and union songs reflect the tenor of those times.

Without explanation, the kids were boarded out to a succession of foster homes, never knowing when they'd see their parents, who would depart as suddenly they would reappear. Lange and Dixon eventually divorced. Daniel rebelled, was thrown down a flight of stairs by his step-father and went homeless in his adolescence.

Ironically, Lange's ability to bond, so evident in the trust she inspired in her photographic subjects, eluded her when it came to her children. Controlling, narcissistic and blessed with an extraordinary eye, she looms large in this film much as she did in the lives of her sons, who tried and failed to get close to her.

Venue: Mill Valley Film Festival
Production: ZALA Films
Director/screenwriter: Tom Ropelewski
Producers: Tom Ropelewski, George Paul Csicsery
Director of photography: Skip Sweeney, Martina Nagel, Bob Birkett
Music: Richard Chon
Editors: Martina Nagel, Paul Dixon
Unrated, 94 minutes

comments powered by Disqus