'Free Color': Film Review| Palm Springs 2020

Free Color Carlos Cruz Diez Still - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Karibanna Content
An affectionate tribute and inspiring career overview.

Renowned artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, who died in 2019, is the subject of a documentary that focuses on his final, impossible-dream project.

How do you separate color from form and meaning? This was the quest of Carlos Cruz-Diez, well into his 90s, and the subject of Alberto Arvelo's serious and delightful documentary, which had its world premiere at Palm Springs and is certain to attract other arts-friendly festivals.

Like Cruz-Diez's work, which in addition to being exhibited around the world has graced and transformed everything from airports (in his native Caracas) to baseball stadiums (Miami) to boats (Liverpool), the film has a straightforward vitality, rich in ideas and devoid of pretension.

The director captures the Paris-based master, in pink shirt and illustrated suspenders, for a sit-down interview, at work, and in warm conversation with fellow Venezuelan Edgar Ramírez (the star of Arvelo's Cyrano Fernández and The Liberator). Cruz-Diez (who died as the film was being completed, a couple of weeks before his 96th birthday) was determined to create "a chromatic event that would be ephemeral" — an experience of color with no physical supporting structure or visible source of light.

On the other side of the planet, at no less a think tank than CalTech, a group of whizzes puzzle out ways to achieve the artist's holy grail. In Skype conversations with mathematician Spyridon Michalakis, physicist Ana Asenjo and Xbox co-creator Seamus Blackley, Cruz-Diez all but jumps out of his seat with childlike eagerness for a solution.

Within the film's brief running time, Arvelo composes a capsule biography and career overview through new interviews with the artist's children and grandchildren as well as archival footage — some of it, yes, black-and-white. Cruz-Diez's personal archives stretch back to early commercial work and comic strips, and even to childhood drawings saved by his mother. His leap into less conventional pursuits isn't pinpointed, but the results are amply illustrated.

Arvelo, his editors and the unobtrusive camerawork of John Márquez are attuned not just to Cruz-Diez's intelligence and charm but to the immersive sensory experience of his creations: monumental installations, the color-drenched environments that he called "chromosaturations," and his "physichromies," arrangements of plexiglass strips that cast a vibratory spell. A glimpse of a Cruz-Diez fashion show is jaw-dropping. (The musical contributions of a number of composers and songwriters, including Gustavo Dudamel and Devendra Banhart, enhance the proceedings without calling attention to themselves.)

Inspired by the classical Flemish ateliers, Cruz-Diez made his art a collective enterprise, his workshop a home for both literal and figurative family. Like their parents, his grandchildren were brought into that art-making fold, and before Márquez's camera they marvel at their grandfather's unflagging inventiveness and creative energy. We see him sketching happily in the cafes of the French capital, his beloved adopted home, where he and his wife settled in 1955. (She died in 2004 and appears in footage, seen but not heard.)

Among the interviewees is a professor of philosophy, UC San Diego's Jonathan Cohen. That makes sense; the philosophical ideas and yearnings of a burning intellect are at the heart of Free Color. But like Cruz-Diez, who proposed "color without anecdotes," this intimate celebration of an artist's life and work is at least as interested in direct experience as in theory — in the subtleties, the joy, the vibratory spell.

Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (True Stories)
Production companies: Karibanna Content LLC in association with Articruz
With: Carlos Cruz-Diez, Edgar Ramírez, Ana Asenjo Spyridon Michalakis, Seamus Blackley, Jonathan Cohen, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Gabriel Cruz Mendoza, Adriana Cruz Delgado, Carlos Cruz Delgado
Director: Alberto Arvelo
Screenwriter: Leonardo Henríquez
Producers: Gabriela Camejo, Paula Manzanedo-Schmit
Executive producer: Gabriel Cruz Mendoza
Director of photography: John Márquez
Editors: Nascuy Linares, Camilo Pineda
Composers: Gustavo Dudamel, Nascuy Linares, Devendra Banhart, Alvaro Paiva-Bimbo, Sebastián Arvelo

67 minutes