'The Secret Life of Lance Letscher': Film Review

Courtesy of Jason Gamble Harter
A penetrating but fun look at a visual artist you may not yet know.

Longtime Richard Linklater editor Sandra Adair makes her directing debut with a doc about Austin artist Lance Letscher.

Casual admirers of Austin artist Lance Letscher, whose vibrant collages display above all a love of color and enjoyment of pop culture ephemera, may never intuit the pain seen in that work by those closest to him personally. Diving surprisingly deep into the roots of that hurt, Sandra Adair's The Secret Life of Lance Letscher offers empathy without draining the artist's overstuffed creations of their fun. Adair, best known as Richard Linklater's go-to editor (and a co-producer on Boyhood) makes a confident debut as director here, offering a doc with appeal even for art lovers who don't yet know this regionally celebrated collagist.

The work that first earned Letscher widespread interest was typified by busy compositions full of pinwheel-like figures, each made of thin slivers of cut paper. Jammed together densely and layered one atop the other, the objects looked like what might happen when, Toy Story-style, all the humans left the contents of a used-book store to entertain themselves overnight. It comes as no surprise to hear that Letscher used to collect materials by dumpster diving at a large store near the University of Texas campus, often lowering his young son in to do the looking for him. There, a clerk eventually befriended him and helped keep an eye out for unusual specimens.

These days, he has shelves full of boxes whose orderly contents he scours for evocative images — old catalogs, children's books, scientific manuals. He cuts these out with an obsessive, X-ACTO knife care unknown to those who grew up with Photoshop auto-select tools, and claims that his work hours break down to "97% cutting time, 3% making the piece."

This practice has biographical origins. Reporting that he was essentially abandoned by his parents by age 14 — Mom was emotionally shut down, Dad was a narcissist — he was "bored frequently" and started looking for anything he could do to fill the time. He got a girlfriend pregnant and married young; they divorced after their second child, but Letscher, unwilling to repeat his parents' mistakes, got custody and insisted on being present for his sons. He had a work ethic before he knew it — when a professor in art school complimented it, he realized he had something to live up to.

Gallerists and friends from art school describe the course of Letscher's work, which began with dour, metaphor-rich realism — think childhood objects, cast in lead — but brightened after he met his second wife, settled into a domestic routine and, after some workaholic years, got a break with a successful New York gallery show.

Never intruding on her own film, Adair leaves it to viewers to connect the practice of a collage-based artist with that of a film editor. She moves at a solid clip while showing us the details of Letscher's working methods, while returning patiently to the challenges of one big job — the construction of a mural out of scrap metal, which he has never worked with — that gives Letscher someplace to focus his free-floating angst and grief.

Production company: Found Piece Productions
Director-editor: Sandra Adair
Producers: Kristi Frazier, Sandra Adair
Executive producers: Robert Turner, Jill Turner
Director of photography: Jason Gamble Harter
Composer: Graham Reynolds
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature)
Sales: John Sloss, Cinetic Media

95 minutes