Duane Michals: The Man who Invented Himself
Camille Guichard - 2013
Alive Mind Cinema Region 1 DVD
What I find interesting in the past few years is that what is categorized as a documentary has taken on various forms, all veering away from such traditional notions of chronology, revealing of facts, or any attempt at objectivity. A good part of Guichard's film takes its visual queues from Michal's photography, so what we are looking at are glimpses of dreams and imaginings.
Michals discusses photography as being a reflection. What are first seen are portraits of celebrities, most easily recognizable, and within the context of style and subject, relatively traditional. Most of Michals' photographs, the more personal work, plays with light, is often sexually charged, and often makes use of just a portion of a body, or bodies. Some of these photos are parts of dream-like narratives.
Filmed not long after the photographer turned eighty, Michals comes off as a child in an octogenarian's body, giving voices to various props like a stuffed bird or a model head, playing with a bowler hat in tribute to his time meeting Rene Magritte in Brussels. The closest to anything biographical are references to his childhood in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Michals does some discussion of his work as a photographer who originally was intending to be a painter, who finds his visual inspiration from other painters. In terms of becoming a photographer, Michals did invent himself, describing his transition from painter and graphic designer as being "self-taught".
I've not been able to find much about Camille Guichard. His other available work as a director was a documentary on sculptor Louise Bourgeois. In a description of what was intended while production was still in progress, Guichard's aim was to create a "kaleidoscope of photographic sequences". This posting by Shelley Rice discusses some of the making of the film, making it clear that what we see is the result of an active collaboration between the filmmakers and their subject.
The playfulness of Michals does get pushed when a photographic exhibit is created for the benefit of the wildlife that lives near Michals' Vermont home. For those with either a vague knowledge of Michals, or no knowledge at all, some of what is seen will be confusing, without context or any kind of explanation. While their relationships to Michals is usually assumed by their function, be it model or photographer's assistant, various people appear and disappear without any explanation, some just seeming to act as foils for Michals' story-telling. Again, neither Guichard nor Michals has any interest in the more traditional or expected demands of documentary. Hopefully, this will not dissuade those unfamiliar with Duane Michals from taking a look at his life and work.