It is an axiom: to be a great artist, you are going to hurt the ones you love. The best you can hope for is that the ones you love will be understanding. Alice Neel didn’t make life easy for herself or anyone around her. Eschewing any normal sense of a family life, abandoning one child, raising two others from different transient fathers, she devoted herself, firstly, to her painting. That, too, wasn’t easy — as a portrait painter at a time when portraits were the least viable form for a serious artist careerwise, she also abandoned the “art scene” as it were — plus, she had the luck (good or bad depending on your point of view) to be born a woman. Added up: it took a long, long time for Alice Neel to gain the recognition she got. . .and the film makes it clear that even this was a fluke.
“Alice Neel,” directed by her grandson Andrew, is everything the miserable film My Architect is not. For starters, it is just flat-out entertaining. Alice herself is a marvelous subject. Seen in ample found footage she is warm and wonderful but also, at times, exasperating. And, of course, there is her artwork. I’ll admit: I never heard of her before (Ann has, so we’re not a completely ignorant household.) Her paintings are absolutely mesmerizing. Her portraits are frequently heartbreaking. . .in a way that is difficult to explain. There is a tremendous raw energy to the paintings, as well as a definite, unworldly perspective. There are frequent sequences in “Alice Neel” where we simply scroll through images. They say more about the characters of the story than any talking head can.
Throughout the film are nice little touches, such as found footage montages revealing different eras in Alice’s life — the WPA and the Depression, the conformist 50s, the Koyanisqqatsi 70s. My favorite moment in the film, though, is Andrew and his father interrupting their interview when a wild turkey is spotted out in the yard. It is a mother turkey and, after further examination, it is agreed that she is protecting her young from a raptor of some sort. It has nothing at all to do with the movie, it has everything to do with the movie. Highly recommended.