Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan

Even sitting down to a meal can be a work of art.

(2020) Documentary (Greenwich) Jim Denevan, Marcus Samuelsson, Deval Patrick, Damani Thomas, Jane Rosen, Catherine Panip, Hans Haveman, John McCarthy, Linda Butler, Sean Baker, Dina Brewster, Matt Lackey, Paul Kulik, Nion McEvoy, Danika Markegard, Jason Weiner, William Fox, Randall Graham, Andrew McLester, Tish Denevan. Directed by Patrick Trefz

 

It is true that art can come in all shapes and forms. It is also true that art can be found sometimes where you don’t expect to find it.

Jim Denevan is an artist. His canvas is nature. He began by drawing geometric shapes and patterns in the sand. His art is extremely impermanent; the tide and wind can wash it away in moments. His art, however, is no less beautiful for that; there is a kind of elemental magic in it, as you might find from a shaman conducting a ritual, or a sorcerer constructing a spell. Either way, his work has a powerful effect on the viewer.

Denevan also has a passion for food and eating, and he felt that we as a species needed to get closer to the sources of the food we eat. From this sprang his organization, Outstanding in the Field. Outstanding in the Field conducts these elaborate events where tables are set up in specific, exact ways, generally in places where food is sourced – farms, ranches and orchards. Local chefs are called in, sometimes some fairly well-known ones, who prepare a menu and then supervising the preparation of the meal. Jim acts as a kind of a host and facilitator, making sure that things are set up properly so that the guests have the kind of experience he envisions. Sometimes things go like clockwork (rarely) but most times they don’t; windy conditions means place settings are blown all over hither and yon; rain can cause the event to be relocated indoors; beach-set Outstandings can end up with waves crashing into guests.

But Jim perseveres and does these hugely popular events year after year (for those interested in signing up for a future event, point your browser here). The film shows smatterings of various events, interspersed with some of Jim’s art, drawn on beaches, deserts or in fields. Mostly we’re hearing from farmers, chefs and former guests who sing the praises of the event, as well as a few art curators who sing the praises of Jim’s artwork. That’s to be expected.

My issue with the way that the filmmaker chooses to make his film is that he shows brief clips from a variety of Outstanding events from all over the world with almost zero detail about the event itself. I think it would have been far more interesting to see how one event was put together, from the menu planning to the set-up to the execution. Then, we could have gotten more of a feel for the experience. The way it’s done is more like flipping through the pages of a magazine article without stopping for more than a few seconds on any page and expecting to gain an understanding from that. It doesn’t work. I could have gotten as much information from a list of past events run by the organization.

We also don’t see much about what drives Denevan to make his art until the very last 20 minutes or so when he begins to talk about the mental health issues of his family and how it affected him. It’s pretty intense stuff, and seemed to be included as an afterthought, but it is really the most illuminating segment in the film. Yes, I think Denevan’s endeavors are worth a documentary, but it feels like we just skimmed through the surface here rather than doing a deep dive into either his life or his art. A little more effort and detail might have made this a better movie.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows how hard and food can collide.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmaker goes skipping from event to event without a whole lot of detail.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a frank discussion of mental illness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three of Denevan’s brothers were diagnosed with schizophrenia within the same year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: ;As of 9/26/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Song of the Butterflies

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