Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts


Art that evokes the primal side of man.

(2021) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Bill Traylor, Sharon Washington, Jason Samuels Smith, Richard Oosterom, Greg Tate, Russell G. Jones, Charles Shannon, Dr. Howard O. Robinson, Radcliffe Bailey, Leslie Umberger, Roberta Smith. Directed by Jeffrey Wolf

 

Bill Traylor is a name that may not register with the average American unless the average American happens to be an art lover – most average Americans aren’t, however. Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama back in 1853. Following Emancipation, he became a sharecropper and supported his growing family as a farmer – he was practical enough to grow edible crops rather than cotton, although he grew a lot of that as well.

He was also a bit of a drinker and a carouser; his marriages were dotted with infidelity on his part, fathering children by many different lovers. In his 80s, he was no longer able to work on a farm and so moved to Montgomery, where he was homeless off and on and supplemented his relief checks with drawings he made on found paper.

His work has been called “beautifully simple,” “primitive” and “powerful,” all of which are accurate. In many ways his drawings are reminiscent of the cave drawings that were drawn tens of thousands of years ago. His pictures are vibrant, full of movement and capture the era of slavery and the Jim Crow South.

We are treated to art experts discussing his work and its significance, black artists who discuss his lasting influence on African-American art, and his descendants who regale us with anecdotes about his colorful life. Actors read relevant passages from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith adds motion and sound to the interpretation of his work. All of this is set to a magnificent blues soundtrack.

The problem with the film is that it is often extraordinarily dry, playing like it was meant for an advanced art history course at an Ivy League school. There are a lot of talking heads which when given the vibrancy of the art that we’re shown seems a bit counterintuitive.

It is the artwork that is the center of the film and Wolf takes great pains to show us as much of it as he is able. We are given artistic insights into the work; arguing couples are shown pointing in different directions, animals are totems that are predators in some cases, observers in others. The color blue represents the blues. It’s hard to believe that Traylor accomplished all of this with scraps of cardboard and paper, pencils and children’s poster paint, but he did.

Sadly, much of his work was discarded years after his death and presumably has been lost forever, although some hold out hope that it may surface in an Alabama landfill someday. There are still several hundred pieces of his work available and there is no denying its power and pull to the human spirit. If you’re going to see one documentary about an artist this year, this is the one to catch.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is as compelling as it’s creator. Wonderful blues soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally becomes overly dry with too many tallking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are descriptions of horrific violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traylor preferred to work with scraps of paper he found in the trash rather than clean sheets of paper that admirers would give him; he would work the imperfections in the scraps into the artwork.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maya Angelou And Still I Rise
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Two Gods

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Once you've seen one awe-inspiring cave drawing, you've seen 'em all.

(2010) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin. Directed by Werner Herzog

We are merely part of an endless unbroken line of vessels, stretching back tens of thousands of years to our earliest human ancestors. The line between us and them is not nearly so tenuous as you might think.

In 1994, rock climbers in the South of France discovered Chauvet Cave, a cave of unusual beauty and grandeur. That, however, is not why the great filmmaker Werner Herzog bothered to make a documentary. The cave is also home to the earliest known examples of cave art, dating back some 35,000 years.

The paintings are incredibly fragile and access to the caves is thus justifiably limited to only a few weeks a year, and only to scientists. Herzog had to receive special permission to film in the cave, and even then with a bare bones crew with lights that emit no heat and are battery operated as all his equipment had to be. They could only walk on metal planks two feet wide, and couldn’t touch the walls. They had to wear special suits that would prevent contamination of the fragile cavern eco-system and enter through a steel door that is locked electronically.

But the beauty behind that door! Scenes of horses, moving en masse; wooly rhinoceroses battling, the seductive form of a woman with a bison’s head, all drawn on curving walls and projections, giving the illusion of three dimensionality, which is why this documentary was filmed in 3D so that viewers could get the proper effect. It still gives me goosebumps that these are depictions of animals that have not walked the earth for tens of thousands of years but were witnessed by human eyes.

The drawings themselves are surprisingly sophisticated given the circumstance. The animals are shown to be in motion; you can almost hear the horses whinny. The cave sparkles with crystals from the calcification process of limestone stalagtites and stalagmites, adding an otherworldly air to a cave that is already locked in time. It was almost perfectly sealed off from the ravages of the elements when the cliff face collapsed and sealed it shut. That served to preserve everything inside it, allowing us to see these amazing drawings 35,000 years later.

There are a lot of interviews here with scientists, some of whom are a bit quirky (like the German musicologist who plays the Star Spangled Banner on an ivory flute similar to ones found in nearby caves, or the programmer who used to be a circus acrobat). All of them are clearly affected on a very deep level by the cave and the artwork within.

The interesting thing is that the cave wasn’t really a habitation. Cave bears lived in the cave (their scratches, footprints and bones are all over) and humans used it for what appears to be ceremonial purposes. We can only speculate at this point but some of the positioning of stones and skulls in the cave lead some scientists to theorize that religious ceremonies took place there.

This isn’t a scientific lecture however, although obviously scientists play an important role in the cinematic experience (occasionally too much – the movie might have been better served letting the images speak for themselves more often). Herzog isn’t interested so much in explaining things, but letting the audience come to their own conclusions. He is not asking questions like “what did they use to get those colors” or “what manner of worship was conducted there.” He instead asks questions like “When did humans first get their soul?” and “What makes us human?” which in my opinion are far more worthy and interesting questions to ask.

This is the kind of movie that is going to stay with you for a very long time. It will percolate in your head, change color and shape and lead you to examine greater questions about our place in history. Will it change your life? I can’t say that it will and I won’t say that it won’t, but it will almost certainly change your perception of life. A movie that brings out a genuine feeling of awe in the audience is rare enough and should be experienced without delay if it comes to a theater near you.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t help but be awed by the power of the cave drawings, and the scientists interviewed convey that awe.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES: Might be a little too tedious for those with short attention spans but otherwise great for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is co-produced by the History Channel’s motion picture arm, History Films. This is their first feature release.

HOME OR THEATER: This must be seen in a theater for maximum viewing impact.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Paranormal Activity