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

Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing


An act of cowardice.

An act of cowardice.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, Sydney Corcoran, Daniel Linsky, JP Norden, Paul Norden, Kevin Corcoran, Deval Patrick, Chief Eduard Deveau, Celeste Corcoran, John Tlumacki, David Filipov, Patricia Wen, Jim Allen, Sgt. John MacLellan, Eric Moskowitz, Cpl. Clark Cavalier, Kelly Castine, Herman Kensky, Daniel Abel, Kieran Ramsey, Sgt. Brandon Dodson, Katy Kensky. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

 

Most of us remember well the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. It hasn’t been quite four years but few of us have forgotten the shock of a terrorist attack on a major city, the loss of life and limb and the intensive manhunt for the bombers that followed.

It was also one of the most documented events of our time; security cameras not only caught the explosions but also were instrumental in helping law enforcement catch the two despicable wastes of flesh whose names won’t be mentioned here; one of the two died in a police shoot-out, the other was captured and sentenced to death – hopefully by having a homemade bomb strapped to his ‘nads and then detonated.

My feelings about cowardly scum who set off bombs in crowds of innocent people aside, Stern and Sundberg have assembled a massive amount of footage and helped piece together the events of the bombing meticulously and clearly. They’ve also followed some of the survivors in their efforts to overcome the horrendous injuries that they sustained both physically and psychologically. They’ve talked to the police who pursued the bombers and the reporters from the Boston Globe who covered the attack and who often received horrible emails and tweets because of it (some people felt the Globe was exploiting the attacks and giving too much coverage to the bombers themselves). The only ones not interviewed that I wish would have been were first responders on the scene – paramedics, ambulance drivers and ordinary people whose actions saved lives that day.

The filmmakers follow mainly Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, a pair of newlyweds who were standing by one of the bombs when it went off. Both had run the Marathon at one time; that year they chose to watch. Each lost a leg and Kensky eventually lost both after a valiant effort on her part to keep it. Both were plagued by depression and PTSD and eventually got help from the Walter Reed Hospital which treats those wounded in war by IADs and such. That particular segment is one of the most inspiring in the entire film and was the one that brought the most goosebumps and misty eyes on my part.

It also follows the Corcoran family who had several injured by the bombs; the impact of their agony led to some difficulties among those who were uninjured, including alcohol abuse and withdrawal from life. Celeste Corcoran lost both legs in the blast; she had been cheering on a sister who was running in the race. Sydney Corcoran had her femoral artery severed; only a quick-thinking veteran who reached into her leg and squeezed the artery shut saved her life or else she would have bled out on the sidewalk. That moment was caught by John Tlumacki, a Globe photography who received a great deal of criticism for capturing the moment even though it became a defining one of the entire incident. Finally there were the Norden brothers, Paul and JP, both of whom were gravely injured and taken to separate hospitals, forcing their mom Liz to have to go back and forth to each hospital as the brothers underwent several surgeries apiece.

One of the things that you may want to keep in mind when choosing to view this is that the footage of the bombing itself is largely uncensored; there is a terrifying amount of blood and some who are sensitive to such things may end up being disturbed by the footage. You get a real sense of the carnage and the chaos at the scene but thankfully only that – I can’t imagine the smell of gunpowder and blood and the screams of pain and fear that had to be going on that day.

This is a compelling documentary which could easily have been about humanity’s darker side. Instead, the filmmakers chose to make it about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and how a city stood up, joined hands and supported one another through a dark period. I’ve seen that first hand – not only in Boston but in my home town Orlando as well following the Pulse shootings.

It’s hard to capture all the details of an event as important as this in a single two hour movie but at the very least Stern and Sundberg have captured the essence of it and that is all you can ask of any documentary. It’s life-affirming and haunting and at times hard to watch but it is at the end of the day essential viewing.

REASONS TO GO: It’s very thorough in all aspects of the film both pre and post race. The stories are compelling and there are lots of good feels. The focus is on the survivors as it should be.
REASONS TO STAY: It would have been nice to get interviews from first responders on the scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images and descriptions of grisly injuries; there is also some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Boston Globe co-produced the documentary; their coverage of the event won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Patriot’s Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Patriot’s Day