Several minutes into Alice Neel (USA, 2007), director Andrew Neel makes his connection to his subject explicit: he is in fact the grandson of the celebrated American portraitist. The possible implications of a family member being the main presence behind the camera immediately begin to present themselves: Neel will undoubtedly enjoy access and intimacy into the life of his subject–indeed, his father, uncle and other relatives serve as the film’s main sources of information and there’s lot of home video footage and family photos–but to what extent can such a cinematic portrait be trusted? Will it become some kind of laudatory, familial propaganda? Or will it become too introverted, too in-crowd, possibly even an exercise in navel-gazing?
Neel confronts these issues head on, and actually goes so far as to implicitly structure his entire film around these issues, so much so that it would be more precise to regard Alice Neel as a portrait of the Neel family, and an examination of how a life–particularly an unconventional one–is not autonomous, but reverberates in countless ways throughout the lives of others. On the one hand Alice Neel commemorates the great accomplishments of the eponymous artist; on the other it traces at what personal costs those same accomplishments entailed. We become acquainted with the headstrong young woman who eschewed traditional gender roles to devote her life to art and who defied the post-War ascension of Abstract expressionism and continued her exploration of figural painting and portraiture. As is noted in the film, this essentially amounted to “career suicide,” as her work systematically ignored until “rediscovered” by the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and rightly proclaimed as a pioneering feminist icon, which in turn flowered into a flurry of late-life fame (including several major retrospectives, honorary doctorates, college lecture tours, initiation into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, memorable appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, etc, etc) before she passed away in 1984. But we also get to know the woman who ceded complete custody of her first daughter to her first husband’s affluent Cuban family, and who could be justly accused of devoting more attention to her art than to her family’s financial or emotional stability. A complicated portrait of a complex woman and an equally complex family situation quickly emerges.
Documentaries of these types tend to give in to the impulse to be nostalgia acts about bygone eras, and so it is a bit shocking when Alice’s son Richard looks directly into the camera and bluntly states “I don’t like bohemian culture, frankly; I think a lot of innocent people are hurt by it. I think I was hurt by it,” and admissions revealed in the film make clear this was not intended as some kind of a rhetorical statement. Another sequence turns tense when a conversation between Neel and his father, Alice’s other son, begin to argue over certain painful questions; the camera is averted but the audio is covertly allowed to continue rolling, and the ensuing exchange is as poignant as it is revealing. In other words, what initially seems like Neel’s tremendous advantage in making this film suddenly threatens to become a huge liability as his proximity to the subjects threatens to derail–or at least overshadow–the life and the art the film is ostensibly supposed to be about.
Which it never quite does. Even if Alice’s sons chose to become a lawyer and a doctor (the exact antithesis of their bohemian upbringing), both remain emphatic about the importance of their mother’s art, and understand that it was only possible through the life decisions that she ultimately did make, even if it hurt them (and others). And the footage that is included, both personal home videos and material from Michel Auder’s earlier documentary Portrait of Alice Neel–reveals a warm and smiling woman quick to laugh, and one with an impeccable eye capable of seeing art in everything, whether it the face of a famous celebrity she is painting or a violent cacophony of fluttering pigeons outside her apartment window. The film concludes with a nice crescendo because, happily, Alice’s life did in fact follow that trajectory, her work receiving the much-delayed accolades while she could still enjoy them. Come for the art–for it is, indeed, breathtaking and often quite haunting–and stay for a fascinating film.