Eames: The Architect & The Painter (2011)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

  

Documentary Featuring archival footage of Charles and Ray Eames, Narration by James Franco, and Richard Saul Wurman, Kevin Roche, Paul Schrader, Lucia Eames, Eames Demetrios, Jeannine Oppewall, Gordon Ashby, Deborah Sussman.
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Director: Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey
Rating: Unrated

Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2011
Home Video Release Date: December 13, 2011
Box Office: $129 Thousand
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Quest Productions, Bread & Butter Films, American Masters, WNET.org, and First Run Features.

Written by: Jason Cohn.

 

“For them…these names like ‘Painter’ and ‘Architect”…they were not job descriptions.  They were ways of looking at the world.” – Charles and Ray Eames’ grandson.

In all honesty, my perceptions in watching a documentary about the famed American designer Charles Eames made me feel as if I was setting up for a story too insular, insider, and only made for those in the know.  A close friend of mine, who is an avid Eamesian, told me that I had to see the film, mentioning that she had seen the film twice in theaters and wanted to find it for me to watch.  So, while begrudgingly is not the proper word I guess, I nonetheless had a notepad and a couple of pencils preparing to take notes on a topic and an individual that I knew next to nothing about, preparing for a documentary that I feared would be obtuse and foreign to me…

Much to the credit of first-time director Jason Cohn and long-time television director Bill Jersey, Eames: The Architect & The Painter is a well-made, affable, and engaging look at Charles Eames, and his wife, Ray Eames and the influence they had on modern design, architectural advances, and pop culture as a whole in the middle years of the 20th century.  Their legacy lives on and their influences interwoven in design work made still today.  Directors Cohn and Jersey assemble a large number of former friends, co-workers, and experts to properly assess the influence and aftereffects that Charles and Ray Eames had on the world and those who knew them the best.

Known mostly for their lounge chair design, Charles and Ray Eames had a distinctively unique relationship both professionally and personally with one another.  Fondly identified as “a painter who didn’t paint and an architecture school drop-out who never got his license”, Charles and Ray Eames were not satiated with simply reinvigorating the furniture industry through their iconic and game-changing design work, they had a broader vision and scope.  Charles was an expert photographer and used his abilities and successes in that field to branch out even further into the world of filmmaking.  The Eames Office in Venice, California holds no shortage of former co-workers who are enamored with sharing what it was like to take part of such vivid and groundbreaking creativity.  What is most telling is a common theme which emerges within Eames: The Architect & The Painter, as Cohn and Jersey move the story along from event to event and anecdote to anecdote, incorporating a robust assortment of archival footage.

More than willing to stay in the background, Cohn and Jersey bring prominence to the role that Ray Eames played in the Eames’ successes.  Charles was willing to be placed front and center as a figurehead for the company’s achievements and innovations but Ray was tirelessly supporting the effort, working constantly in the Eames Office, the contact and conduit for designers and creators in an exchanging of visions and ideas,  and every bit a partner in the steps Charles publicly took with his name and brand.  Walking a fine line between honoring the legacy of Charles Eames and slotting the importance that Ray Eames played right alongside her husband is carefully threaded by Jason Cohn’s writing and his co-direction with Bill Jersey.  The integration of Ray Eames into the Eames story provides a more deeply enriching meaning behind the film’s title.

Narrated by James Franco, who asserts his line-readings fine enough, but gets lost in the shuffle of talking heads and historical footage, Eames: The Architect & The Painter cannot completely avoid some of the more lurid elements of the Eames relationship.  Gossipy drama and soapish elements creep in to the final third of the film as Charles Eames’ extramarital affairs and abandonment of Ray is explored, perhaps necessarily I concede.  And while Cohn and Jersey maybe dwell a bit too long in those turgid waters, especially when compared to the tone and pacing of everything which preceded it, Eames is not a film that loses its focus.  In fact giving into those indulgences may weaken the overall earnestness of the film, but it is next to impossible to not feel admiration and awe for what the Eames’ accomplished with their decades spent in the public eye.

A film which explores the unspoken details behind the spectre of fame and celebrity is a necessary evil I suppose, but Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey largely keep the focus right where it should be.  Charles and Ray Eames were visionaries, innovators, and revolutionized much of the way that the world saw and felt about modernized design technique, theory, and implementation.  Rightfully so, they are still regarded in the upper echelon of artists from the 20th century and with a historical document such as Eames: The Architect & The Painter defining their rightful place in history, they would undoubtedly be pleased with how they are ultimately remembered.

Should I See It?

YES

Simply but effectively told, the film is an easy and engaging watch and a perfect fit for those who love the nostalgia of the 1950s – 1970s.

Charles Eames deserves a ton of acclaim and credit for his work but refreshingly, the fact that Ray Eames is given her overdue moment in the spotlight will undoubtedly please many Eames’ most ardent supporters and places the entire success of the Eames Office in a proper and just setting.

A lot of behind the scenes information is revealed, which for fans of Charles and Ray Eames, might be insightful and fascinating to hear exposed and brought to light for the first time ever.

NO

Despite being as enticing and interesting as possible, a documentary on modernized design pioneers and their legacy is simply going to be limiting in terms of interest and appeal.

The film may be seen as a bit too partisan towards its subjects, only hinting at the darker and more troubling elements of the Eames’ marriage, relationship, and how that, in turn, affected there most dedicated supporters.

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