[19 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is a big difference between a documentary and a basic news story. The former is the byproduct of the cinematic artform, and as such, must conform to said standards. The latter is a result of regular journalism and needs to be factual and unbiased. While not mutually exclusive, the two forms usually undermine each other. Just ask fans of Michael Moore, or Errol Morris. At the same time, both require a similarly styled hand, capable of being both honest and compelling, truthful without completely taking sides. As you can see, it’s a delicate balance, an equilibrium that few can find in either category. This is also the main problem plaguing the otherwise insightful Humble Beauty: Skid Row Artists. The subject matter explored is inherently compelling. The flat tone taken in the telling, however, subverts its effectiveness.
Los Angeles’ infamous downtown district Central City East, known lovingly as Skid Row, is ground zero for one of the largest homeless populations in the entire United States. Most are mentally ill. Many have continuing and ongoing medical needs. Few are capable, or even wanting of, aide and assistance. And for a very select number, art is a salvation - nay, an absolute social and communal curative. While reflecting their life on the streets, it also comments on and explains the reasons for their outside existence. For filmmakers Letitia Schwartz and Judith Vogelsang, the story of these gifted individuals forms an aura of hope that provides light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness, sense where there is insanity, and dignity where all possibility of same is slowly eroded away.
There are really two ways to look at Humble Beauty, both fair and with a kind of unflinching admiration. The first is as a journey of optimism, of watching people unexpectedly marginalized by society taking the opportunity to express themselves - both as a means of personal quantification and as logistical redemption. We hear their individual stories, watch as they discuss their specific works, and wonder how they’ve managed to make it over the years. Their names read like an overview of modern society - Latino and Native, African American and Caucasian. Their motives are as unique as they are unified, the notion that creativity bridging the gap between normalcy and a life on the fringes staying front and center. Many of the canvases they offer are striking in their outsider originality. Some reflect the collective grief all too well. A few mark focused obsession. Together, they form a portrait of determination and defiance unmistakable in its power.
And then there is the other viewpoint, one that wonders why this material isn’t more magical. After all, we are dealing with a subject that seems to have inherent power, that taps directly into emotional wells of amazement, compassion, and in some cases, outrage that few areas can manage. Yet Schwartz and Vogelsang, by playing cub reporters, seem to leech all the fun out of their sublime substance. We are meant to learn here, and there are several voices that make it very clear that the overall agenda of this project is to protect and foster the muse in people that the rest of the world tends to forget. But there needs to be some manner of flash, some kind of artist imprint from the filmmakers themselves to really elevate this information. Without it, Humble Beauty is still incredibly interesting. But this should be moving, or at the very least, emotionally involving. Sadly, some of the film just sits there, acting like the well-meaning lecture it comes across as.
Still, the very heart and soul of these people makes Humble Beauty worth visiting. Seeing the buoyancy in their eyes as they discuss their craft, watching them describe their skills as the images they create prove out their point peppers this documentary with the kind of illustrative excellence that the directing style avoids. Passivity in your point of view may seem professional, but here it hampers the overall message. One imagines Schwartz and Vogelsang visualizing their film as a means of achieving a kind of eye-opening reaction that leads to appreciation, and then advocacy. Yet the key to such a call is depth. We have to really know these people, learn about their lives - not just their talent - and relish in the “there before the grace of God” ideal that usually accompanies such an expose. Without it, we’re left with grace and good intentions, but that’s about it.
Yet this is not meant to take away from the people presented. Each story here has its own significance, a reason for rejoicing within a circumstance where very little happiness can be found. Kudos then to Letitia Schwartz and Judith Vogelsang for bringing this amazing material to light. Yet they still deserve some criticism for failing to fulfill its unyielding promise. Life on the streets is nothing to romanticize and no one is asking these directors to undermine said fact with cinematic superficiality. But when you think about a subject like homeless artists, the narrative possibilities appear boundless. Unfortunately, Humble Beauty is more book report than striking visual (or emotional) homily. With a little less of the former and more of the latter, we’d have a classic. As it stands, this is an informative and sometimes flat experience.