Judge Daniel Carlton traveled to New Mexico to write this review.
Her life was a work of art.
Georgia O'Keeffe is a glimpse into the personal life of O'Keeffe, but lacks any exploration of the deep connections Georgia had with her surroundings. The film gets the facts straight as far as times and places go, but leaves out the clear influence that the land had on her work. Therefore ignoring a vital part of who she was.
Facts of the Case
A young and independent Georgia O'Keeffe moves to Manhattan with the hopes of becoming a successful painter. Upon arrival, she meets Alfred Stieglitz, a gallery owner and photographer who instantly sees potential in Georgia's work. The two hit it off and begin a relationship, much to the disliking of Alfred's wife. Alfred eventually divorces his wife and takes Georgia as his new one. Unfortunately, it isn't long before his philandering with a new woman causes Georgia heartache of her own, even though her artwork is gaining more notoriety with every passing year.
Sometimes the life of an artist is as captivating as the art he or she creates; Georgia O'Keeffe's life is no exception. I first visited the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico early last year and was completely taken by the beauty of her work. Every brush stroke was so intentional and the contrasting colors palettes are absolutely gorgeous. I also remember thinking that this woman was one of a kind and after hearing that a film on Georgia's life was in the works, I was quite eager to see it. Although I missed Georgia O'Keeffe when it originally aired on Lifetime, I was determined to view it when it made its way to DVD. I have since visited the museum again and more recently saw the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at the Whitney Museum in NYC with the hopes of seeing more of her work. I was not disappointed in the least. Needless to say, I am familiar with her life and work and approached this film with great expectations.
My fear before viewing Georgia O'Keeffe would be that the picture would focus too much on Georgia's work and not enough on her life. What I experienced was quite the opposite. While this biography about Georgia O'Keeffe does many things right, it does the artist somewhat of a disservice. Director Bob Balaban clearly did his homework in constructing the film, as the first shot shows Georgia painting Pedernal, a mesa near Abiquiu, New Mexico that she felt was hers. (Incidentally, Georgia's ashes were scattered on top of Pedernal.) Of course, the film doesn't go into that or even the connection that she had with that particular mountain, which shows the root of my problem with the film. The viewer is given the story of Georgia's personal life, but the film lacks any visual representation of the intimate connection Georgia had with her surroundings. On top of that, we don't see how these environments affected her artwork. Yes, I know that Georgia O'Keeffe is a film about the artist and not the art, but what the creators fail to realize is that we can get to know artists through their art.
The first half of the film revolves around Georgia's life in New York City, where she initially captured the eye of the art community. We have plenty of scenes involving the marriage between her and Alfred, but we get little in terms of the art itself. Anyone who has seen Georgia's paintings depicting New York City cannot help but get a sense of claustrophobia, yet, we don't get that feeling at all from the scenes in the city. In the film, we can see that she unhappy with her husband's infidelity, but we never see how that influenced her view of the city and more importantly how it was reflected in her paintings.
About halfway through the film, Georgia makes her way west to New Mexico, where she spent most of her remaining life. This state had an even greater impact on her artwork, yet we don't learn this from the film. I'll give credit where credit is due. Balaban does do a great job in changing the tone of the film and in an instant, Georgia's world is brighter. She awakes to wide, open country and, to a small degree, we can see that New Mexico was rejuvenating for her. Factually, this is correct, but if we can't see how it affected her work, then the point has been missed entirely. Soon after her arrival she says, "I know I belong here. My head is filling up with pictures just waiting to jump onto the canvas." For that dialogue to have had more resonance, the viewers needed to have seen her falling in love with the country itself and eventually painting the countryside, which she did for many years until her death. Instead, we are given a needless scene of watching Georgia learn to drive.
From the little I know about Georgia O'Keeffe, it is obvious that her surroundings had a vast impression on her work. She created hundreds of paintings depicting flowers and various cityscapes and landscapes. It would have been interesting to learn why she painted what she did. Each of the settings should have played a virtual character in the film, helping us to discover more about the person through the environment. Instead, the cities and places are near inconsequential and her art might as well have been of dragons and gnomes. The bottom line is that for a film about a painter, we don't see Georgia painting much at all. The only scene in which we see her painting for any real length of time is near the end of the film when she is commissioned to do a piece inside Radio City Music Hall. That scene only lasts a few minutes before we get back to the drama. Contrast this film with Pollock, where we see Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris) painting endlessly, yet still get to know the life and struggles of that artist. When the credits roll on Pollock, the viewer has a much better understanding of that artist because we know his art as well.
For those who may have enjoyed the film more than I did, Sony Pictures does a great job with a crisp and gorgeous transfer to DVD. Textures on Georgia's aging face are easily apparent and display the shadows and light. The only extra on the disc is a ten minute featurette on the making of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Part of the problem with Georgia O'Keeffe's lack of depth could have partly to do with the running time. Since this film was required to fit into a two hour television time slot, the running time is a mere 89 minutes. I believe it is safe to assume that Balaban would have loved to have explored more themes and ideas had the film not had such a time restriction.
Also, in the film's defense, Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons do a superb job as Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Both choices for these roles were perfect and Irons strikingly resembles Stieglitz. This is one of those films in which the performances are stronger than the film's screenplay.
Georgia O'Keeffe was an artist who didn't sign the front of her paintings because she wanted nothing to distract from the painting itself. (Oddly, the film opened with her signature before dissolving into the first shot.) That speaks volumes of how Georgia wanted her art, and possibly her life, to be viewed. Even with two spot-on performances, Georgia O'Keeffe is still tough to recommend. I didn't hate the film, but was ultimately disappointed in the overall lack of time spent with Georgia and her paintbrush in the environments she loved.
Sad to say, guilty as charged.
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