Designing the piece, I knew that I had to ask myself, 'What is a memorial's purpose?' Especially, what is a memorial's purpose in the 20th century?—architect/artist Maya Lin, about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Winner of the 1995 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (defeating Steve James' nonpareil basketball saga, Hoop Dreams), Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision presents a vivid portrait of the determined sculptress behind some of recent history's most evocative public monuments, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Facts of the Case
It doesn't make any specific gesture which can date it in time or in place. It's all wars. All deaths. All living and all dead, at once.—an art historian's commentary about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
In 1991, a blue-ribbon panel selected, from some 1,400 entries in a nationwide competition, a simple yet dramatic design for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial to be erected on the Capitol Mall in Washington. The panelists were stunned when the creator of the winning artwork turned out to be a 21-year-old undergraduate architectural student at Yale University named Maya Lin.
A firestorm of controversy erupted when Lin's sketches—and Lin herself—were unveiled to the public. The design itself was unconventional: a stark black wall of polished marble, set into a hillside, etched with the names of more than 50,000 American servicemen and women who were killed or went missing during the Vietnam conflict. Some veterans found the design bleak, morbid, even insulting. Ideologues railed against the artist's nontraditional approach—no statuary, no flags, no pomp or circumstance. Bigots were incensed that the memorial had been imagined by a woman of Asian heritage—never mind the fact that the woman in question is American-born, from a small college town in Ohio, the daughter of two university professors who fled Communist China in the aftermath of World War II.
Filmmaker Freida Lee Mock crafts a straightforward, no-frills documentary showcasing this unique talent. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision visits highlights of Lin's career, beginning with the bitter backlash over what came to be known to Vietnam vets as simply The Wall, through the Memorial's eventual triumphant acceptance by the American public, and continuing with several of Lin's subsequent commemorative projects. The film's crescendo takes place at The Wall's ten-year anniversary, when Lin made her first public appearance at the site since its dedication.
What difference does it make if you find one name? Look at all these names!—one emotional Vietnam veteran to another, viewing The Wall for the first time
If one can find a bone to pick with Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, it's that the name in the title has become little more than that by the end of the film. Through the course of director Freida Lee Mock's intriguing documentary, Maya Lin's work takes center stage. We're moved by the unadorned power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by the water-enshrouded chronology of the Civil Rights Memorial, by the quiet and deceptively spare designs of many of Lin's later pieces. We never question that Lin indeed possesses "a strong clear vision" about her art, but we never learn whence that vision comes.
Aside from a meager handful of childhood photographs, we never see Lin presented in any context except as it relates directly to her art. What is her family like? We're told that Lin's parents were members of the Ohio University faculty (her mother, a professor of English; her father, the Dean of the Fine Arts Department) and that her brother is an author and poet, but we are granted no insight into her relationships with them. Nor of her relationships of any kind: has Lin friends? lovers? people with whom she goes to the movies, or the mall, or the local pizzeria, who know her in any context besides Maya Lin, the world-renowned artist? Surely she must, but we neither see nor hear from any of them. Consequently, the power of the artistry remains in austere contrast to the relative anonymity of the artist.
Perhaps this is as it should be, or as Maya Lin believes it should be—that what is knowable about the artist should be grasped only through examining her work. If that is indeed Lin's perspective, it's unfortunate that Mock let her escape that easily. Artists are no less a product of their environments and circumstances than other human beings, and to truly understand the creation we must learn something of the soul of the creator. I recognize that my voice and vision as a writer have been forged in the crucible of my experiences. It can hardly be different for the visual artist—perhaps it's even more so, as such recent dramatic films as Basquiat, Pollock, and Frida have demonstrated. From where did the bold courage arise that not only devised but defended The Wall's astounding concept? I came to this film to find out, and I left it still wanting.
The preceding quibble aside, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision remains an impressive cinematic document, if sadly a rather cold and superficial one. (Mock often neglects to even identify the subjects of her interview clips.) If indeed Mock thought it prudent to focus narrowly on Lin the artist rather than Lin the person, she accomplished that goal with clarity and distinction. Her camera work is as direct and no-nonsense as her subject, and she skillfully weaves in file footage—especially from the events surrounding the controversy over The Wall—that complements to perfection the fresh material created for this documentary.
Docurama, the New Video Group imprint devoted to documentary film, offers a fine display of the Oscar-winning Maya Lin. Video quality equals what one would anticipate in a decade-old, minuscule-budget film of this type, especially in terms of print damage and stock grain, but the full frame presentation is clear despite these defects and the transfer is digitally sound. The audio track is well centered and crisply defined (boss props to the women of Yale's Whim 'n' Rhythm a cappella ensemble, who perform a couple of numbers—we a cappella types gotta stick together), without an abundance of extraneous noise.
The film-specific extras are limited to brief text biographies of director Freida Lee Mock and producer Terry Sanders (nothing, strangely, on the film's subject, Maya Lin). Docurama includes an extensive catalog of its DVD offerings—36 cover scans and text synopses of other Docurama product, 10 of which are accompanied by trailers—its mission statement, and some DVD credits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To quote an anonymous critic, I don't know much about art, but I know what I like when I see it. Watching this film, I found Maya Lin's unique creations to be both arresting and affecting. As a writer, I especially admire the way she incorporates text in many of her works. I've never seen any of her pieces in person, but one of these first days I'm going to trek the eighty miles from my home to the Stanford University campus, where Lin's sculpture Time Table resides, to experience this marvelous artist firsthand. And I feel compelled to someday plan a transcontinental pilgrimage to the Capitol Mall, where I can stand in awe of the sacrifice that inspired the inscribing of all those names into that stark black wall, and blend my tears—and my thanksgiving—with those of the mourners who have preceded me there.
Perhaps it can best be said of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision what Grady Clay, the chairman of the panel that selected Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, said of The Wall itself: "The longer we looked at it, the deeper we saw into it, and the more profound that statement was." There's profundity here, but it requires some searching to find it. Lin's remarkable work makes the search worthwhile.
For lovers of art and of Maya Lin's work in particular, this noble documentary is time well spent. For students of recent American history, and for all Americans regardless of politics or preconceptions, it deserves at least one viewing.
All charges against Maya Lin and her biographer Freida Lee Mock are dismissed. Court is in recess.
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