December 19, 2008

The Uses of Art: Anamorph and A Man Named Pearl


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Anamorph: Rating (out of 5): ***
A Man Named Pearl: Rating (out of 5): ****

I would never think of linking a pair of movies like this were it not that both use art as their central metaphor (and I happened to watch them, one right after the other). In Anamorph, an unusual serial killer film (not my favorite genre by a long shot), the art come via the killer, and I have to say that, ugly and dark as it often is, it looks damn good, as it brings to mind a host of dark artists, empty to brilliant, from Damian Hirst to Frances Bacon. The fine documentary A Man Named Pearl tell the story of a black gardener in the town of Bishopville, South Carolina, who creates unusual artistic topiary in a striking variety of shapes and patterns.

Pearl uses his art as a springboard for teaching and reaching out to the young, while Anamorph's killer uses his for clue-dropping and drawing us into his art --via which we learn about Anamorphism, a 17th century painting technique that relies on the angle at which a painting is viewed for further elucidation. Yes, this is a rather bizarre and highly specialized concept on which to hang a serial killer film, but since so many other routes are now tired and overused, it proves interesting, colorful and grizzly. The killings, with one exception, have already taken place, so we're not forced to put up with the victims' screams and pleading -- a big help for some of us in getting through films such as this. In addition, the artistic set pieces are true wonders of a hideous imagination. This is dark art of a rather high caliber.

Anamorph's stars Willem Dafoe, extremely subdued (and thus easier to take), along with Scott Speedman, woefully underused, Clea Duvall, Peter Stormare and James Rebhorn, all of whom are usually worth a watch. Director and co-writer (with Tom Phelan) Henry Miller seems much more interested in variations of death than of the sex that fascinated that other writer who shared his name. But he keeps his visuals so often compelling that, in the end, Anamorph proved one serial killer movie I am actually happy to have seen, even though I admit that it is no great shakes (the ending in particular is ridiculous).


Pearl Fryar's story, of which you may have seen parts via various television shows or magazines (the man has gotten a lot of publicity along the way), is as inspirational as it is unusual. The movie that bears his name tells the story of how, with no experience in horticulture or topiary, he came to create his stunning garden -- and having created it, reached out to his neighbors, town and schools to share both his art and his ideas. Everyone who comes into contact with either seems the richer for it.

Watching A Man Named Pearl may put you in mind of the old (and unfortunately still with us) concept of "separate but equal." Mr. Fryar is black and his home is a small town in South Carolina. Initially the people we see when in groups are all black or all white. Fryar's minister mentions this troubling condition in passing, noting that there's still some work to be done. Indeed. Yet Fryar and his art are slowly helping make this necessary transition, for, as the movie goes along, the crowds do seem, at least nominally, to be a bit more integrated. His art is now reaching everywhere from the local waffle house to the university level, where it is championed, and Fryar himself occasionally lectures there.

Co-directors Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson don't overreach with their documentary, which moves quietly along, pretty much in the manner of Pearl himself. (Along the way he tells us how he got his name, unusual for a man, but one that he is quite happy to own.) We can learn a lot from this fellow's dedication, talent and willingness to share. And, boy -- his art makes a lovely, life-affirming contrast to that of Anamorph.

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Posted by cphillips at December 19, 2008 2:16 PM
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