Saturday, July 27, 2019

"Hey, look!" Stephen Wilkes' new documentary -- JAY MYSELF -- highlights the life, work and philosophy of photographer Jay Maisel

There have been a number of documentaries about famous American photographers over the past few years, and many of these have had their American theatrical debut at Film Forum. Here is yet another in the batch -- JAY MYSELF, about photography great Jay Maisel -- and it turns out to be one of the best yet: entertaining, thoughtful, wise, often pretty funny and occasionally even moving.

Ostensibly all about the major move Masiel and his family must make from the landmark bank building (on poster, left) the photographer bought for $102,000 back in 1966 (and sold for $55 million in 2014), the movie -- in just 78 minutes -- manages to capture a lot more.

As directed by Stephen Wilkes (shown at right) and written by Josh Alexander, the documentary bounces along mostly merrily, giving us somewhat of a history of Maisel, showing us quite a range of his very good photography, both commercial and artistic (Maisel himself would insist that one mode does not necessarily contradict the other), and offering up a portion of the man's philosophy of work and art.

This last can be summed up by the first two words of the headline copy, above, and Maisel makes a very good case for these words as a philosophy for any would-be photographer to live by.

Why so late in life is this major move necessary for Maisel? (The photographer, shown at left, tells us that he had planned to live in the bank building until he died.) But unless I misunderstood what I heard on the soundtrack, this very large structure costs around $300,000 per year to maintain. Enough said.

Still, a move like this, at Maisel's age, is no easy one -- not to mention all the "stuff" the photographer has collected down the decades (he has lived there for over 50 years!). And if the man is not defined as a "hoarder," this is only because there is so much room in his huge building that he can spread out his hoarding to the point at which his living quarters seem more like an oddball museum (see below and further below).

We hear from a number of photographers, mostly his friends and contemporaries, but what makes the documentary particularly special, TrustMovies thinks, is that the filmmaker has known Maisel intimately over such a long period of time. Wilkes was an intern for Maisel at the beginning of Wilkes' career, thanks to a portfolio that pleased his mentor, and the two have remained close ever since.

It's a delight to see so much of Maisel's work, while simultaneously hearing his ideas about "seeing." Art is trying to make others see what you see, he tells us, which is certainly one way to define an artist's objective. Regarding commercial art: You approach the job as an artist. And then you make as much money as you can. Interestingly, Maisel accords one of his teachers, Josef Albers, credit for helping him understand the uses and importance of color in art.

The documentary's musical score (by Jay Goodman) adds a lot of fun and bounce to the proceedings, all technical aspects of the film are first-rate, and its relatively short running time means that nothing and no one outstays their welcome.

From Oscilloscope Laboratories, Jay Myself opens this coming Wednesday, July 31, at New York City's Film Forum for a two-week run, before hitting another dozen or so cities across the country -- including Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) on August 16 and here in Boca Raton at our Living Room Theaters on August 30. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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