fairer jacques

the films of jacques demy

Jacques Demy, Film-maker (1931-1990)

Imagine the love story of a shop girl and garage mechanic, where every line of dialogue forms a working-class opera, every frame a coordinated fairer reality of shape and colour, and you may have a hint of the brazen originality in 1964 of Umbrellas of Cherbourg,  France’s first full-colour musical. Among the film-makers of the ‘French New Wave’, director Jacques Demy’s musicals reveal an innovator who enlarged on the new possibilities of cinema to bring important moving themes to life.

Notable for their exuberant use of colour, Demy and set designer Bernard Evein repainted whole real sections of the town of Cherbourg. The effect in film is one of a heightened sense of reality, where song and the movement of characters form controlled elements of a unifying theme. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) enlarged this visual control to a grand scale; 40,000 square metres of the city’s facades were enlivened and patterned from director Demy’s guiding imagination.

Scene from Jacques Demy’s ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’ (1967)

Despite early ’60’s filmmaking moving only in its first stages toward a rougher naturalist style, many critics had already dismissed musicals and their heightened reality from any ability to represent serious themes. A 1964 Times review labelled Umbrellas“cinematic confection”,  indulging “a flow of romantic contrivance and sheer decorative artifice…so clearly ingenuous and old-fashioned that it wouldn’t get beyond a reader in Hollywood”.

Despite this contemporary cynicism, Demy’s use of art is in fact truly avante-garde. If the benevolent atmosphere of his films’ witty dialgoue, musical scores by Michel LeGrand, and colour schemes are “lighter than air“, they also hint at weightier issues beneath the surface. The Young Girls of Rochefort show young lovers walking the street, crossed in the foreground by a long line of marching soldiers. It is a motif that echoes the fate of Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), whose romance with Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) is cut short in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by being drafted to war.

Demy’s powerful use of colour forms an emotional backdrop for the young love between Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve).

Demy’s films also turn to critique seriously the stultifying conventions of ‘bourgoise’ society, especially as symbolised by traditional marriage. The riotous colours that backdrop Genevieve’s young love for Guy drain to pastels as they separate in a station cafe. Scenes successively shed their colour and emotional vibrancy. As she strikes a ‘mature’ bargain to marry the middle-class Roland, she covers her coloured dress in white; he in turn wears a beige suit. In the final exchange between her and Guy, Genevieve arrives in Roland’s black car which is blanketed under a covering of white snow. Her young daughter, contrasted in red, is seen playfully clearing this white from the surface beneath. Demy’s stylistic use of colour should therefore be as much enjoyed for its splendour and “dogged unity“, as also viewed seriously for these powerful devices. They effectively dramatise important themes like truth, innocence and the compromises society impose on the individual. These films ‘seduce’ us to understanding rather than by instruction.

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests Demy’s sexuality may have heightened his awareness of how society’s ‘roles’ fetter the innocent passions of youth, the banal gestures to ordinary life existing side-by-side against characters’ passionate inner world of song and ideal.  Characters in The Young Girls of Rochefort are almost all separated from love by small barriers. There is Maxence, the soldier who paints artworks in secret. He keeps unknowingly missing Delphine, his ‘feminine ideal’  in near-coincidences, clashing despair with optimism, song with gesture.

Demy’s films strain to break free from their confines. Characters break film convention and at times sing directly to the camera until ‘real life’ intrudes. In Lola (1961) a musical number is broken off with an abrupt, “Oh – what time is it? What is the time?” before Lola rushes to an appointment.

Another of Demy’s innovations are the way characters extend out from the confines of the plot, resurfacing and linking to his other films. Character ‘Roland Cassard’ appears as a young man in Lola and as a middle-aged businessman in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Michel Legrand’s score from Lola is also reprised and given lyrics in this later film. Lola‘s title character reappears in Model Shop (1969) and is also spoken about by characters in The Young Girls of Rochefort. Even in his modernist fairytale Donkey Skin (1970) the love-struck prince is heard scatting “lola-lola” at the end of a song-line. These crossings serve no major plot points, but Demy’s modern linking of fictions and the reality between them are as much a personal exuberance as perhaps an attempt to embed his film career within the stylized, benevolent universe of his own creation. As innovation, it appears as if he’s holding a vision alive for an audience both before and beyond the closed form of any single film. Here too, real world and brilliantly-styled imagination mix together.

Demy’s bright film imagery blazes in memory long after the pleasures of inhabiting his world in film, infecting our everyday vision with optimism. Many contemporary critics continue to rail against the overtly stylized film-making of auteurs like Baz Luhrmann, and before him, cinematic trailblazers like Jacques Demy. Yet the gritty realism of today’s cinema is no longer an innovation; Its own modes and acclaim have become entrenched. Modernity requires something else besides, and in Demy, it was his vision ♦

1984: george orwell

George Orwell, 1984

In a speech entitled ‘Literature as Freedom’ Susan Sontag defines a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world”. Writing entails, “trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of”. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this insight into ‘wickedness’ – so thoroughly explored – continues to connect so many readers with the struggle for freedom.  Winston Smith, the novel’s hero speaks to the anguish of those under totalitarian control when he asks,

For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn…How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature, impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him; or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949)

The future did listen however to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, the novel appeared at a point in history following a world war that claimed the attention and lives of millions, when capabilities for human ‘wickedness’ seemed at no point more unfathomable.  In doing so, it connected through iron curtains the unmistakable message of individual freedom. Perhaps no novel communicates more our Literature’s potential to recognize the universal in humanity, separated by ‘mind-forged manacles’ and real world boundaries.

Set in ‘Oceania’, a future socialist dystopia, the individual citizens of a former England are subordinated by ‘Big Brother’, a vast government machine whose technology of surveillance controls its subjects’ thoughts and actions.

1984‘s hero Winston Smith cannot repress his memory of history, even as he toils in the ‘Ministry of Truth’. He works as a propagandist, under orders to alter facts according to the official ruling party’s allegiances. Smith comes to see ‘2+2=4’, if no longer a ‘fact’,  as a personal and self-controlled connection to reality, the expression of freedom itself. He contrives to commit the ‘thoughtcrime’ of privacy, writing – at great risk-  to a diary.

Translated into 65 languages, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a psychological thriller, a story whose individuals live in constant fear. The novel’s airtight atmosphere surrounds the reader through a minimal use of dialogue.

What makes 1984 such an important historical fiction work, is – like Winston Smith’s diary – that the novel was at risk of never being read. The book was banned in Eastern Europe, and, like the shifting alliances in the story, almost banned in England while the country remained an official ally of Stalin after WWII. Yet Nineteen Eighty-Four helped in smuggled form (samizdat) to forment dissent throughout eastern bloc states. Through Orwell’s characteristically simple, direct style, the novel’s insightful, complex themes were shown to be well suited to translation in many languages

This ability for art to cross borders was in fact, two-way. In Russian author Ayn Rand’s Anthem (published in Britain, 1938) the characters live in a world where only ‘we’–  not ‘I’ – is ever spoken. Language is used as a symbol of the repression of individual thought itself. In this respect both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthem must acknowledge a literary debt to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the 1920 Russian satire of a post-revolution police state. The exchange of works across the East-West divide, writes Hitchens, “kindled a spark in the Siberias of the world, warming the hearts of shivering Poles and Ukrainians, and helped melt the permafrost of Stalinism”.

Author Czeslaw Milosz, who worked under communism in the Polish Ministry of Culture, testifies the banned Orwell “fascinated [communist officials] through his insight into details they knew well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden because allegory; by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor”. (qtd in Hitchens, 2002,p.54)

This insight is further captured fictionally in Nineteen Eighty-Four , and is shown by character Big Brother‘s orders to reduce language to basic ‘Newspeak’ terms; “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect”. The citizens of ‘Oceania’ are so removed from private abstractions and imagination, they even work to a 24hr clock, lest ‘8 o’clock’ share two abstract meanings.

Nineteen Eighty-Four remains utterly relevant today, reminding us of the powerful manipulative role language can play in the shifting contest over History: “He who controls the Past, controls the Present.” It also gives powerful testament to why those living under tyranny place themselves at such evident risk to their own life fighting against it.

He was already dead, he reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now when he began to formulate his thoughts that he had taken the decisive step. The consequences of every act are included in the act itself. He wrote, “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.” Now that he recognised himself as a dead man it became important to stay alive as long as possible.

“To die hating them, that was freedom,” thinks Orwell’s hero. Life must have meaning and sanctity. In the real world, the oppressed began living again, committing the unpardonable act of opening secret copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and beginning to read. ♦

sharia’s challenge to Australian equality


A recent case before the ACT Supreme Court has again drawn attention to the treatment of women in Sharia law, renewing calls among rights activists against its acceptance within Australia’s legal system.

In March, the daughter of Ms Mariem Omari, a devout Muslim, contested an inheritance worth only half of the financial share given to each of her brothers.

Australian Federation of Islamic Councils president Hafez Kaseem, through his spokesman Mr Keysar Trad, said the division of assets in favour of males, like the Omari case, reflected Muslim men’s responsibility under Sharia to support their wives.

AFIC called for provisions of the Islamic code to be formally included into family law, part of its submission last year to a Federal Government inquiry into multiculturalism.

Mr Trad said secular law failed to reflect their faith and urged inclusion of Sharia law for Muslims where it applies to marriage, divorce, contracts and custody in Australia.

“We should be allowed to resolve our issues in-house,” Mr Trad said.

“We’re a well-established religion and all we’re asking for is to be a self-regulatory mechanism.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali addresses the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, April 2012. Photo courtesy of Bruce Woolley

Ex-Muslim, author and women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, visiting Australia in April, has warned against any government recognition of Sharia, and said women’s unequal legal protection also placed them in extreme danger.

A statement by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation said Sharia encouraged forced marriage because contracts were signed between a groom and a bride’s father and granted child custody to the father in all divorce cases.

Last year, The Australian reported four separate cases of forced marriage that reached the Family Court involving immigrant families. One case involved a girl bride just 13 years of age.

Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon responded in recent months by introducing criminal punishments for those forcing women into arranged marriages.

Sharia laws have widespread informal use within Muslim communities, but Mr Trad acknowledged tight-knit faith communities exerted pressure on disputing parties – especially married parties – to consent to Sharia mediation, rather than to settle disputes in Australian courts.

“You’d expect both to consent,” he said.

“If a contract is by both, an obligation is to both, and a marriage is a solemn contract to satisfy the will of God.

“Secular law encroaches on all of that.”

Mr Trad denied suggestions Sharia law, that stated evidence given to a court by a woman was worth half of a man’s, meant unequal legal protection.

“In any money dispute, it’s expected as written in the Koran, for evidence to be given by two women for every one man,” he said.

“This is physiological.

“Women have pains and mood swings as a result of their menstrual cycle and can’t be expected the burden of clear heads on financial matters.”

He said fathers should also receive custody of children in most divorce cases.

“Mothers should not be placed in the position of supporting children and having a career.”

Director for the Centre for Muslim States and Societies Samina Yasmeen said both Muslims and non-Muslims were confused by cultural practices claimed to be part of its laws.

Open-minded Muslims feared to speak against Sharia’s more ‘orthodox’ interpretations, Professor Yasmeen said.

“There’s too much focus on imams as a main source of identity for Muslims in Australia.”

Sharia could be interpreted with equal respect for human rights, she said, but framing its codes into Australian law would only enforce its literal, more rigid meanings.

Professor Yasmeen said AFIC’s proposals to the Federal government inquiry represented a narrow interpretation of Sharia, but that most Muslim Australians also held a literal view of its codes.

“Muslim organisations in Australia are not unanimous, but if brought into the Australian legal system it will go to the extreme, enforcing patriarchal practices with a religious colour.

“If people knowingly move to a secular country, they should live within it. If we make too many concessions, we are in danger of losing the secular freedom of the law.” ♦

should Australia have a Bill of Rights?

Geoffrey Robertson, The Statute of Liberty

Australia does not have a Bill of Rights, a comprehensive statement setting out the basic rights and freedoms of all its people.“A Statute of Liberty”, says celebrated human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson at a Melbourne festival in April,

…is an idea I wish to celebrate and whose time has come in every advanced democracy in the world.


Geoffrey Robertson QC is Australia’s foremost proponent of a Bill Of Rights. Photo by lewishamdreamer

Australia’s Constitution inherits and retains traditions from British common law, preserving a separation of powers between parliament, its monarch and judiciary. This reflects Australia’s former role as a British colony, he says. Unlike the US, Australia’s constitution does not vest individual rights in personhood. Some guaranteed rights – limited rights to a trial and codified prevention of an official State religion, are explicit but few. They are examples designed to ensure civil liberty as a whole, but do not reflect civil liberties as they apply to individuals: you, me, citizens of Australia.

Parliament has signed many international human rights treaties but these are non-binding. As the High Court Justice Kirby remarked,

Australia’s constitutional arrangements are peculiar and now virtually unique among common law countries. 

New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada have each adopted a Bill of Rights. Even Britain adopted the EU Convention – whole –  into its domestic law.

Presently, parliament is virtually unrestricted in passing laws that constrain many rights and freedoms that Australians have come to feel are proper and generally specified in other free societies.

Courts in Australia have interpreted implied rights from some of the terms in its Constitution. There is an implied – though not guaranteed – right to vote. Robertson argues that due to more recent High Court decisions, there is an at least implied freedom to discuss political matters, though nothing that equates to the protections of the US first amendment. Australia’s free speech protection is upheld only against a difficult standard, a level of speech “necessary to maintain the system of representative and responsible government”.

Critics have long argued that judges are ‘unelected’ and that parliament is the peoples’ representative body. Bills of Rights have been put to parliament before however, and been dismissed. It is Robertson’s argument that rights cannot be the prerogative of any one body to endow, but of all bodies to recognise. It is a courts’ proper role, he says, to interpret laws as they apply to individual cases, uniquely placing them with the capacity to recognise cases of injustice.

It may shock many to learn the Constitution does not guarantee equal legal protection. This omission is as antiquated as it was deliberate: many of the constitutional framers rejected proposals that might put an end to existing “colonial laws that limited the employment of Asian workers”. The Constitution also permits to this day specific laws with respect to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.” This racial inequality was encouraged by Edmund Barton, later Australia’s first prime minister. In 1898 Barton argued equal protection clauses, which he disfavoured, would limit the government’s power. In his words, the power was necessary “to regulate the affairs of the people of coloured and inferior races who are in the Commonwealth.”

Geoffrey Robertson, Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights

It is a power incompatible with modern democratic values.

Robertson’s book Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights notes the government has actually defended this position in recent times. It has made use of this adverse provision in overturning many human rights and heritage protections. In Kruger v Commonwealth (1997) for example, the High Court observed its current scope would not have been able to prevent the forcible racial assimilation policies by the government in the last century.

Only in the absence of a Bill of Rights, could a moral injustice such as racially discriminatory laws be overlooked in favour of legal precedent. Such are the limits Statute of Liberty makes clear in regards to common law.

Currently, the Australian state of Victoria (2006) and its Capital Territory (2004) have instituted bills of rights, which have improved policy making and created a dialogue between courts and parliament. Such bills should be encouraged and copied in other states. To prevent them from being encroached or overturned, there should be a federal bill protecting Australians nationally.

Such a bill would recognise rights in personhood, protect against individual rights abuses, and improve Australia’s record in acting on its treaty promises to the international community, says Robertson.

A Bill of Rights would define Australia as a modern nation of individuals, and recognise the distinguishing national character of a people born, and entitled, to live freely ♦

Geoffrey Robertson introduces The Statute of Liberty: How Australians Can Take Back Their Rights in this Radio National excerpt. The book is available from Vintage Books and ABC stores. [Pictures sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]

the macho paradox: jackson katz

Jackson Katz, Anti-sexist activist, Speaker, Author Filmaker. Photo from Jackson Katz website

Think you’re an innocent bystander? Think again. According to renowned anti-sexist campaigner Jackson Katz, sexism and violence fuels the ‘tough guys’ image that culture projects on men in all cultures. This tough guise leads men to assert themselves on women and weaker males in order to be ‘masculine’.

The dangers of ‘masculinity’ in this form to society should not be underestimated. As Katz notes,

In the US alone, over 85% of people who commit murder are men…90% of people who commit violent physical assault are men, 95% of serious domestic violence is perpetrated by males, and it’s been estimated that nearly 1 in 4 men will use violence against a partner in their lifetime.

Violence is only the most extreme outgrowth of a pervasive culture that projects the aggressive physical dominance of the male, Katz’ research suggests. Learnt early in development by boys through family and community, the ‘tough guise’ of the male is over-represented in all major media forms.

Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help served as the Secretary of the US Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence from 2000-03.  Through co-founding the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program (MVP) Katz has become the leading internationally recognised educator in preventing gender violence, especially through his work addressing sporting and religious groups as well as the military. He is also a regular columnist for online news site The Huffington Post.

Katz, J. (2006) The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men hurt Women and How All Men Can Help

The title of his book however, points not only to the perpetrators and victims of violence. The key innovation of Katz’s approach to addressing male violence is in using what he refers to as the ‘bystander approach’. Katz’s lectures, films and book aims to empower you as a bystander to take part in preventing sexism and violence.

This approach gives cause for re-examining the role many of us unwittingly play; tolerating the sexist joke, standing mute in the diminishing of women, not seeking to help defend a male abused because they aren’t perceived as ‘masculine’.  It is also a practical guide to action, a role all can play in becoming  modern activists.

Most believe that in order to intervene in a potentially violent situation, you have to choose between doing nothing, or in physically intervening at personal risk. 

Positively, there are multiple points between these poles: Jackson Katz lists 10 important steps we, and particularly male peers- a powerful influence- can take. They are freely available at jacksonkatz.com and form an important modern resource for helping end culturally sanctioned abuses. Among them; the invocation to NOT be silent when abuse appears likely or indicated, and address the issue either by talking with the abuser or someone empowered to talk with him.

A bystander can also gently and privately ask the victim if there is a way to help.

Men need to read [Katz’s] book. Not only because it will make the world safer for women, but because it will free men to be their true selves.

Eve Ensler, Author, ‘The Vagina Monologues’

Katz asks us to no longer fund sexism by purchasing sexist media (some mens’ magazines for example), and to defend others against sexism, homophobia or discrimination. By “raising the cost” of prejudice and violence, Katz says, we make it that much harder for physical dominance to enforce its culture in your society.♦

The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (2006) is available from Source Books. The short film Tough Guise (approx. 7 mins) explains the connection between popular culture and male aggression. Jackson Katz’s 10 steps ‘What Men Can Do’ can be found here.

song of myself: american essay

The Best American Essays 2011 

Edwidge Danticat, Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co

The Best American Essay Series this year takes the reader beneath the skin of personal experience. Its the 26th series of long form journalism pieces sourced from among America’s most insightful journalists, thinkers and authors.

Annually, a prominent writer is awarded the task of selecting the years’ shortlisted essays. This format, according to the values and premises of each editor, demonstrates the versatile form of the essay and its subjects, distilling complex ideas from diverse fields to a wider audience.

Edwidge Danticat is editor of The Best American Essays 2011.


Haitian born author Edwidge Danticat follows from last year’s editor, late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens championed essays by scientists and other specialist writers, focussing his selection on the importance of communicating the breakthrough benefits of Science, and  arespect for the scientific process in general, to a wider audience.

Danticat is author of Create Dangerously and the National Book Critics Circle award-winner for her autobiography, Brother, I am Dying. Sensitive to the challenges of writing from the self, Danticat’s selection is poignant, written almost entirely from journalists’ and authors’ first-hand observations. They include eyewitness accounts of self experience that meet the challenge of illustrating a wider issue. Danticat writes,

Such is the power of the stories we dare tell others about ourselves. They do inform, instruct and inspire. They might even entertain, but they can also strip us totally bare, reducing (or expanding) the essence of everything we are into words.

The 2011 essay selection speaks of the potential personal stories, as good stories do, to bring readers to greater understanding and empathy. The strengths of the technique lie in giving readers direct experience of rare, unusual or painful events. For many, these events would otherwise remain distant and remote. Mischa Berlinski‘s essay brings us right into Haiti’s harrowing earthquake;

The horizon swayed at an angle…the visual effect was precisely that of the grainy videos that would be shown later on television, as of somebody shaking a camera sharply. It was tremendously loud- like huge stones grinding…

Scene from Port Au Prince after the 2011 Earthquake, Haiti

Hitchens is also a contributor to this year’s edition. His ‘Topic of Cancer’ is deservedly acclaimed here for fearless self reporting during an author’s own cancer-ridden decline. First written for Vanity Fair, ‘Topic of Cancer’ began a series of articles by Hitchens. With his body rapidly approaching its Mortality, his writing reaches further toward immortality.

‘Lucky Girl’ from Bridget Potter takes readers to Brooklyn, 1962; to friends to beg for illegally bought contraception; to finding oneself unmarried and pregnant; to begging doctors to be pronounced ‘neurotic’ and so be allowed an abortion; to compulsory expulsion from school; to sharing the decision of 80% of single pregnant women who opted for illegal abortions that year over adoption; to trying to find a back-alley doctor within the remaining few ‘safe’ weeks for operation;  to trying to find money and fleeing to Puerto Rico and risking ones’ own life.

Sneaking into an empty office at work and locking the door, I picked up the phone. The overseas operator found the number and placed the call. The connection was crackly, and the man who answered neither confirmed nor denied that they would help.

The wider statistics of Potter’s experience are shared here, but the writing is acute enough that today’s political implications are powerfully, if indirectly addressed. Through the eyes of ‘Lucky Girl’ readers can imagine from a personal perspective what a nightmare scenario it recollects. Its power to astonish is that such a status can be still blithely contemplated in today’s political discourse, devoid of the kind of empathy Potter’s ‘Lucky Girl’ demands of its readers.

Personal experiences, masterfully told as here, help populate and pierce the screen of observation, bringing us into the sharply defined pixels of a larger narrative. Danticat’s selection of story essays demonstrate that senses really can be common, as can our humanity ♦

imodernreview critiques The Best American Essays 2010 in this previous article. 

eames: the architect and the painter

They gave shape to the American 20th century.

It began with a plywood chair. After successive failures at pushing materials to their limits, Charles and Ray Eames began a stint producing leg splints from their small home apartment during WWII. Using their very own gerry-rigged machine (made from a few heating coils and a bicycle pump) they eventually produced a successful new lightweight chair by moulding ply. They were not to know how successful they would become.

Under the motto “the best, for the most, from the least” they had created the icon of the modern postwar chair. Beautiful yet comfortable to use, adopting functional materials molded in two directions, Eames’ chairs would be able to negate the need for expensive upholstery. Today over 50 Charles and Ray Eames designs have remained in production, many synonymous with the modern design age.

LCW Chair, 1945. By Charles and Ray Eames

The Eames’ creativity would spread in bursts to countless areas, from furniture, to film projects, exhibitions, architecture, and painting. Their story is retold in an inspiring new biopic, filmed with a matching graphic and musical creativity from documentary film-makers Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.

As its trailer shows, EAMES: the architect and the painter, narrated by actor James Franco, explores the lives and work of an extraordinarily talented and eccentric couple.

Modern design was born from a marriage of Art and Industry. The Eames office was born from the marriage of Ray Kaiser, a painter who rarely painted, and Charles Eames, an architecture school drop-out who never got his license.

As the couple’s fame grew, their design studio Studio 901, Los Angeles, drew in four decades of talented artists and designers, working to the vision of their married bosses. TIME referred to one of their chair designs as “the greatest of the 20th century”.

“Never delegate understanding,” Charles Eames had said. Their practise consisted of solving design problems through measurement of the human body and by constant experiment.

Eames Stamps. Photo by brandon shigeta

Much of the colour, artistry and aesthetic sensibility of their work has later been credited to Ray Eames. In the sexual politics of the 1950’s and ’60’s, it was unusual for a married couple to share in business decision making. Eames: the architect and the painter highlights the Eames’ modern example of the productive career-focussed team. Their very image together formed “perhaps their best work of design”, the couple featuring in shared appearances on television and in magazines. While much of the critical attention was focussed on Charles, he could also generously defer to his wife Ray, saying,  “Anything I can do, she can do better.”

Eames Home and Studio, 203 Nth Chautauqua Blvd (Pacific Palisades)       Photo: B. Shigeta

Working from an initial design by architect Eero Saarinen, Ray and Charles Eames designed their modernist home and studio. With material shortages during WWII, they had hit upon the idea of a modern architecture made entirely from pre-fabricated factory materials. Far from austere, the home became a famous architectural symbol of open plan freedom and postwar sophistication.

Today, Sam Grawe, Editor in Chief at Dwell Magazine, cannot recall a magazine issue not featuring Eames furniture.

I think you see that optimism of the American spirit in their designs, a blue-print for how we could live our lives… Every designer owes them some amount of debt.

Lounge Chair 670 and Ottoman 671. By Charles and Ray Eames

In their personal story and the quality of their work through measurement and problem-solving, the film demonstrates Eames’ particular sensibilities of Modernism, and the drive that animated their projects.

Eames’ furniture and artworks are much copied, with originals fetching high prices at auction. Despite this deserved appreciation their legacy is perhaps best paid tribute by looking as they did, to the next stage of design, and with that same forward-thinking optimism ♦

EAMES: the architect and the painter, is available on DVD from Bread and Butter Films.