Jean Marie Drot b. 1939
Man Among Men: Alberto Giacometti (1963)
A Man Among Men: Alberto Giacometti (Jean-Marie Drot, 1963). Sometimes we see the interviewer. Sometimes we hear him. Sometimes we even see a wide shot of the studio that reveals the simple, face-to-face architecture of the encounter. But most of all, we see Giacometti in mid-shot, extemporizing on his obsessions, assiduously working the damp clay of an as-yet inchoate figure. As his fingers probe and tear, he wryly pooh-poohs the interviewer's anxieties about disrupting his creativity: "The filming draws me to the work... it's a chance to work..." And so Giacometti, the charming, witty unrepentant workaholic emerges, reliving in what the poet Jacques Dupin called an "intense, rasping voice," the cathartic moments of his artistic career.

Giacometti located his creative epiphany in 1945 when he emerged from a Montparnasse cinema and saw the world as if for the first time, unclouded by the veil of the real. From that moment, he felt the need to account for what he saw, knowing that all the time he would fail, but that only failure itself would lead to the truth. As he later noted, "The more you fail, the more you succeed. It is only when everything is lost and -- instead of giving up -- you go on, that you experience the momentary prospect of some slight progress. Suddenly you have the feeling -- be it an illusion or not -- that something new has opened up."

As the interview progresses Giacometti cracks open artistic inspiration as the frenzied pursuit of such illusions. Even three years before his death, when he was internationally recognized, the artist worked frenetically, as if a lifetime of grasping for, but never quite capturing, enlightenment could be reversed with just one more sculpture.

According to Dupin, interviewed extensively in Michel van Zele's What is a Head?, Giacometti was so convinced that only his newest work scraped close to truth that he would want to pack and dispatch solely sculptures, still dripping water and clay, to any exhibition. Only the interventions of his brother, his wife, and his friends filled galleries with his finished, haunting recreations of human persistence.

For Giacometti, drawing and sculpting did not represent what he saw; instead he sought, through his art, to understand what he saw. He perceived, that day in Montparnasse, a void that isolated everyone and everything, leaving all "floating in emptiness, separated by an immense distance." But isolation also held within it courage and determination. Giacometti traced the vulnerability of his figures, those slender trajectories of resistance against space, to his perception of human endeavor: "I always feel that there's a fragility in living creatures, as if at every moment they needed an incredible drive to remain standing, always at risk of collapsing." More than fragility, too, he saw imminent extinction, knowing that death inhabited the living and quickly abandoned the dead.As his fingers drew presence out of the void, he saw his work as "testing a talent to find a fact."

While Drot's film is itself rich in "fact," prowling slowly from one masterwork to the next, often accompanied by the artist's own recollections of its genesis and fruition (no small accomplishment in a television documentary), it's van Zele who focuses on one key element of the works themselves -- the representation of the human head. In so doing, he casts his net widely, drawing in close friends of Giacometti's such as Dupin, Roger Montandon, and Ernst Scheidegger, a young German soldier who met Giacometti while vacationing in a Swiss hotel.

Giacometti's fascination with the head began in the early 1930s. In 1934, André Breton, contemptuous of Giacometti's return to the human body as subject after his cubist and surrealist work, scoffed that everyone knows "what a head is now." Giacometti snapped back, "I don't," and abandoned the surrealists forever. According to Scheidegger, who later shot his own film about the artist, Giacometti found in the human head "an insoluble mystery," perpetually drawing him towards truth and into despair. Giacometti himself said, "The first time that I saw the head I was looking at become fixed, immobilized definitively in a moment in time, I shook with terror as never before in my life and a cold sweat ran down my back. What I was looking at was an object like any other, no, different, not like any other object, but like something which was alive and dead at the same time."

--by Lesley Smith