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(DOC NYC ran November 6-15. Lead critic Chris Reed is there bringing you tons of coverage so stay tuned! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

I knew little about Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still (1904-1980) before watching director Dennis Scholl’s new documentary, Lifeline / Clyfford Still, which walks us through the man’s life and work with methodical precision. An artist of uncompromising principles, Still did not, in his lifetime, experience quite the acclaim of a Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, and had nothing but contempt for the now-revered Museum of Modern Art, which he accused of “institutionalizing modernism.” He was always his own person, damn the rest. In fine Stillian tradition, his widow took her time choosing a posthumous home for his paintings, but they now almost all reside at Denver’s Clyfford Still Museum, which opened in 2011. Based on what I learned from this film, it seems worth a visit.

Scholl (Deep City) tells his tale using excerpts from a treasure trove of archival material – audio, films and photographs – as well as interviews with Still’s two daughters, surviving friends and acquaintances, and art experts. The net result is a comprehensive portrait of a seminal, if long unsung, figure. Along the way, Still gets to take potshots from beyond the grave at rivals like Rothko or Barnett Newman, the latter whom he accused of taking his own signature “lifeline” and turning it into a zipper (I am not familiar with Newman’s œuvre so will just leave that there). That lifeline is a vertical stripe, usually dark, that bifurcates most of Still’s canvasses, a leftover influence, perhaps, of his childhood on a Midwestern farm. Apparently, his callous father thought nothing of lowering him headfirst into a deep well to check the waterline, attached by the ankle to a rope that would pull him out, afterwards. Sounds bleak, and the trauma stayed with him ever after. Cruelty can have unusual outcomes, it seems.

If the film, otherwise strong, has a mild weakness, it’s that Scholl seems to take our interest in the subject for granted, jumping right into the appreciation of the artist, and of Abstract Expressionism, before fully defining the terms of cinematic engagement. Fortunately, as the documentary progresses, it grows in fascination, even for the uninitiated, serving as a great primer on Still and his contemporaries. Like its own kind of lifeline thrown back into the past, Lifeline / Clyfford Still takes us on a journey into the roots of our present, leaving us with a wealth of satisfying knowledge by its end.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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