Wednesday, January 13, 2021 at 4:01PM
By Glenn Dunks
The Film Experience
You can keep your MCU. You can have your… whatever DC’s is. For me, the only cinematic universe that matters right now is the Sachs and Johnson Cinematic Universe. What’s that you ask? Well, it’s the films of brother and sister pair Ira and Lynne Sachs as well as Kristen Johnson with whom the brother Sachs has children, all of whom seem to make movies about and/or featuring one another. I feel like I know these people in very intimate ways because of the way their works reflects each other’s. It’s a curious little enclave of filmmaking that only enriches each additional film that I see.
I lead off with this somewhat facetious observation because the latest film, Lynne Sachs’ Film About a Father Who is about her father, which only seeks to expand and enlighten the story of this fascinating bunch of New York filmmakers…
Film About a Father Who is probably also a bit tougher to discuss, being more experimental and fragmented than the documentaries I normally review. This isn’t a political thriller or a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity. Well, not in those traditional ways. Having said that, I do think audiences are becoming more comfortable with this brand of doc that ebbs and flows in new and evolving ways—perhaps that’s thanks to filmmakers like Johnson whose Cameraperson and Dick Johnson is Dead stray far from the conventional paths, but which have proven popular with audiences.
I saw Film About a Father Who back in mid-2020 as a part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s virtual festival alongside a Sachs tribute retrospective (of which my favourite is probably Which Way is East). But it is a film that sits so comfortably and so snugly in the cervices of one’s mind that it at once feels like a distant, beguiling memory and something so potently immediate. As its title suggests (cribbed from dancer and director Yvonne Rainer’s 1974 documentary, Film About a Woman Who…), Sachs’ film is about her father, Ira Sachs, Sr. A filmmaker of his own unique sort; a local character from Park City who enjoyed picking up a camera to film home movies.
The film traces his life in fragments, featuring the elder Sachs along with Lynne, Ira Jr. and some of their other siblings. It details how his penchant for a particular lifestyle (he was a philanderer for one thing) came at the cost of his family. The Sachs matriarch, Diane, is featured, as is Ira’s disapproving maw-maw, the 100-year-old Rose. You could say that Ira led a life of perpetual teenagerdom, who in his elder years comes across as something of an aging hippie. His hair long and grey with a thick moustache and who often wears clothing that you would likely call eccentric. I hope that Lynne would forgive a viewer for thinking her dad took a lot of acid in his time.
It’s a deeply personal work of biography (via autobiography), of course. One that may perhaps mystify some viewers who may feel as if they need a post-it notes with string wrapped around thumb tacks just to make heads or tales of its myriad of connections. But this isn’t necessarily a film that tells a linear portrait of its subject. Far from it. Sachs, in fact, builds her own cinematic grammar to help construct an understanding of her father, reckoning with the mistakes that lead to where they all are in 2020.
The film has a particular emotional revelation that not only comes uncomfortably close to unforgivable, but also speaks the class in a way that underlines many of the extended family’s concerns about Ira Sr. It isn’t unforgivable to Lynne who clearly has compassion for her father in spite of his (many) transgressions. It is in these closing sequences—and it should be noted the film is only a scoot over 70 minutes—that lessons of family really come into a new light. With Sachs’ strong if shaggy (in a good way) direction, Film About a Father Who makes for an essential, powerful work of documentary to open 2021.
Release: Opens in virtual cinemas this Friday via Cinema Guild. Museum of the Moving Image will also be host to a Lynne Sachs retrospective, Lynne Sachs: Between Thought and Expression, from today until the end of the month also in their virtual cinema.