In 1990, Paul Yule made a documentary about photographer O. Winston Link, famed for iconic renderings of steam engines passing through small-town America at night. Yule's follow-up docu takes a very different track, but continues to feature Link, chronicling his divorce. Pic, which opened July 26 at Film Forum, may be sentenced to the small screen.

In 1990, Paul Yule made a documentary about photographer O. Winston Link, famed for iconic renderings of steam engines passing through small-town America at night. Yule’s follow-up docu takes a very different track, but continues to feature Link, chronicling his divorce. Tabloid tale of exploitation, adultery and domestic violence includes the subsequent criminal trial of Link’s wife. But the fascinating problematic relationship between art and commerce, uniquely woven through every facet of the story, gets buried by “Court TV”-type conundrums concerning innocence and guilt. Pic, which opened July 26 at Gotham’s Film Forum, may be sentenced to the small screen.

Yule’s 1990 homage presented Link as the preserver of a vanishing American landscape, through his extraordinary nocturnal compositions from the 1950s. Yule’s earlier film also featured contemporaneous footage of Link and his much-younger wife Conchita. Married in 1983, Conchita was admittedly attracted to Winston through his photographs. She quickly proved herself to be a brilliant agent and promoter of his work, greatly increasing their value when she took over the business.

Then, in 1992, Link claimed his wife was keeping him prisoner in their basement workroom and had stolen, with the help of her lover, some 1,500 photographic prints. She was tried, found guilty of grand theft. Released after seven years in prison, she was re-arrested in a sting operation for attempting to sell some of Link’s prints on the Internet.

Accounts by Link’s friends, his lawyer, museum curators and public prosecutors (Link died in 2001) vie with interviews with the imprisoned Conchita, Conchita’s lawyer, and b.f. Ed Hayes. What emerges is less a Pirandellian exercise in the relativity of truth than a legalistic feeding frenzy where the notion of innocence remains the exclusive province of black-and-white photographs.

Nobody comes out looking particularly good. Link’s best friend admits he was paranoid-schizophrenic and manic-depressive, with an enemies list that reached beyond the grave, while an admiring MOMA curator describes him as a “legitimate American genius and nut.” Countless bemused art dealers and tradesmen testify to his many curmudgeonly eccentricities. This is in marked contrast to the saintly elderly artist that the incredibly smug, self-righteous prosecutors boast to having saved from exploitation.

Similarly, while Conchita’s explanations of her actions often ring hollow, and flashes of her reputation as a control freak sometimes penetrate her gray-haired-victim persona, it becomes clear that the image of Conchita projected by the media and art intelligentsia reflects deep class- and gender-biases, and that she was treated to disproportionately harsh criminal judgment.

Unfortunately, Yule’s docu sheds light neither on the convoluted codependency of marriage nor upon the commodification of art. Instead, filled with sumptuous, magically lit black-and-white images of the last of the steam engines traveling past couples in drive-ins or townfolk gathered around a municipal swimming pool, the film represents the lament of a documentarian who can find no road back to his primal subject.

Tech credits are undistinguished.

The Photographer, His Wife, Her Lover

U.S.-U.K.

Production

A First Run/Icarus Films Release of a Berwick Universal Pictures production for BBC. Produced by Paul Yule. Executive producers, Krishan Arora, Jacquie Hughes. Co-producer, Jonathan Stack. Directed by Paul Yule.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Yule; editor, John Street; music, Donald Fraser. Reviewed on videocassette, New York, July 26, 2006. Running time: 78 MIN.
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