'Eames: The Architect and the Painter'

Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey's sprightly documentary weighs its subjects' unique accomplishments and widespread influence while probing a relationship more complex than its sunny public face indicated.

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Two midcentury modernists with a rare populist touch are profiled in “Eames: The Architect and the Painter.” A painter who rarely painted and an architecture-school dropout, respectively, Charles and Ray Eames made ultramodern design seem fun, mostly via the famous, still-manufactured “Eames chair.” Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s sprightly documentary weighs its subjects’ unique accomplishments and widespread influence while probing a relationship more complex than its sunny public face indicated. First Run pickup should do well in limited theatrical release starting Nov. 18, with a Dec. 19 broadcast debut on PBS’ “American Masters.”

Though Charles was already a husband and father at the time, he and Ray (nee Bernice Kaiser) immediately clicked upon meeting at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art in the late 1930s; Ray even lent a hand on the chair’s failed original prototype. Following his 1941 divorce, they promptly married, moved to Los Angeles and commenced making “the best for the most for the least,” as Charles put it. Initially this included improved leg splints mass-produced for WWII military personnel. That assignment helped them solve the issue of molding plywood for body-sculpted domestic furniture, allowing eventually for the manufacture of the simple, graceful, playful Eames chair.

It proved a defining object for the postwar generation and its middle-class suburban lifestyle. Charles’ problem-solving gifts and Ray’s aesthetic ones likewise married inexpensive materials to abstract yet practical, inviting designs in myriad other media beyond home decor. Their own Pacific Palisades house, graphic designs for corporations (notably IBM), experimental films illustrating complex ideas in simple terms, and other projects all caught the public’s fancy.

Former co-workers say the Eames’ offices felt more like a design playground than a workspace. But they also note that highly collaborative team ventures usually wound up credited exclusively to the couple, or to Charles alone. It’s surmised that Ray must have chafed somewhat at the perception that she could hardly be her husband’s creative equal. (One amusing/appalling sequence shows Arlene Francis on TV’s “What’s My Line?” stubbornly assigning Ray a more subservient role despite Charles’ insistence on his wife being a full working partner.)

The marriage itself was a mystery to everybody, another colleague says, particularly since Charles (despite his own issues with socializing and obfuscation) was by far the more charismatic figure. Yet their collaborative bond was perceived by others to be so inviolate that one woman with whom Charles had a long-term affair attests that when Charles offered to divorce and marry her, she just “couldn’t do it to Ray.”

Between the wide array of interviewees and surplus of colorful archival materials, the deftly assembled pic has nary a dull moment.

Eames: The Architect and the Painter

Production

A First Run Features release of a Quest Prods. and Bread and Butter Films production in association with Thirteen's American Masters for WNET.org. Produced by Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey. Executive producer, Shirley Kessler. Co-producer, Camille Servan-Schreiber. Directed by Jason Cohn, Bill Jersey. Written by Cohn.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Ulli Bonnekamp, Brian Dowley, Vicente Franco, Edward Marritz; Petr Stepanek, Brett Wiley, Edgar Boyles, Andrew Dryer, Tom Hurwitz, Jon Shenk, Thaddeus Wadleigh, Brian Wingert; editor, Don Bernier; music, Michael Bacon; animation/graphics designer, Brian Oakes; sound, Brian Buckley, Douglas Dunderdale, Mark Mandler, Bob Schuck, Mario Cardenas, Steve Haskin, Gabriel Monts, Jayme Roy, John Zecca; sound mixers, James LeBrecht, Dan Olmsted. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Oct. 17, 2011. (In Mill Valley Film Festival -- Valley of the Docs; Doc NYC.) Running time: 84 MIN. Narrator: James Franco.

With

Richard Saul Wurman, Kevin Roche, Tina Beebe, Eames Demetrios, Deborah Sussman, Pat Kirkham, Donald Albrecht, Gordon Ashby, Jeannine Oppewall, Bill Tondreau, Jed Perl, Marilyn Neuhart, Ralph Capian, Richard Wright, Paul Schrader, Joe Giovannini, Judith Wechsler, Zeke Seligsohn, Ford Peatross, Meg McAleer, Lucia Eames, Thomas S. Hines, Sam Grawe, Bob Blaich, John Neuhart.

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