Unlike most documentaries about artists that trumpet their subjects’ achievements through the testimony of assorted authorities and celebs, Peter Sanders’ docu on his grandmother, Altina Schinasi, recounts her varied accomplishments — from her sculpted “chair-acters” to her George Grosz-inspired film to her invention of harlequin glasses — through the prism of her evolving family. Though it seems excessively personal at first (relatives abound, both in front of and behind the camera), it becomes clear by the docu’s end that its subject’s myriad marriages and private transformations have each engendered some discrete form of art or activism. Once in fuller focus, “Altina” makes for loose, exasperating but oddly endearing viewing.
Schinasi’s activities during her lengthy lifespan, which encompassed nearly the entire 20th century, run parallel to the larger historical forces defining the decades. But other tie-ins rely on freeform associations. Thus, copious homemovies, photographs and interviews (including extensive ’90s footage of Schinasi herself recounting different blips on her biographical timeline) alternate with archival footage of her ever-changing context; images from the roaring ’20s to the protesting ’60s are well integrated into her evolving story by dint of their very slapdash presentation.
The Sanders family’s three-generation involvement in filmmaking, for instance, is obliquely hinted at by the star-studded excerpt of the cigarette-machine celebration in Hollywood’s “Bright Leaf,” supposedly illustrating how her Jewish-Turkish immigrant father, Morris Schinasi, made his fortune by inventing pre-rolled cigarettes. Images of Depression-era soup kitchens, on the other hand, never rocked or even entered his daughter’s moneyed existence.
Brought up in an opulent marble mansion on New York’s Upper West Side, Schinasi defied debutante expectations and Jazz Age fecklessness by working as a window dresser and studying painting at the celebrated bohemian Art Students League under Grosz. Paradoxically, although she would fight for autonomy and the freedom to forge her own path, artistically, socially and sexually, much of the documentary, in her own exposition and in Sanders’ structuring, unfolds in relationship to her different domestic affiliations — one affair, four very different marriages and two children. Her two surviving husbands speak lovingly and tearfully of their time with her. One child, producer-director Terry Sanders, appears in an interview interpolated throughout, while the other, Denis Sanders (whose promising Hollywood career was cut short by his early death), is spoken about at great length by several interviewees.
As the film ultimately makes clear, it was Schinasi’s peculiar insertion of iconoclasm and spontaneity into traditional constructs of marriage and family that made her artistic inventions (sexy glasses for women, erotically romantic benches) at once adventurously wild and cozily domestic.