A gadfly in the upper echelons of the U.S./European avant-garde from the late 1920s through the present, Charles Henri Ford fascinates for his connections to myriad lasting talents. His own artistic output is of lesser interest, at least as “Sleep in a Nest of Flames” presents it; and while he’s still quite spry at 90-odd years, his gossipy reminiscences reveal little of a personal nature. Interesting to a point, delightful in parts, dully paced docu rambles on for so long that by the end a charming party guest has become one you wish would please leave already.
Co-directors James Dowell and John Kolomvakis have long collaborated on short subjects and in other media, but their first full-length film seems oblivious to the narrative arc or tonal variety required to sustain feature format. Entranced by their subject’s history — and with some heavy artillery interviewees on tap — they lend each episodic element equal weight.
But not all footage is created equal. When focus turns to matters of lesser interest, “Sleep” induces just that; a good half-hour could be trimmed. Present, ultimately turgid length may ward off the gay fest and specialized broadcast slots that pic would otherwise be ideal for.
Born to a genteel Southern hotel family (and sibling to thesp Ruth Ford, whose fabled stage career included U.S. preem of Sartre’s “No Exit”), Charles moved in 1930 to NYC, where his youthful beauty found ready berth in Greenwich Village’s gay and artistic bohemia. He founded the avant-garde literary journal “Blues” and in the ’40s the even more influential “View,” which provided key early exposure for Nabokov, Genet and many others.
Frequent jaunts abroad lent him insider status in the expat communities of Gertrude Stein’s Paris and Paul Bowles’ Tangiers; he also traveled in subsequent Beat, Warhol Factory and countercultural arts circles. Before pairing up for a quarter century with Russian emigre painter Pavel Tschelitchew, he enjoyed an intense (if sexually ambiguous) relationship with charismatic U.S. writer Djuna Barnes.
The pixieish Ford spins numerous, amusing, if superficial, anecdotes about these luminaries. Assembling “Sleep” over nearly a decade, filmmakers also drafted many of them (some now deceased) for interview footage, including Bowles, architect Philip Johnson, artist Paul Cadmus, Allen Ginsberg, composer Ned Rorem, poet Ted Joans and Factory denizens Gerard Malanga and Paul Morrissey, plus various critics, historians and curators.
Resulting glimpse of a close-knit, trans-Atlantic salon elite morphing over several decades is absorbing for the links revealed between each modernist epoch. Wealth of archived materials on tap (not least Ford’s own portrait photography) makes near-mythic cultural figures and events seem teasingly immediate. Especially intriguing is an extended section about the elaborate “Paper Ball” Tschelitchew devised for a Hartford, Conn., museum in 1936, as it suggests multimedia “happenings” were hardly a 1960s invention.
But Ford’s own artistic milestones are scrutinized at equal length, to much less reward, as his major works, such as the 1931 gay-scene novel “The Young and Evil” and abstract puppet one-act “A Sentimental Playlet,” now appear dated, arch and precious.
If Ford reveals little of his interior life, perhaps he’s simply just what he appears: an old-school aesthete, content to have lived on reflected glory and dilettantish activity. Pity “Sleep in a Nest of Flames” fails to communicate that vicarious spirit filmically: A more energetic, selective editorial package would have adopted his glam-observer role, rather than earnestly plodding through a career that’s most significant by association. By final half-hour, flat-lined pacing has exhausted viewer patience.
Tech aspects are competent, archival materials both shown and soundtracked always engaging.