Fifteen years in the making, Kon Pet Moon’s nonfiction “Two Unknown Photographers” is pretty interesting for what’s basically a long-term personal hobby/obsession assembled into feature form. On the other hand, it demands rather more viewer patience than the docu norm, with just limited reward after 2-1/2 hours. At Sundance preem, filmmaker was disarmingly apologetic about pic’s “tedious” nature, stressing that he’d meant it to be experienced primarily on tape, at viewer’s leisure. The self-deprecation was excessive, but “Two” will indeed play better in multipart broadcast or home cassette form. Avant-garde and arts educational programmers might take a gander.
Posited as an amateur detective saga, pic had its genesis when Moon worked at a downtown San Francisco camera store. Upon its mid-1980s closure, he sorted through thousands of unclaimed photo packets, some dating as far back as the 1940s.
Two bundles fascinated. One was a bizarre collection of rephotographed magazine ads and other female images — from mature women to infants, many nude, all scrupulously cataloged and described (in type right on the pictures) as if compiling data on an alien species. This early ’60s packet was the work of Albert Easterwood, a short (under 5 feet), eccentric, persnickety camera shop regular.
Other package consisted of seemingly banal early ’70s Polaroids capturing street scenes, store displays and random objects. But their humble format belied an odd, arty aesthetic as well as thematic constants including consumerism, violent/sexploitative popular media, and the objectification of women. This subtly politicized art was a private creative outlet for Margaret Raymond, a single mother who’d spent her college years in S.F.
Purchasing both abandoned stacks for himself, Moon commenced a lengthy quest to find the personalities behind them. Eventually, friends, relatives and ex-lovers — if not the photographers themselves — were found, each adding puzzle pieces to very different, highly dramatic real-life “mysteries.”
It emerged that socially withdrawn, orphaned Albert had “just stopped growing” at age 12. Raised by an overprotective older sister, desperately insecure about his childlike appearance, he figured himself a hopeless celibate until one tall, blonde coed decided he’d make a “nonthreatening” sexual partner. When she cut bait, he was devastated.
Margaret’s own restless path, we discover, was triggered by a murky but horrific incident: Unknowingly dosed with PCP at a wild 1971 S.F. party, she was apparently raped. She soon found herself pregnant, giving birth to twin sons. Forever ambivalent about motherhood, intimacy, even choosing a geographic roost, she seemed on the verge of midlife career fulfillment (as a museum curator) when a tragic car accident took her life.
Both figures struck some as unknowable or “crazy”; familiars interviewed offer contrary, partial insights, their roles often troubling and ambiguous. Overall impact is like eavesdropping — through a variably thick wall — on lives at once reckless and sad, doomed to unhappiness by deep-seated trauma. The sometimes bizarre personalities of their associates (A.’s creepy sis and flippant ex-g.f., M.’s sleazy former lover and melancholy sons) adds to docu’s quiet intrigue.
For his part, Moon frustrates as much as he engrosses, as episodic pic seldom varies slow pace, deploys material repetitiously, and leaves crucial questions dangling sans explanation. (It’s especially irksome that Albert’s thread is simply dropped a half-hour from the end.)
Use of found photos and home movies — including long-forgotten 8mm footage and taped live-band music from hippie bash where M. was assaulted — is artful but often attenuated. Likewise, talk segs and travel shots of protags’ one-time haunts sometimes ramble on needlessly. Tech aspects are decent within no-budget bounds.