A genuine American eccentric provides the focus for Don Bernier’s tyro feature, “In a Nutshell.” Account of artist Elizabeth Tashjian and her Nut Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., is a familiar but well-crafted journey into a corner of odd Americana as well as a cautionary tale on how society mistreats artists and the elderly. Without quite the forcefulness needed for theatrical exposure, pic is prime fest material and a tasty item for cable and off-center vid shelves.
Fans of Doug Kirby and Ken Smith’s delightful travel guidebook, “Roadside America,” will immediately spot Tashjian as the pixie-ish, grandmotherly woman holding a gigantic cocoa-de-mer nut.
After establishing the museum and Tashjian as a magnet for news media and chatshow hosts looking for weird subjects (with Johnny Carson alone treating her respectfully), docu explores Tashjian’s pastas a child of divorced parents, training at an arts academy, growing up with a loving mother with whom she lived until her death in 1959.
Nut art began for Tashjian doing still lifes in art school, and eventually expanded to comprise her entire world view. Kirby and Smith (who also appear in the pic) quoted her as observing that “nuts are fresh tokens of primeval existence.” Bernier never manages to glean such an ideal summary from Tashjian in his three years of filming her.
Local journalist Christine Woodside provides pic with a sure, sympathetic overview of Tashjian’s complex personality, how the museum came together and why backward and conservative locals began to treat it as an eyesore.
Like Kirby and Smith, Bernier clearly “gets” Tashjian’s obsession with the nut as a living entity redolent with humor, texture, variety and even mystery. It’s a cruel and too-easy irony that the word is used by critics to demean her.
Like Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley and Sam Rodia’s Watts Towers, Tashjian’s Nut Museum is a cultural object of adoration and ridicule, as misunderstood as it is appreciated as living art made by a single guiding hand. The museum was shut down, with Tashjian being declared insane, losing her property and becoming a ward of the state. A final hopeful turn in what could have been a dreadfully depressing tale gives “In a Nutshell” a chance for Tashjian to have the last laugh.
Vid lensing is pro, and the soundtrack is a collage of composers Matthew Logan’s and Barry Black’s slightly askew music, echoing Tashjian’s different view of the world. Tashjian also warbles her own tunes in honor of the nut.