DOC NYC Review: Persistence of Vision


[For the next week and half, we will be covering DOC NYC 2012, New York City’s premier documentary film festival. Check back with Flixist for reviews of the DOC NYC 2012 slate. You can read all of our DOC NYC coverage here.]

There’s a romance and a sadness to uncompleted or unrealized works. That’s part of their allure. I’ve always wondered about Bruce Lee’s original version of The Game of Death, for instance, or what David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King would have been like if he hadn’t committed suicide. The same goes for Jerry Lewis’s infamous 1972 Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried, which was never released. And of course there’s Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, chronicled in the documentary Lost in La Mancha.

Add to that list Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler. Williams worked on the movie for 30 years. The ambitious animated feature was full of incredible set pieces and design work. It’s the sort of movie that might have revolutionized hand-drawn animation. Well, if only.

Kevin Schreck’s documentary Persistence of Vision reveals the heartbreaking fate of The Thief and the Cobbler. Compared to Williams, Gilliam got off easy.

Persistence of Vision
Director: Kevin Schreck
Rating: NR
Release Date: TBD

The Thief and the Cobbler began as an adaptation of Mulla Nasrudin tales. These were short, comic vignettes from Iran, each one capped by a moral. They were part joke and part aphorism — maybe somewhere between Aesop and Jack tales — though to string them together into a cohesive epic story would be difficult. Still, work began in 1964 and continued for several years. The rights on that project eventually got tangled up, leaving Williams with lots of design material to build on even though he essentially had to start from scratch. Influenced by silent film heroes and the lush Persian illustrations he and his team had developed, Williams started work on The Thief and the Cobbler around 1972.

Williams himself declined to be interviewed for the film. Schreck makes it known at the beginning that Williams doesn’t talk about The Thief and the Cobbler on the record, probably because it would hurt too much. Three decades of effort put into a project that became hobbled, compromised, and ruined for a variety of reasons. This was more than Williams’s baby, and you sense that while watching Persistence of Vision. The Thief and the Cobbler was everything he believed in and dreamed — one big picture, he says, with all the stuff he knows packed into it like a triple-decker sandwich. In the byzantine sprawl of the invented Arabian city, in the impossible machinery of the universe, in the frightening geometry of the battle sequences, in the mesmerizing movements of the world he’d invented — all of this was Richard Williams’s soul.

There is an incredible majesty to the work that Williams and his company produced for The Thief and the Cobbler. Several animators appear in the film recounting their contributions. They look back with wincing fondness. Since The Thief and the Cobbler had been an independent production, Williams’s animation company had to work on TV ads while building The Thief and the Cobbler bit by bit. Some of the ads that the Williams animators produced are included in Persistence of Vision, and they are fantastic exertions of effort, bona fide works of art, and all just to sell Fanta or aftershave. In one ad, an animated anthropomorphic fox turns into a real man while wandering an attic; in another, waves roil in an ocean gale, and it looks like a living oil painting. It was this kind of talent that led to Williams’s involvement with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It’s probably what most people know Williams for even if they don’t know his name.

So in Williams’s absence, we get footage of Williams when he was making his magnum opus. These are clips of television profiles on Williams at different points in his life. One goes all the way back to the Mulla Nasrudin phase of the project. As the film progresses, we see Williams age and time take its toll on his gung-ho spirit. He still talks enthusiastically about art and animation, and he’s ecstatic when he describes what the medium can accomplish at its best. Williams is absolutely giddy at times, like a child who’s just learned a joke and wants to share. When he describes the design of his film’s villain and the choices that were made, it’s hard not to be infected by his enthusiasm.

Williams’s own mastery of animation is on display, and not just in sequences from The Thief and the Cobbler. There’s footage of him discussing craft with his fellow animators, and he pinpoints things so quickly. In one segment, he discusses how to make movement more interesting and less conventional. Later, in just a cursory flip through an artist’s pages, he notices a minuscule difference in an object that a character interacts with. There’s even footage of him animating at home — so dedicated to what he loves — while his wife sits in the same room reading. Neither speak while he’s busy at work.

There two excerpts from The Thief and the Cobbler that made the whole movie click for me (as if it wasn’t clicking enough already). In one, the thief character, so obsessed with obtaining a shiny bauble, wanders through the meticulous inner workings of the city. He steps over turning gears, toppling structures just miss him, chutes sling him along in incredible arcs. To think that human hands had made this still boggles me. The same goes for a chase sequence. My eyes just dazzled at the way Williams and his animators played with spatial relations and color. It’s impossible to avoid hypnotism from the beauty and imagination of it all.

But the heartbreak hasn’t set in by that point. We’re still in the phase of wonderment. When the heartbreak finally comes, it comes in steps, and it’s so painful because you know just how much it meant to everyone involved. Then the ultimate fall. Schreck leads into the coup de grace, the most cringeworthy moment of disappointment, in a way that Williams might have approved. I laughed bitterly when it came because if I didn’t, I might have started crying. Maybe making The Thief and the Cobbler was like finding El Dorado. Onward Williams went, charging forward on Nasrudin’s donkey, or maybe atop a sad old horse like Don Quixote. But even after the death of an unfinished masterpiece, Williams continues to make art.

There’s a wonderful scene in Persistence of Vision where Williams talks about a Rembrandt in a museum and how incredible it was. He says that it was painted at a point of absolute ruin for Rembrandt, and yet he was able to create something memorable and beautiful. Why did he do it, Williams asks. Rembrandt didn’t need to, but he did it. It reminds me of this great line from the author Jim Shepard about doing creative work: you have to do it to feel good about yourself even though doing it might not make you feel good about yourself. Rembrandt did it because he had no choice. Williams probably understood the irrational beauty of obsessive creation just the same. There’s another line, this one from Werner Herzog in the documentary The Burden of Dreams, which seems appropriate here: “If I abandon this project I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that.”

By the end of Persistence of Vision, I had nothing but admiration for Williams because, over 30 years, he attempted something impossible, accomplished improbable things, and then endured as he fell short. Few people live that way, many wouldn’t want to, yet it’s the sort of life any artist can only hope to live. It’s a kind of heroism; it’s recklessly noble. Schreck has crafted a moving tribute to Williams’s artistic ambition, and at the same time celebrates the melancholy beauty of impossible dreams.

[Persistence of Vision will screen at the SVA Theater on Friday, November 9th. Director Kevin Schreck is expected to attend the screening.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.