Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey’s documentary Eames: The Architect And The Painter isn’t just about influential 20th-century designer Charles Eames, or even about Charles and his wife Ray; it’s also about the studio full of creative types that they oversaw. And while Charles is “the architect” of the title and Ray “the painter,” they and their collaborators were also filmmakers, toymakers, historians, photographers, and curators. And that’s not even taking into account the Eames furniture, which brought modernism to the middle class and gave Charles and Ray the financial freedom to pursue whatever creative whim struck them. In short: the movie’s title is largely inadequate.
Then again, so is the movie. The problem with making a documentary about people so active and eclectic is that it’s difficult to fit their lives into a 90-minute space without the product coming off as either too cluttered or too slight. It’s a problem the Eames studio itself faced throughout its existence, whenever Charles was asked to put together a major exhibition to encapsulate some facet of American life. The Eames’ installations on art, technology, history, and culture drew enormous crowds, but also more than a few critics, who complained that the insights were too facile, and the presentation too theatrical. So it goes with Eames: The Architect And The Painter. Cohn and Jersey round up a lot of testimony from people who worked with Charles and Ray, and the movie deals openly with Charles’ infidelities, as well as his habit of hogging the credit for work he barely touched. But in the end, the documentary leaves only impressions of who the Eames were at their best and worst, failing the challenge that Charles Eames laid out for his own career: “Eventually, everything connects.”
That said, even the briefest glimpse of Eames’ work is energizing. Charles and Ray let everything influence them, from circuses to computers, and imparted their enthusiasms to their staff, who speak in The Architect And The Painter about the deep sense of loss they felt when Charles died suddenly in 1978. At its best, Cohn and Jersey’s film considers the difficult process of collaborative creation, be it in high art or commercial design, by showing how Ray often felt marginalized as Charles developed interests she didn’t share. As James Franco’s narration notes at the start, “Modern design was born from the marriage of art and industry.” The remarkable work produced by the Eames studio was born from the marriage of two people who didn’t always see eye to eye, and from underlings who loved and resented their brilliant, flawed bosses.
Key features: A little more than 12 minutes of additional scenes, each of which would’ve made the film feel fuller, if not necessarily more comprehensive.