Even if Henri-Georges Clouzot's experimental 1956 documentary The Mystery Of Picasso offered nothing more valuable than footage of the painter at work, it would still be indispensable. Countless lousy youth-exploitation movies rate a look because of the momentary appearance of the likes of James Brown or The Spencer Davis Group; why shouldn't the artist who commercialized abstraction and arguably gave birth to 20th-century popular art command as much attention as some old rocker? As it happens, The Mystery Of Picasso frames its subject well, raising subtle questions about the nature of Pablo Picasso's gift and the value of art, even though the movie really is nothing more than footage of the master at work. Clouzot has Picasso sketch and paint on a see-through canvas that enables the camera to shoot the artwork-in-progress without obstruction. The Mystery Of Picasso follows each (mostly) quick sketch from start to finish, with the occasional jump cut to disguise a period of rumination, or to heighten the excitement. When the work is done, Clouzot wipes to a blank screen and Picasso starts anew. According to legend, all of the paintings and drawings in The Mystery Of Picasso were immediately destroyed, which if true means that the film provides the only opportunity to view a handful of otherwise vanished Picassos. True or not–and one of the commentators on the new DVD edition's bonus tracks offers evidence that it's not–the possibility that these works are temporary adds drama. Clouzot's best-known films include the suspense classics The Wages Of Fear and Diabolique, and he turns the screws in The Mystery Of Picasso as well, adding a nerve-jangling score by Georges Auric and inserting staged scenes wherein he and Picasso discuss how much film is left in the camera, and whether time permits one more sketch. The brief moments of contextualization are meant to provoke the viewer into wondering whether art can be created on a deadline, or perhaps whether Picasso's facility at creation proves that he was something of a hack. The audience is placed further on edge watching the artist start with fairly clean, elegant compositions and then seeing him mar them by adding obscuring layers of color. One major failing of The Mystery Of Picasso is that its subject rarely speaks, and never explains himself, though the DVD helps by offering the thoughts of a couple of art historians–one insightful (Peggy Parsons) and one unbearably pretentious (Archie Rand). The disc also includes an abstract Alan Renais short film based on the themes and images of Picasso's "Guernica," but the Renais piece is as obtuse and annoying as Clouzot's film is simple and profound.
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