Stephen Fry Narrates the Live of Indispensable Dutch Graphic Artist.
DIRECTED BY ROBIN LUTZ/2018
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 4, 2021/KINO LORBER; ZEITGEIST
I hated math. I couldn’t do it; I struggled with it all the way through school. Ultimately, as a senior in high school, I ended up in a last-resort geometry course intended for non-mathematicians such as myself.
Thankfully, the teacher was one of great patience, as she understood what types of students she was dealing with, and even sympathized. Essentially, she communicated two things that would forever alter my perception of math for the better. The first: “Math is the only subject that remains constant. The fundamental details of English, spelling, science, social studies and even history change over time. But not math.” The second: “M.C. Escher was nothing if not a mathematician.” Whaaaaaat….
Going back a few years prior, Escher became a key fascination for me- just as he had for so many others before me. The illustrator’s morphing strings of shapes; his ultra-precise depictions of believable yet impossible structures; the impeccable detail in his warped realities… Somewhere between fevered obsession and altered-reality hallucination, such unique inspiration could reside. In his work, heads would literally unravel.
In that vein, it’s no wonder that Escher took on a particular popularity amid the countercultural movements of the 1960s and onward. Rock stars like Mick Jagger and Graham Nash expressed deep interest, the latter of whom shares his own Escher story in this documentary. Being a man of a slightly earlier time, Escher himself couldn’t fathom what their generation of drugged-out hippies saw in his work.
That is just one revelation that comes more or less from the horse’s mouth in the documentary, M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity (Escher: Het Oneindige Zoeken). The film, directed by Robin Lutz, is newly released on Blu-ray. It tells the tale of Maurits Cornelis Escher in his own words, as actor Stephen Fry performs extensive English-language voice over narration from the illustrator’s own journals. Fry as Escher is fully compelling, and honesty, the greatest strength of this sometimes stylishly inconsistent film.
The documentary launches on the defensive with the artist quoted as stating that the only one qualified to ever make a motion picture of his work is him. Alas, Escher never got around to such an undertaking, though eventually, he clearly foresaw the inevitably. (The doc does quickly acknowledge tribute moments in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and Christopher Nolan’s Inception).
When it comes to depicting the intricate majesty of Escher’s own work, Lutz overreaches by attempting to bring his most famous pieces “to life”. Mid-level motion animation and artificial 3-D effects are grafted onto his work when some nice, slow, high-resolution zooming and panning across the unaltered illustrations would’ve been preferable. At one point, Escher’s transforming rolling pill bug tessellations actually assume CGI life. Weird “enhancements” like this actually detract somewhat from the original rendering.
The disc looks top notch with some very loud rock n’ roll menu screens. (You might want to lower the volume before loading the disc). There are a handful of separate lightweight bonus features that collectively add up to about fifteen minutes of viewing.
Any fan of M.C. Escher will appreciate the assembled documentation of the life of this increasingly famed Dutch artist. “Artist” is a term we use now that he’s dead, as he himself came to prefer being thought of as a mathematician. This despite his lifelong struggle with impostor’s syndrome when it came to the engineering side of his craft. Yet, despite repeated laments of not being “bright enough” to track the deep geometric concepts he was clearly channeling, Escher is someone who cracked such problems his own way. And like all math, no matter how he arrived at it, there was only one answer to be had.
In retrospect I realize the profound impression that my senior-year math teacher made upon me. Whenever I see the work of M.C. Escher, I think of her words and gentle guidance. Her advocacy and enthusiasm for such an outside-the-box mathematician unblocked something. Within a few years, I was crunching numbers in my head like the best of them. The methodology might not always be by-the-book, but the right answers- the only answers- are arrived at. M.C. Escher: Journey to Infinity, while proving that documentary filmmaking is not nearly so cut and dried, is nevertheless a terrific tribute this brilliantly imaginative visionary.