Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Portrait of a Garden: Prune Hard with a Vengeance

You know the expression “like watching the grass grow?” In this case, it is fennel and Japanese wine berry, but it is still unfortunately apt. Admirers will call this Dutch doc meditative but the rest of us philistines will quickly grow restive watching the owner of an old restored fifteenth century “kitchen garden” and his master gardener methodically prune what seems like every blessed branch on the 3.7 acres. Presumably you have to be a dedicated gardener to appreciate the muted charms of Rosie Stapel’s Portrait of a Garden (trailer here), which opens today in New York at Film Forum.

Presumably Daan van der Have is going alright for himself, because maintaining his sprawling garden is quite an undertaking. Rather than flowers, he grows just about every consumable crop you can imagine. Fortunately, he hired Jan Freriks, one of the few remaining master gardeners fully versed in traditional techniques dating back to the gardens of Louis XIV, the Sun King. (No, he wasn’t there when they were first developed. Don’t be mean.) Together, they prune like nobody’s business and occasionally they discuss the weather or maybe pruning.

You could definitely call Portrait an observational documentary, but there really is not a lot to observe. We have been down this road many times with documentaries that quietly watch artists and craftsmen at work, but they usually give us more to engage with. For instance, photography publisher Gerhard Steidl emerges as a surprising passionate and rather witty figure in How to Make a Book with Steidl and Gottfried Helnwein has plenty to say about art and history in Lisa Kirk Colburn’s doc, but with Portrait, you’re largely on your own.

There are maybe some lessons to be learned about sustainable, locally grown produce or maybe just the value of working the soil and investing a little sweat equity in your property, but under Stapel’s approach, all take-aways will have to be absorbed through osmosis. A little context would definitely be helpful, especially with respect to who van der Have is and just how he can afford to put so much time and money into his garden.

Just so everyone understands, there is a lot of pruning in this film. Seriously, a lot. Maybe that works for you, maybe it doesn’t, but either way viewers should be forewarned. As cinema, it is just too slight and sparsely vegetated to recommend. For those who find PBS’s Victory Garden too fast-paced and hectic, Portrait of a Garden opens today (10/26) in New York, at Film Forum.