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February 5, 2011 at 4:18pm

Look In here: "A Not So Still Life" review

"A Not So Still Life"

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A few minutes into the documentary A Not So Still Life, a nameless woman peers into the camera, her features massive on the screen. We, the unseen voyeurs shielded by a lens, have momentarily become the observed. But the woman can't see us, only a thick layer of reflective glass. Apparently she misunderstood the "Look In Here" sign posted out of frame, mistaking the camera for a viewfinder, expecting an image but unaware she is the recorded image. Its makers intended that posting for interviewees; so, put another way, the woman interpreted an instruction as an invitation.

By the same token, Still Life, which plays at 2 p.m.. Sunday, Feb. 6 at the Tacoma Art Museum, resembles an old friend's colorful invitation you discover one afternoon in your mailbox. The film's subject, the prodigiously talented Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner, warmly welcomes you into her world, her life, her head. Fittingly, the documentary opens on streams of guests (not unlike a movie theater train) arriving at Ginny's home for a party. The interior buzzes with laughter (much from the older hostess herself, who emanates a wonderful laugh), but also with the multihued painting and glass creations scattered everywhere. For Ginny, home really is where the art is.

Amadeus remains my first pick in the genius-bio genre. Besides the obvious reasons for its enduring popularity (um, the soundtrack?), the film wisely avoids lofty explanations of its hero's talent. Nature simply (or not so simply, I guess) hardwired music into Mozart. Still Life operates under the same principle; with the introductory party scene, director and head editor Karen Stanton very quickly erases the traditional lines between Ginny's studio and home, work and play, art and "everything else." Once we remove the brackets that distance Ginny-artist from Ginny-individual, we find these two identities radiate from the furnace of a single soul.

Stanton adhered to this directorial approach from the outset, when producer Tom Gorai (Outsourced) and executive producer David Skinner (Smoke Signals), both representing ShadowCatcher Entertainment, first suggested she helm the project. Her "core goal and target for the film," she told me, "was that when someone saw it they would feel that they had spent time with her and actually knew her, in a very authentic way." A gulf between artist and public always persists in some form, but A Not So Still Life (a title of one of Ginny's works) gives depth to a larger-than-life figure emblazoned on a two-dimensional screen. Notice the way I refer to her in this article - not by the more objective and journalistic "Ruffner," but by her first name. Who doesn't call the most exalted classical composer "Wolfie" after watching his film?

Just as Mozart's impish antics "lower" him to a commoner's level, so Still Life portrays its subject as a genius of, and not above, the people. Some docs give a living artist minimal screen time, and the mirror into their lives stays curtained. In contrast, we experience Ginny a great deal through archived footage and candid testimonials. You'll laugh with this southern belle through moments of endearing self-deprecation, as when she dismisses the imposed moniker "glass artist" because it implies an artist blown from glass.

Like the "Look In Here" incident, characters in Still Life engage in wordplay, a casual and sometimes comical spin on traditional phrases and appearances. If I walked past Ginny on the street before knowing her story, I would have had no idea of the tornado swirl of energy and creativity behind those blonde curls. We must peer ever deeper into our individual and collective stores of potential, for as the film's bookend song says, "You only live once/So you better think twice."

If you happen to miss the Tacoma Art Museum screening, the film plays again on Feb. 18 at Seattle's Henry Art Gallery.                 

[Tacoma Art Museum, A Not So Still Life, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2 p.m., $5-$15, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.4258]


LINK: Our interview with A Not So Still Life director Karen Stanton

Filed under: Arts, Screens, Tacoma,
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