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‘Without Gorky’ delves deep into a twisted mind

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

”Without Gorky” explores the life of Arshile Gorky, an accomplished painter and European immigrant. Gorky came into his own in the Surrealist field and was a pioneer in the abstract expressionist school of painting. His works are proudly displayed all over the nation, including such illustrious museums as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “Without Gorky,” shown Thursday in the Wasserman Cinematheque, is a unique look at both his life and his suicide.

Without Gorky is directed by Cosima Spender, Gorky’s granddaughter. Her third film, it is simultaneously an investigation into the life of the illustrious painter and a showcase of the impact of his death. The film opens with Cosima’s mother and aunt visiting their parents’ old house in Sherman, Conn., where Gorky spent the final parts of his life. The pair explore old childhood memories as they walk through the rooms of the house. The film’s tone is set with the final lines of the scene, said by Cosima’s aunt Natasha as she looks tearfully out the kitchen window: “I wish I could remember.”

The film unfolds as Cosima uncovers the truth about her grandfather while interviewing family members and ascertaining their feelings about him. Most of the exposition about Gorky is told by Cosima’s grandmother and Gorky’s wife, Magoush. These scenes are intercut with those of the family as it is today, the aging Magoush quibbling with her daughters on an understandably touchy subject. Natasha cannot seem to remember anything, as she was only three when Gorky took his own life, and Mara, Cosima’s mother, acts with polite dismissal toward the topic, saying that the time for anger is over. The interactions between these three are as important as Gorky’s paintings, and they offer a distinctly personal look into his world.

Through her interviews, Magoush reveals all sorts of details about Gorky, ranging from the humorously trivial to the deeply profound, and sometimes surprisingly unsavory. The progression of Gorky from brilliant free spirit to aggravated and abusive husband is very sobering and masterfully revealed. One can almost trace the progression of Gorky’s psyche into dark and frightening places, drawing the viewer closer into the bizarre mystery of the man.

This of course culminates in his suicide, which gives the film a sense of finality. It is not the end though; the family continues searching for clues about Gorky’s life. At the end of the film, when the family visits Gorky’s home country for the first time, the depth of Gorky’s character is revealed with several revelations that rounds out the family’s (and the viewer’s) understanding of him as a man.

The film is highly reminiscent of “The Great Gatsby”: It tells the story of an immigrant painter who wants nothing more than to be free, fully realizing his potential for art in the same way that Gatsby becomes a wildly successful businessman. Both men pursue the American Dream, that endless horizon where anything is possible. Even the way Magoush meets Gorky is wildly similar to when Nick meets Gatsby; Magoush is told that she simply must meet Gorky, and spends most of a party sitting next to him, only realizing his identity just before she leaves. It also helps that Gorky is a charismatic individual; even though he was talented and proud, he was something of a mystery to the family, and of course to the viewer. As such, any insight into his mind is a wonder, and the viewer is left wanting more.

The structure of the film draws in the audience, allowing their sympathies to deepen as they are drawn deeper into the story of Gorky. As Magoush reveals nastier and nastier things about her husband, Mara becomes more hostile toward her, clearly disagreeing with some of Magoush’s life choices. But all animosity vanishes in the final scenes, and with the complete knowledge of Gorky, the family is at peace. I came away from the film in a state of Zen-like contentment, satisfied that I knew Gorky as he was meant to be known, with no irritating loose ends or further questions. The documentary has been optioned by the BBC and Canadian TV to be broadcast. If the opportunity presents itself, watch this film—if the narrative does not hook you, the mystery of Gorky will.