The life & work of printmaker Sabra Field

Sabra - a documentary film about the life and work of printmaker Sabra Field.

All Movie Guide Review

Written by Nathan Southern (used with permission)

Ostensibly, this one-off biodoc by veteran Hollywood screenwriter and director Bill Phillips is a valentine to the Vermont-based printmaker Sabra Field

The common perception among those with merely a passing awareness of Field's work is that she possesses a single, easily-identifiable style: outdoor scenes of rural New England life, depicted in giant, flat blocks of color that are semi-reminiscent of Edward Hopper, Grandma Moses, or Georgia O'Keeffe. That's typified, for instance, by the imagery for which Field received broadest pop culture exposure: the graphics for the 1991 Vermont Bicentennial stamp. As director and editor, Phillips strategically begins with examples of that familiar Field iconography, and has interviewees intuitively assess Field's style as a distillation of Vermont itself. From here, the film nonchalantly segues into more profound queries about contemporary art's suitable purposes. Field acknowledges that her role as a visual stylist involves a deliberate simplification of what she sees. But is that a negative tendency? Perhaps not, Phillips and his participants assert;  perhaps, as Field's son deduces at one point, the images are deceptive vis-a-vis still photographs but somehow more authentic impressionistic signifiers of what one feels when one takes in a particular landscape. Phillips not only interpolates the comment from the son but somehow uses images ensconcing that interview extract to flesh out this very assertion in our minds. We suddenly realize that the son's words are dead on target. On a similar note, the documentary also introduces what is possibly the most intelligent argument for Field's asceticism: it suggests that by pursuing a deceptively complex, stripped down approach, she has somehow transported Japanese artistic spareness to a western milieu.

We also learn - as the documentary plumbs more deeply into the Field oeuvre - that neither the artist nor her catalogue are nearly as simple as the limelight has made them for posterity.  The film reveals that Field has not only evolved, but traversed her way through a wildly disparate host of influences and subjects, thematically interpolating the philosophical gamut that runs from religious motifs to agnostic cosmic imagery, and experimenting with lines and dimension with ingenuity. That gives rise to what is easily the documentary's most astonishing stretch - as Phillips the editor enters bona fide essay film mode and uses geometric connections within Field's paintings to leap-frog from work to work; it is here that the onscreen evocation of the subject's visionary qualities reaches its apogee. And the documentary grows even more tantalizing when it cross-cuts between traumatic events from Field's private life, such as the 1972 death of one son and the 2010 death of her husband/soul-mate, and rare suggestions of personal torture and anguish in the paintings that these traumas apparently wrought.

Finest of all, however, is what may be the motion picture's slyest technique: with their refreshingly spare camera set-ups, unobtrusive editing, and venerable absence of crass CG gewgaws that have ruined so many recent documentaries, Phillips and his team of cinematographers somehow manage to cinematographically evoke the dominant aesthetic motifs of Field's still tableaux. It's a device that has been occasionally enlisted to resonant effect - consider, for example, Sten Holmberg's lensing of the 1987 artist colony drama Hip! Hip! Hurrah! - but rarely as vibrantly as it is here.


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