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Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future
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by Jay Seaver

"Worth learning more about."
3 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL 44: Sometimes, watching a movie like "Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future", I wonder what the line is between "documentaries" and "educational films", or if one is a subset of the other. The film Douglass M. Stewart Jr. has made serves its purpose in describing Bonestell's career to people who may not know about this particular artist well enough, and if it comes off as more equivalent to a chapter in a middle-school textbook more than the sort of non-fiction that people read for pleasure, that's fine. It would be nice if the film created the sort of rapt fascination that Bonestell's work did, but it gets the job done.

Bonestell, born in 1888, did many related jobs over the course of his life, from architecture to creating matte paintings for the movies - he worked on designs for the Golden Gate Bridge and created matte paintings for Citizen Kane - but where he had the biggest impact was on space art. His illustrations for both pulp covers and glossy mainstream magazines were praised for both their striking layout and their exceptional eye scientific accuracy. His presentation of the solar system would inspire later artists, scientists, and engineers alike.

These are no small accomplishments, and there doesn't necessarily need to be a great story to go with it, though Bonestell may have one of those as well. You can see bits of it, but Stewart tends to present it as a pile of facts that don't necessarily build to a narrative, especially as the film covers his early years, which include a lot of moving around and a series of marriages that include two to the same woman. There's a lot going on, but the film is focused on his art and as such does not delve deeply into his life as its own story, but also spends relatively little time on how that side of his history informs his art, but aside from a few comments about how his being in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake had an effect on some of his more apocalyptic works, there aren't many lines to be drawn.

That said, it's about the art, which is impressive enough that Bonestell is well worth learning about. The man's work in different media gives Stewart opportunity to not just show his paintings like a virtual gallery but to examine his contributions to architecture, or point out not just how matte paintings work in film but the sort of details Bonestell would include that raised his work above others'. At times, it comes across as a bit of an odd documentary on an artist because it is often focused on the relative "accuracy" of Bonestell's work, which is not always the most insightful way to think about art. It could do with a little less amazement at how he apparently guessed right on some things and a little more examination of how he was able to take the results of actually doing his research and make compelling pictures when so many others felt the need to embellish or scrimp on such details.

But that gets back to the middle-school textbook feel of the movie, where the people being interviewed often seem to be using the voice they'd be using when kids visit their museum on a field trip, and bits at the end seem to be answering unrelated questions (there's a section on "Star Wars", with which Bonestell was not involved, and an artist who goes on about her own work well past how Bonestell was an influence). It's a fine primer, though that makes it less a great movie than one which does its job.

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originally posted: 02/28/19 01:33:38
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Directed by
  Douglass M. Stewart Jr.

Written by
  Douglass M. Stewart Jr.


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