Doc of the Day: Herb & Dorothy Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Herb & Dorothy

Posted in Days of Docs by - April 26, 2012

 He worked for the post office. She was a librarian. They built an incredible art collection. Find out how.


Dir. Megumi Sasaki, 2008, 87 min

Even after watching this movie, I still have trouble wrapping my head around how two thoroughly middle-class people were able to accumulate over four thousand works of art, even given decades to do so. The sheer logistics of storing it all within their one-bedroom apartment are mind-boggling. And yet Herb and Dorothy Vogel pulled it off. They own a priceless collection, so much that, when they tried to give it all to the National Gallery, there was too much for the Gallery to take. They started the “Fifty Works for Fifty States” Program, which is exactly what it sounds like, to get rid of all their paintings, sculptures, installations, etc.

Herb & Dorothy is the story of this remarkable couple. In a very quiet yet powerful way, they worked a little bit to take some control over art from the wealthy and influential, and put it into common hands. Neither of them are even connoisseurs; they simply buy whatever feels fresh and interesting. Fittingly, they specialize in conceptual and minimalist art, which codes complex ideas and themes into simple presentations.

The film itself is something of a work of minimalism, being very simple and clean in its presentation. Of course, that probably stems from the fact that this is a low-budget production, but that still makes it work quite well with its subject. Although it also makes the needless bits of visual flair, like digitized confetti flying over Herb and Dorothy’s wedding photo, stick out badly. You might call that nitpicking, but tonal coherency lies in the entire work, and the work consists of all such small details.

The movie feels like a hybrid of Bill Cunningham New York and The Art of the Steal, only I liked it much more than either of those films. Like Bill Cunningham, Herb and Dorothy live simply while indulging a great love of a specific thing, but Herb and Dorothy have actual lives outside their passion. Cunningham is sad and spartan, while Herb and Dorothy are simple yet fulfilled. And like The Art of the Steal, this film talks about the democratization of the art world, but doesn’t invoke a bizarre sense of reverse-snobbery in doing so. This doc is everything I liked about those other two, without any of the problems.

Herb & Dorothy isn’t a particularly deep film, and I don’t know how long it will stick with me, but it’s a very nice, very sweet little story. Watching this movie is sort of like hanging out with a friend’s cool grandparents. The namesake couple aren’t terribly compelling outside of their central passion, but spending time with them is pleasant enough.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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