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Herb & Dorothy
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by Jay Seaver

"As impressive as their collection."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2009: Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are a treasure, and most people will likely decide that's the case just from hearing about the couple, without the need for a movie to convince them. They're a working-class couple that managed to become a fixture in the New York City art scene and amass a staggering collection, and as such it's very easy to fall in love with just the idea of them. It's nice that Megumi Sasaki's film assures us that the reality is as charming as the legend.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel met in 1960; he was a postal worker who had dropped out of high school, she a librarian who had moved to the city from Elmira. They fell in love and were married a year later, and while Herb had never hidden his interest in art, it wasn't until they went to the National Gallery on their honeymoon that Dorothy saw the full extent of his enthusiasm. She came to share it, and soon they were taking classes together. Creating art wasn't their thing, but they loved being around art and artists, and in 1965 they bought their first Sol Lewitt piece. Others followed, mostly minimal and conceptual; their only rules were that the art had to be affordable and had to fit in their apartment.

That apartment is a frightening wonder; it's not just crammed with art - and make no mistake, crammed is the right word. Nearly every possible bit of surface area has something hanging on it, sometimes with a blanket over it to protect it from the elements, but there are boxes filling other spaces and art stacked under the bed. There are also aquariums and terrariums for their fish and turtles, and cats as well. By necessity or design, Sasaki makes it seem even more cramped, with many of the interviews with Herb and Dorothy conducted around their tiny kitchen table, which is really only big enough for one and also has the couple's television and internet appliance - it's as if the artwork is pushing their living space into that tiny area.

That is, of course, a marked contrast to the home of Dorothy's sister and brother-in-law, who still live in Elmira. They've got a wide-open living room with space between them, a fireplace, and a reproduction print on the wall, and though nice enough, they seem completely puzzled by the way Herb and Dorothy don't seem to have any interest in living "like us". Even some of their artist friends seem confused when interviewed, although most speak of the couple with great affection, with stories of how they first met or how the Vogels, though only small buyers, were still important to them because they paid cash and stayed with an artist. Of course, one art dealer does admit to slight annoyance at how the Vogels seem to be an exception to any exclusive contract he has with an artist.

Much of the movie is artists talking about their friendship with the Vogels, and many have interesting stories, but it's seeing them in action that's much of the fun. Artist Lucio Possi describes Herb as "a pointer", and we see that to be the case, with his head jutting forward and his hands quite ready to demonstrate exactly what he likes about some piece. The Vogels are a filmmaker's dream, really: Herb is short of stature but active, with a gravelly Brooklyn voice that he's not shy about piping in with; Dorothy is taller, always ready with a joke at Herb's or her own expense, always with the sense that though she's been around a while, she hasn't let the world pass her by. Sasaki does a nice job in spotlighting her; Herb's the easy one to get a memorable scene from, and art is a passion that she got from him, but we're shown that other things, such as their fondness for the theater, originate from her. That's a nice touch, making sure that we don't perceive them as a woman who has just indulged her husband for decades.

This movie is about them as art collectors, though, and Sasaki does a nice job of showcasing it. She shows a couple dozen of their thousands of pieces on the screen, and makes sure that folks like me who haven't given much thought to visual art outside of movies and comics for a long time are able to understand the difference between pop, minimal, and conceptual art without teaching a remedial class on it. She spends the last chunk of the movie on the disposition of their collection - a topic that is by turns very funny and awe-inspiring, as we're amazed by the sheer size of the collection (and thus undertaking) and their generosity.

It's during this section that a former director of the National Gallery points out that the easy message to take from the movie - that anybody could do what the Vogels did - isn't totally the case: Herb may not be formally schooled, but he is extensively self-educated, and the pair are dedicated to a degree that few people manage for anything. Still, even acknowledging that the pair are special, that basic idea isn't totally false; the Vogels are a reminder that art is for everybody, and you don't need money or a degree to develop and exercise an interest.

That speaks to me, as a computer programmer who spends a lot of his extra time and money on foreign and independent films. Dig deep enough, and it likely speaks to everybody; we're all fans of something. Few of us can be Herb and Dorothy, but all of us can be inspired by them.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18616&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/06/09 19:42:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 RiverRun International Film Festival For more in the 2009 RiverRun International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Traverse City Film Festival 2009 For more in the Traverse City Film Festival 2009 series, click here.

User Comments

4/16/11 Charles Tatum It helps that Herb and Dorothy are pretty adorable 4 stars
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  05-Jun-2009 (NR)
  DVD: 15-Dec-2009



Directed by
  Megumi Sasaki

Written by

  Herbert Vogel
  Dorothy Vogel

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