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Jon Imber's Left Hand
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by Jay Seaver

"Heck of a way to go out."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2014: I can't claim to have much of a grasp on Join Imber's place in the world of art even after seeing this movie; there's a lot of background and the film has other things to attack in its fifty-seven minutes. I can say this, though: If I am ever handed a death sentence that is especially cruel in its irony, I hope that I can respond to it with a fraction of a percent of the quiet spirit Imber did, whether I've got a camera crew documenting it or not.

Jon Imber, you see, was an American painter who started on portraiture, moved to landscapes, and then eventually abstract landscapes, and still has a lot of painting in him when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ALS. To make matters worse, the first thing that the neuromuscular condition attacked was his dominant right hand. His reaction? To start painting with his left hand and cram as much work as he can into the time he has remaining.

That's a noble goal, but it's the way he reacts to it that makes the film a joy to watch: He's fascinated by the way that forty years of learning the craft of painting interacts with an arm that is physically starting from scratch. He's an admirably upbeat person in general, speaking about how the disease will eventually kill him and how he hopes to make it through the summer before severe deterioration starts with the expected paralyzing emotions held in check and describing several painters as the greatest ever when discussing his influences and art in general. He manages to be as jovial as he can while still being serious about his condition and his art, making this an easy film to watch even though the very first scene shows us something near the end.

Director Richard Kane will eventually wind up back there, although he will follow two paths to get there. The first and most chronological follows him through 2013, having his last shows and painting his last pictures, though Kane often switched gears to talk about Imber's earlier life, education, and body of work. It's vaguely in order, but Kane gives himself the leeway to take whatever subject seems the most relevant at the time. Aside from being interesting elaborations, they let Kane break the movie up so that he can jump forward a month or two and let each progressive time we see Imber in worse condition feel like a little bit of a blow. It's neither a steady decline that we don't notice until something reminds us or a jarring cut, but a sensation akin to seeing this happen to a friend one sees regularly but not routinely. That feels right, as it is evident from the ways that others speak to and about him that Imber connected with people in ways beyond his art, something beautifully reflected in one of his last major projects.

One of the ways he affected people was as a teacher, something we see demonstrated more in the way he tells people things than any actual footage of him teaching figure drawing at Harvard. There's only so much you can fit into an hour - the film was produced as part of a series on Maine artists which may have dictated its length - and Kane actually does very well to make the presentation feel satisfying at that length. There are plans for a more traditionally feature-length version (during the Q&A, Kane cited Toronto as a festival that requires features to be at least eighty minutes long), and I don't know how that will work; much more watching Imber paint could get repetitive and adding more segments in between others could mess with the jarring shifts that work so well.

If that's what it takes to get the movie into theaters, though, it's probably worth it. Imber's art and the story of his last year merit some eyeballs, and what Kane has put together here is plenty good enough to have a little more added to it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=26817&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/02/14 19:45:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston For more in the 2014 Independent Film Festival Boston series, click here.

User Comments

2/04/17 diane jones Excellent film - Moving and inspiring on every level. 5 stars
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Directed by
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