Reviews Short Documentary

The Beauty of Things: Enrique Martínez Celaya and Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House (2022) – 2.5 stars

Director: Gabriela Martínez Celaya

Running time: 12mins

There are many reasons why a film can fall short of its potential. Few are as frustrating to watch as when a movie finds itself caught in that no man’s land between competing ambitions.

The Beauty of Things: Enrique Martínez Celaya and Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House is technically accomplished. Its undoubtedly expensive camera is deployed to capture a wealth of golden-hour footage from the Californian coast, basking in the warmth of the late sun while we are given time and space to seek out darkness and definition in each impeccably framed image. Its sound engineering captures the endless peace of crashing waves and chirping birds, wisely utilising nature’s chorus – rather than an overbearing, saccharine soundtrack – to emphasise the majesty of the world we are being shown.

In the context of this particular documentary, though, the approach of The Beauty of Things misses the mark. That is not to say it is a write-off, or that there is no market for it. Many people will enjoy this – particularly if they are already aware of the life of its subject. But for those who aren’t, in a 12-minute short (it seems to take longer than that to read the project’s laborious full name), every second counts. So, to luxuriate in long shots of still life, with nothing but the cavernous roar of the waves for company, is to usurp relevant information which might have been disseminated.

In this case, director Gabriela Martínez Celaya is documenting the visit of her father, Enrique Martínez Celaya, to Tor House – a home built on the cliffs of Monterey County, California. Tor House was constructed by American poet Robinson Jeffers – something which apparently speaks to Enrique. Unfortunately, both the finer details of how the house came to be, and why it speaks to him, are never really fleshed out.

Our host notes that his hero ‘built this house with his own hands’ – and that this marks Jeffers out from his other academically minded contemporaries. He wanted to see and experience life outside the ivory-tower. Looking at Tor House, however, it is a little hard to believe that ‘his own hands’ were the only ones involved, however much he wanted to feel the rush manual labour supposedly gives the rest of us humble blue-collar types.

And that’s because he actually hired a local builder, Michael J. Murphy, to construct the initial two-storey cottage. Jeffers worked alongside Murphy in this period, and learned stonemasonry skills that meant he could continue to add to Tor House throughout his life – but like so many of these kinds of ventures, it is telling that its modern proponents skip over this kind of detail.

When the likes of Jeffers can thrill about holidaying from the pressures of literary life, by taking up lugging about rocks as a hobby before lecturing others about the importance of ‘doing something with our hands’, the fact is most of us have – at some point in our lives – done exactly that. We just don’t get to own the product we put that energy into. So, when the son of a minister, who was privately educated across Europe, suggests we all would be better off getting out there and building something for ourselves, neglecting the need to be able to buy land to build it on, or source the materials – let alone undertake more backbreaking labour on top of a 9-5 that already includes plenty of that – the instinctive response many people might have is ‘that’s easy for you to say, mate.’

One of the things that might have helped with Martínez Celaya’s account of Jeffers’ life is showing any hint of hardship. As with any human, rich or poor, there was plenty to draw on – from the scandal that the affair with his eventual wife caused, to the tragic death of their first child, to the controversy Jeffers weathered when he opposed US participation in the Second World War. And there was certainly time to go into these details, to help humanise our subject as a fallible, isolated man, who might not have just been ‘slumming it’ as a builder for a jolly, but actually had some very grounded reasons for wanting some distance from the rest of US society. But that would have eaten into the time that was devoted to the beautiful visual and audio stillness – or the time that could be devoted to some select readings from Jeffers’ work.

In this short format then, all those wonderful spaces where time seems to stand still become a problem. They needed to be cut into and eroded to give us more of the information a traditional documentary – particularly one on a poet many of us are unfamiliar with – necessitates, to inform and engage viewers. Or alternatively, all of the pretence that this is a documentary needs to be stripped away – and the fantastic technical work instead used to underline a bare-bones film-poem.

We have seen that kind of thing pulled off well before on IFL, with Poem Reply to Sofía for example alluding to broad themes to get our teeth into and think about amid another craggy, remote landscape. The Jeffers poem read by Enrique Martínez Celaya, spread out through a medium run-time, while the words are given space to echo around the poet’s former refuge, would be more than enough to deliver a compelling film.

In terms of the choices open to Gabriela Martínez Celaya as director, it is easy to see why she did not opt for this. On top of the understandable desire to involve loved ones in your own art, her father’s invitation was the reason she could actually access this venue to film. On top of this, as a contemporary Cuban-born painter, sculptor, author and former scientist, it seems that her father would have many reasons to empathise with Jeffers’ life. Jeffers also trained in medicine at one point, before opting for artistic pursuits instead – so also had shifted from a science to the arts, while still wanting to put his hands to work.

Unfortunately, any such parallel is absent from the film. A cursory glance at either man’s Wikipedia page will give you more idea of what they have in common than the documentary featuring them both. That does not cut the mustard if you are going to identify this film as that specific documentary – and if that is the route you are going down, we need to know more about Jeffers and Martínez Celaya.

In the end, then, we seem to have two equally viable ideas competing for space – and neither having their potential realised as a result. That is frustrating, because Gabriela Martínez Celaya has shown plenty of evidence that she has the skills to deliver either of them. It is even more frustrating because, if she were willing to give herself a longer run-time, she could allow herself enough room to do them both at once! Sadly, the project as it is does not.

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