The possibilities and limitations of art as a route to self-knowledge are on display in Call Me Applebroog, Beth B’s gently incisive portrait of her mother, Ida Applebroog. For much of the documentary, Applebroog, now in her 80s, culls through her conceptual drawings and self-published books, many of which incorporate handwritten-looking, Dada-esque snippets of thought or observations, in what she calls “a mass excavation of myself and my mind and everything that’s pertained to me over the years.”
Choosing pieces for exhibits at a series of high-end art galleries, Applebroog explores her work like an archaeologist, fascinated but mostly perplexed by these shards from the past. Most are highly personal, drawn from or referring to incidents from her life. Yet she often remarks on how far removed she feels from the person who created the work, calling one journal excerpt “a description, of—I have no idea!” and saying of a series of drawings of her vagina that she had forgotten making that “it’s almost like finding specimens of yourself hidden away someplace.”
As loath to talk about her life in person as she is confessional in her art, Applebroog is stubbornly blunt and emotionally self-contained. In one early scene, the camera zooms in on her thin, nearly always unsmiling mouth, the part of her face that most seems to reflect her steadfast refusal to participate in social niceties. But her daughter is skilled at drawing her out, asking probing questions in a loving, inquisitive tone of voice or cajoling a prickly Applebroog into a more forthcoming mood. In one exchange, Applebroog answers one of her daughter’s questions by barking, “Leave me alone. You’re a pain in the ass,” and Beth B responds from behind the camera with “I love you too.” Applebroog breaks into a smile and approaches her daughter to hug her, her beaming face almost filling the frame before the scene ends.
By hinting at a life beyond the frame, such interactions surface the limitations of the film’s ability to fully illuminate its subject, in much the same way that Applebroog’s running commentary on her own work underscores its inability to do the same. In the final scene, Applebroog thanks her daughter for having let her say what she needed to. Startled, Beth B says: “You know you can always say what you need to say to me, right?” No, responds Applebroog, who starts to explain what she means and then tells her daughter to turn off the camera. Beth B obeys, shutting us out of a presumably revealing conversation.
Yet the film leaves us with enough biographical information about its subject to sense the connection between her life and work, as she offers up resolutely unsentimental nuggets about her childhood, marriage, and motherhood, and about the difficulty of being a young woman in the post-WWII work world. She also describes the nervous breakdown that sent her to a hospital’s mental ward and reads from a journal she kept at the time in which she asked, about her art: “Is this what keeps me alive or is this what makes me ill?”
Like most of the questions raised by the film, that one remains unanswered. In a brief clip tucked into the credit sequence, Applebroog declares that she has to stop looking at her art because she’s feeling overwhelmed: it’s just too much. In the end, this film implies, not even the concentrated self-scrutiny required to make art like Applebroog’s is enough to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. Maybe life is just too complicated for us to comprehend.