Designers Charles and Ray Eames, respective subjects of the documentary Eames: The Architect and the Painter, and largely credited with bringing modernism into the American living room with their now ubiquitous contoured chairs, may have also helped to comfortably contextualize the philosophy of European modernists within our own post-war progressivism. Charles’s mantra (“The best for the most for least”), echoes of which are audible in the ostensible aesthetic egalitarianism of IKEA’s retail theory, saw the potential for mass production within the rigid, deceptively simplified form and primary color-fetishism of the era’s visual artists. Furthermore, the couple’s playfully inter-disciplinary, media-obsessed, auto-didactic approach to design—neither were trained in anything in particular, though Ray studied under Hans Hofmann—suggested that a modern man, or woman, could push on by remaining in awe of contemporary advances in science and technology while holding fast to the traditional grievances of an emotionally and physically cluttered personal life.
The film, produced by Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey and narrated by James Franco (tellingly, no director is credited), offers plenty in the way of biographical clutter, problematizing these two figures by citing, among other foibles, their unwillingness to give due credit to their studio underlings, their general lack of direction following the wild success of their furniture for Herman Miller, the profound difficulty they had communicating their vision to others, and their own connubial stress. Strangely, however, we’re not provided with much detail about either Eameses’ early life—during which Charles was not insignificantly married to another woman—or any testimony that might illuminate the source of their initial inspiration and its eventual flagging. Structurally lopsided, the narrative jumps directly into the success of their first molded-plywood chair, and meanders from there into the numerous short films the Eames Studio made for government agencies and IT companies. By the climax (the production of a cloyingly goodwill audio-visual “travelogue” of the United States for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, the movie’s shuttled us so jaggedly between the Eameses’ personal and professional lives that we begin to visualize their chronology with the harsh, unrepentant angles of their famously boxy house.
The Eameses were obsessive chroniclers of their own collective creativity, even if they weren’t aware of themselves as such; the documentary tells of thousands of pieces of correspondence and notation outlining ideas, worries, schedules, shopping lists. These are interpreted as ephemera and psycho-graphic evidence of busy, blustering minds, but the content of these items may tell a more provocative story than the reminiscence of, say, Paul Schrader (who talks about visiting their studio while researching an article on their short films) or the various employee and fellow designer talking heads who tend to express either restrained admiration or restrained repugnance. (In the funniest anecdote, a colleague describes being frustrated to discover that the meal he was served at the Eameses’ home had a “visual” dessert of flower ornaments.) The Eameses maintained a certain degree of impenetrability, to be sure, and this is addressed both directly and indirectly by those that participated in the film. But the lack of intimate residue left behind creates cinematic problems that are exacerbated by the movie’s general incompetence; the alternately breakneck and unhurried pace, as well as the unnecessarily faux-Eames digital animations that appear periodically as timeline spackle, don’t successfully distract us from the dearth of flesh tones the content bestows upon the duo. The essence of a couple who were seemingly regarded with gnarled confusion by even their closest co-workers and collaborators might be a representatively unattainable goal, but Eames: The Architect and the Painter can’t be bothered to strain anywhere near it.