Documentarian Megumi Sasaki enjoys the same unfettered access to art-world movers and shakers Herb and Dorothy Vogel as she did for 2009’s Herb & Dorothy, but whereas the earlier doc regularly bounced the stature of its unlikely titular power couple against their kvetching, raw humanity, Herb & Dorothy 50x50 specifically zeroes in on a charitable measure implemented by the Vogels in the instance—indeed, the inevitability—of Herb’s death. As a roomful of bright-eyed children gaze upon an HD projection of Herb and Dorothy, a middle-aged docent explains that they’re art collectors, and that in their generosity, the Vogels will be donating 50 works from their collection to one carefully chosen museum in each of the 50 states.
The bread and butter of Sasaki’s first film was the anecdotes about Herb and Dorothy that were usually rattled off by artists like Chuck Close or Richard Tuttle. But 50x50 pushes the narrative away from their personal dynamics and more onto the extended environment of art society, as molded around their collection. The works, in Dorothy’s words, are “leaving the nest”; after a half-century of resisting self-aggrandizement, the Vogels chose to accept their fate as an institution. In her presentation, Sasaki doesn’t tease the darker aspects of their story out, but these early moments firmly establish that she doesn’t need to. Herb, wheelchair-bound and pint-sized, surveys the artworks he’s leaving behind in near-silence, while Dorothy, and countless curators, fawn over him, surrounded by the champagne buckets and h’ors d’ouvres ubiquitous in his milieu.
Sasaki’s widescreen HD frame works better for the Vogels’ minimalism-obsessed collection than the boxy, home-video-esque miniDV footage she used for the first film. 50x50 sees Sasaki taking her camera into press conferences and boardroom meetings, trained on Dorothy as she commandeers the divvying up of her and Herb’s collection. She’s less the soft-spoken housewife from the first film than a businesswoman both shrewd and mousy, and her trajectory affords the film its closest semblance to a story. Sasaki, and her camera clearly intuit that Dorothy might be stepping up to distract herself from Herb’s rapidly deteriorating health, but she doesn’t chase after drama. For better or worse, her lockstep fidelity to her subjects’ comfort zone prevents the film from ever getting its hands dirty with the raw emotions shaping Dorothy’s decisions, and (arguably) the art world, because Herb and Dorothy are just too old-fashioned to let her in completely.