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July 5-11, 2006

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Cult Leader

Get Smitten: Mad love triumphs as an offbeat Cinequest selection goes nationwide

By Steve Palopoli

A FILM FESTIVAL is a great place to find cinematic visions that exist entirely outside of the mainstream. But when I find something I really love, the best things about the festival circuit can also become the most frustrating. There are times when I ask myself, "Am I approximately the only person that's ever going to see this movie?" It's depressing when, as the Magic 8-Ball would say, all signs point to yes. I want to hound all of my friends into seeing it. I want to sneak it into malls and show it in place of the latest boring movie that Harrison Ford or Robert De Niro just did to pay off their sixth house. I demand movie justice!

Occasionally, it comes through. Such is the case with a film I discovered this year at Cinequest, and being that this is a rare example of a very offbeat festival selection getting nationwide exposure, I want to recommend Nancy Kelly's documentary Smitten, which shows on KQED TV (Channel 9) in the Bay Area on Wednesday, July 12, at 10:30pm. It will also be broadcast on PBS stations across the country on Wednesday, July 26, at 10:30pm.

Smitten is subtitled "a love story about art," and that's true. But it's really a story of mad love, the l'amour fou that Luis Buñuel and the Surrealists held up as the height of ecstasy. Indeed, Kelly's short film is about an 86-year-old man who lives alone on a hill with 2,000 lovers. They're all pieces of art, and Rene di Rosa has spent decades collecting them. In 1986, former San Francisco Chronicle reporter di Rosa sold 230 acres of his winery land to Seagram and used the money to develop the di Rosa Preserve in Napa, which is now the largest collection of contemporary California art anywhere.

Kelly's documentary follows di Rosa around his preserve, on art-buying trips and into the first traveling exhibition of his collection, and the man is simply the most fascinating character you're likely to see in a film this year. I could quote every single thing that comes out of his mouth in Smitten, and it would all make for great reading. (This is a tribute both to di Rosa and to the filmmakers, since Kelly and her editor and husband, Kenji Yamamoto, worked from 80 hours of footage.) I may not agree with all of di Rosa's ideas about art, but I love to hear him talk about them. Most of all, I love to see him talk to other people in the film about them, like when he buys a piece near the beginning. Oddly dressed and stick thin, this guy looks like a fish out of water in any gathering of art types. One artist interviewed in the film says that when she met him, not having any idea who he was, her thought was "He's a little too smart to be homeless."

Seeing Smitten inspired me to visit the Di Rosa Preserve myself; it operates as a nonprofit now, and there are tours every day. It's an incredible place, where art comes at you from all sides, on any surface: a wall, a ceiling, a field, a lake. Smitten captures that creative density very well: shots of intriguing art objects flirt with the narrative, appearing and disappearing before you even have time to wrap your mind around them.

Interviewees in the movie speculate on how much the collection reflects di Rosa's personality, as he has a reputation for buying only art to which he feels a personal connection. I only know him from the film, but seeing his collection in person, the word that came to mind was "fearless." Pieces that amaze you might be right next to things that make you go "What the hell?" For someone who has so much attention focused on what he collects or doesn't collect—and by extension, what does or doesn't reflect his personality—he clearly has never shied away from the outrageous and the cutting-edge.

I think Smitten's ultimate triumph is the way it blurs the line between artist and nonartist. In the space of its 26 minutes, art stops being about talent or lack of it; instead, it's about passion, and Buñuel's mad love. I don't think it's out of line to say that di Rosa cares and maybe even understands more about some of the pieces in his collection than their creators did; he has made art out of seeking art. Smitten makes art out of seeking him.

Smitten airs on KQED (Channel 9) in the Bay Area on Wednesday, July 12, at 10:30pm, and on other PBS stations Wednesday, July 26, at 10:30pm. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite movie about art here.

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