M.C. Richards: The Fire Within

Movie Information

Genre: Documentary
Director: Richard Kane
Starring: M.C. Richards, Marjory Bankson, Julia Connor, Merce Cunningham, Arthur Penn, Robert Turner
Rated: NR

This short documentary (62 minutes) on painter, poet, sculptor, writer, philosopher and visionary M.C. Richards is of local interest because of Richards’ connections to Black Mountain College — that bygone experimental school that she preferred to a tenured position at the University of Chicago.

Her coming to BMC was a bold move; as M.C. Richards: The Fire Within points out, there was little money and no security in doing so. She became part of BMC during its latter days, when the school was moving away from its communal-styled roots and more toward a definition of itself as an artist outpost. BMC was then on the verge of an artistic explosion, home not just to Richards, but also to Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning and others who would profoundly impact our culture.

Fuller built his first geodesic dome there, while Cage and Cunningham were responsible for several music and dance collaborations. And according to those interviewed in this documentary, Richards was a major guiding voice behind it all — and behind BMC moving America to the forefront of the art world at that late date in history.

There may be some romanticizing at work here. As uniquely American as this artistic outburst may have been, its roots were still strongly European (stretching, most notably, to Germany’s Bauhaus school); moreover, Richards’ contributions may be a bit overstated. Still, the film is about her and not the school itself; and as she’s presented here, she certainly does embody the whole idea of a reaction to traditional notions of education. Richards’ very rejection of the University of Chicago — with its emphasis on grades and competition rather than what she felt learning was truly about — attests to this. As the narration puts it: “Her art was seeing the invisible, hearing the inaudible, unleashing the creative spirit.”

The Fire Within is a portrait of a remarkable woman whose greatest artistic ability was perhaps to find the artist in others (despite her own impressive output as a writer, painter and potter). Most of the film centers on Richards’ last years, including footage of her as she taught, wrote and worked with many special-needs adults at a Camphill Village in Pennsylvania; Richards touched the creative spark in them while working on her own art at the same time. The film offers us a striking picture of a woman who was as down-to-earth and forthright as they come, but who was likewise a dreamy visionary. She was a contradiction, and a fascinating one.

On film, Richards often speaks in blunt terms. She admits to growing to hate a painting she’s done for the benefit of the camera: It didn’t come from within, she explains, but from her desire to accommodate the filmmaker. Too, she comments on people telling her how difficult it is to live with the mentally challenged, noting that “it’s harder for them to live with themselves.”

Richards seems to radiate life. Her indomitable spirit — a culmination of her own strange dichotomy as both realist and visionary — is at the core of the film. There’s no sense of inner conflict with her; rather, the artist seems wholly at peace with both sides of her nature. “Are you going to be an earthly person — practical, down-to-earth, and get-to-it?” she asks early in the film. “Or are you going to be a dreamer, a visionary? Why can’t we be both? And we can be, and we shouldn’t be talked out of it. I’m both. Don’t tell me I have to choose. I don’t have to choose.”

While the film very effectively presents its scenes with a range of colors that are remarkably similar to those in her paintings, in the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you like this woman’s art; what matters is Richards herself. The Fire Within is that rare artist documentary about the person behind the art.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

[The Fine Arts Theatre will hold a single screening of M.C. Richards: The Fire Within at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 29, 2004.]

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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