Palm Springs Film Fest ’19 Interview: Alberto Arvalo on Recounting the Vivid Life of Carlos Cruz-Diez in “Free Color”

Early on in the process of making “Free Color,” the renowned Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez confided in director Alberto Arvalo that when he woke up in the morning and walked into his studio, “I don’t know where I am. I feel I am in an empty space. All I’m seeing is my computer and the colors and I’m not there anymore.”

For those familiar with Cruz-Diez’s vivid and prismatic installations, the idea of an empty space is unimaginable, but it inspired Arvalo to situate the artist there at the start of “Free Color” to accurately reflect the explosion of ideas that come to fill the void. Even at 94 years old when the film was made, Cruz-Diez’s mind races with ideas for new projects, chief among them the realization of a lifelong dream in which colors would be freed of form, floating in the air as if it were the Aurora Borealis that could be summoned on command. As Cruz-Diez consults with physicists and considers hologram drones to pull off such a feat, Arvalo honors him with an experiential look at his life’s work, slipping back and forth between the past and present to create something as sensational as one of the artist’s immersive paintings or rooms where lines of various colors could blend into each other or impress themselves upon you, redefining kinetic art in the 20th century that actively engages its audience.

Naturally, “Free Color” must be as lively and though it unexpectedly serves as a final testament to Cruz-Diez’s unique genius since he passed away just as the film was being completed in July of 2019, its immediacy in charting how he fine-tuned his techniques over the years to make the impossible feat of creating this vision on the river Seine in Paris seem as if it’s actually within reach suggests his ongoing presence for a long time to come. Shortly before the film makes its official world premiere at the Palm Springs Film Festival, Arvalo spoke about how he was inspired to reach out to one of the preeminent artists of his home country, avoiding the tropes of a standard biography and how “Free Color” evolved into an extension of Cruz-Diez’s dream.

How did this come about?

I really admired Maestro Cruz-Diez from a long, long time ago and I was taken by his unique crusade to free color from form, and I was actually walking with my wife in Kyoto once and we were seeing these artists and we started talking about Cruz-Diez and all he’s doing. We decided in that moment, this should be the right moment to do something about Cruz-Diez – he was 94 – and we called him and he said immediately, “I would love to do this.” Then we met each other in Paris and as a filmmaker, obviously, you have this unique fascination for all that’s behind him, but I didn’t want to make the classic documentary about his life and legacy, which is amazing. I was looking for something else, especially having a 94-year-old artist as clever, as active and as passionate as he was in that moment. I felt it was a unique opportunity to have this creative dialogue with him.

So I started asking him about his obsessions and what he wanted to do in that specific moment, and he was obviously talking about color and the importance of color in our history, but then at the end of the conversation, he said, “You know what? I have this dream to make this unique piece, but there’s a technical limitation.” He explained to us this impossible, levitating piece of color and he took us to the river [Seine] and said, “I would love to place it here.” And I said, “Okay, this is the film I want. This is exactly the obsession I was looking for.” So we actually started working together, trying to do this impossible piece in some way and that obsession became the story of the documentary.

It’s very fluid in its structure – were you inspired to break form yourself?

The film really is an exploration because we didn’t know where it was taking us. We didn’t know at the beginning that he tried to do this in the ‘70s. His original idea was to project light in the sky, but it didn’t work because you need clouds to do that and that was not exactly as form free as he wanted. But it was such a long and fundamental dream in his life we were in some way navigating with him and in a way, the documentary brought him the energy to really design this piece in a specific way, so it was a very creative dialogue. We were exploring with him and opening doors behind him and seeing him create, especially every conversation with scientists at CalTech. There were sometimes limitations obviously, but we were very clear that what we needed was to understand his obsession, and we didn’t know where it was taking us.

We immediately understood that we had in some way two protagonists in this story – him, of course, and his obsession, which is color. Color was also a protagonist, so in some way, we decided that this documentary should be a journey towards him and towards color and our goal was that after seeing the film, you can see colors in different ways. We were trying to provoke this special sensitivity about something that’s all around us and that we take for granted in some way, [which is why] we wanted to have the interviews connected in some way with these color explorations, so it’s all based in his theories. We have glass [of various colors] in front of each interview and it’s all about reflections and color because we wanted his point of view that color is playing with us all the time and seeing this artist/philosopher [Cruz-Diez] talking about it, I think opens boundaries for all of us. We understood [from the beginning] it was very abstract, so we let the film in some ways be a little bit abstract to leave some space for perceptions of moods and colors and feelings.

The film has a wealth of footage from his early years, making it seem like a film was waiting to be made about him in order to use it. What was it like going through his archives?

That was absolutely fascinating because his family is of such importance to him, and they helped us try to find [all this footage]. It was almost archeology, trying to find more pictures and more footage and we found some amazing jewels that were almost lost. They found this archive in Paris and we spent weeks exploring everything and it was beautiful because in some part of his life, he was like really attracted to film, and we were fascinated by the way he moved the camera and how pure it was. As you see in the documentary, he was playing with this 16mm camera, trying to make this abstract, funny film and that fascination for films [made it so] we had that much footage because he was always, always with a camera in his hands, a black-and-white camera or a 16mm camera, and that’s why we have so many rich materials [from] all his periods.

You also bring together a really great array of artists for the music including Devandra Barnhart and Gustavo Dudamel. How did you go about getting those original compositions?

It is very interesting process because we felt that through his life Cruz-Diez had very clear moments and I would say even tendencies, so the idea of having some composers interpreting those moments were interesting to explain how complex his soul is. So we got in contact with these composers and they all admire Maestro Cruz-Diez and said, “We would all love to be part of this homage to him.” I explained the importance of music and that the film that is abstract, so at some points, it’s a dialogue of just images and music. They were very attracted to the idea and we were very attracted to the idea of having music of such different origins, like classical composers and pop composers, and I think that enriched the whole texture of the documentary a deep way.

What’s it like bringing this out into the world?

Something really unique happened. When we did this private screening at LACMA [in August], Maestro Cruz-Diez died the same day. And it was a sort of an amazing message because at the end, this is the story of a man who’s been obsessed with an idea who knows at the same time that the technology is not right there to achieve his dream, so he is leaving all the information to finish the dream at some point in the future, which I think is the most amazing and romantic message of an artist. I don’t want to spoil the film, but at the end, he left a message that I think is his way to say I want to make this and I will be here until this is done. And it was very exciting to us [because] the next day a friend, a filmmaker, called me and said, “I woke up this morning seeing colors in a different way,” and that was, for me, a very important moment because that was the idea. It tells a lot about the power of art and dreams and beauty and for me, that’s the final message of the film.

“Free Color” will screen at the Palm Springs Film Festival on January 4th at 4 pm at the Annenberg Theater, January 5th at 1:45 pm at Mary Pickford is D’Place and January 9th at 9:45 am at the Regal Cinemas.

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