Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Stream - "A Man Named Pearl"

Tonight I watched the 2006 documentary, A Man Named Pearl. The story is about Pearl Fryar, a topiary artist in Bishopville, South Carolina. Bishopville is a small town that Fryar's topiary garden has apparently put "on the map." Tourists come from miles and states and countries away to see the 3-acre artscape. And, in fact, if you google the address to Fryar's garden, not only is Bishopville on the map, but so is Pearl Fryar. The Google satellite view shows, not only some of his incredible leafy sculptures, but also a shot of the artist himself, cruising along on a John Deere down Broad Acres road.

Ultimately, I love this story. Scott Galloway, as director and producer, codirects and coproduces this documentary about Pearl Fryar, who is not just an awe worthy artist, but seems like a pretty incredible human being. He spends time mentoring youth, cares about his community, and has that kind of can-do attitude that must be a documentarian's wet dream.

I've had this title in my queue for a while on Netflix. I kept not watching it. I think it's because I am suspicious about documentaries (and film in general) about African Americans just now. I'm kind of in a place. I find myself not just disappointed with some of the depictions, but heartbroken. I knew I would like Fryar just from looking at his face in profile on the thumbnail of the movie blurb. I didn't want to be heartbroken.

And, indeed, I had to unclench my teeth a few times during the beginning of A Man Named Pearl. Here's a story about an artist in a small town in South Carolina who taught himself horticulture and landscape art and, with years of daily work, created an incredible garden.

But the term "artist" is not often used about Fyar in this documentary. And it's difficult to tell why, or how that's happened. That's the problem with documentaries. You can never tell if it's the interviewer’s angle you are witnessing, or the people being interviewed, or both. 

In this film, the larger impression of Pearl Fryar is that he is a worker – doing a great job. And doing such a great job, that he gets Employee of the Year (or here it is Bishopville’s coveted Yard of the Month award) which set him on his way. The vicars esteeming his dedication include people such as the Director of the Chamber of Commerce, a news editor, the AME pastor, and a friend named Polly Lafitte, who is clearly a museum curator, but for some reason is not connected, in title, to the museum that has commissioned Fryar’s work, but is only listed as “Friend.”

There are strange moments in this narrative, such as the Commerce Director talking about the money coming in from the tourists in such a fiduciary way that it leaves the viewer wondering if Fryar actually sees any of the moneys that he apparently generates for this local economy. You really can't tell. Coupled with a strange scene of the Waffle House waitress in a rather condescending spiel about how she makes sure Pearl Fryar and his wife "eat for free," one has to wonder what the town allows Fryar to believe about his monetary worth. 

Another troubling aspect of the film is the impetus for Fryar’s art. The response to this notion is put forth by the townspeople, but not entirely challenged by Galloway and crew. It is said several times that Fryar is the son of a sharecropper and grew up in very difficult times. Yet, at a logical point in the sequence of the documentary when it feels time for a viewer to understand what started all this for Fryar, the revelatory human-triumph music kicks in and the dialogue is cut back and forth between Fryar and his younger friend, Lafitte.

Lafitte: "When Pearl first came to Bishopville … he looked at a house in a particular neighborhood and he really wasn't welcomed there because of his race." 
Fryar:  "I guess it's the same thing you would have anywhere, would be, a problem of uh, I guess really kinda' accepting the fact of someone strange moving into your neighborhood."
Lafitte: “There was the statement made that they didn't really want him in this neighborhood because he wouldn't keep up his yard and that's a racial stereotype that's difficult for anyone to handle."
Fryar:   "It's human nature to look out for whoever look like you. You understand what I mean? And ... there's always gonna’ be those obstacles. The thing about it is to make you strong enough that you don't let those obstacles become what determine where you go".    
Lafitte: "Pearl handled it very, very well in a positive way and said 'I want to do something that is spectacular in keeping up my yard.’"

Thus, we are sort of left with the impression that Fryar’s impetus for his life of art was that Yard of the Month award.

But Fryar, in the way of retrospective, also talks about his father as role model. And I have to think, based on how he talks about him, that much of his art is in honor of his father's hard work – his father the sharecropper, a man with a third grade education, who spent countless hours farming another man's land. From our understanding of sharecropping, we have to imagine that those hours were brutal, exhausting, fruitless and ultimately, artless. 

“One of the things about farming, like you had to work. This was like basically a 24 hour a day job. And when you grow up in that kind of environment where work is the only thing that you have to offer. – if the people felt like you was not a good worker, you couldn't get a farmer to farm [for] the next year to feed your family. So I saw my father go through that." – Pearl Fryar

But the most fascinating, and sometimes troubling aspect of this documentary, is that Fryar is not revered for his artistry, as much as for his function, as an extension, in a strange way, of the town economy, of the church, of the community. Some of this is clearly part of Fryar's philosophy. He calls the topiary garden a "ministry" in an interview with ETV Road Show. He talks about having a daily congregation of tourists. Early on, Fryar says "It wasn't important to me to create a garden. I wanted to create a feeling - that when you walked through, you felt differently than you did when you started." So it's not off the mark to depict Fryar as a man of God and the garden as a kind of spiritual outlet and spiritual center that he wants people to have as a haven of “Love, peace and goodwill.”

And then some of it, it seems, likely just the sort of provincial outlook of a small, southern town. The kind of place that still sees art as a little weird, that thinks largely in terms of use and function. Clearly Fryar is accepted here because he is good for Bishopville.

Still, I am left a little befuddled at how much face time the AME preacher gets in this documentary. And though it makes sense that the Commerce Director is in the film, they both contribute to a general feeling that Fryar is not an artist, as much as he either, a commodity for the good of the town or someone just doing the work of the church.

How he manages to thrive in a town that does not give him much agency for his creations is honestly mind boggling to me. And here, I start to feel the limits of my rather skeptical, nonchristian ways. I hear something more in the subtext of some of this commentary that, maybe, isn't there at all. Places where it seems like people are trying to minimize Fryar’s artistry, to take the art out of his hands and attribute it to a divine inspiration that they all share. After years of watching Fryar work "morning to night," a neighbor says of the topiary garden, that it was great to see "the miracle happening."

Granted, as I said, this is the perspective of someone who doesn’t follow the church. But there is also a way in which I can appreciate all the brothersisterly love put forth here, both by Fryar, and the communion that others partake in, even if in taking strange credits for his work.

It just seems to be the way things go. A kind of wild and willing faith. A kind of communion. And so, yes, a kind of love.

No comments: