Of documentaries I only ask one thing: Take your subject and really revel in it. I've
criticized many documentaries in these pages for barely seeming interested in their own
subjects. The Line King is not one of them. This simple look at one of America's
most celebrated cartoonists, Al Hirschfeld, really gives a terrific sense of the man
and his work, while reflecting his personality and portraying his creative process in
the loose filmmaking style.
Born in 1903, Hirschfeld moved with his family to New York around 1915. His
recollection of first arriving in the city makes you realize how valuable it is for the
filmmakers to have done their work while the subject was still alive (he died last year
at 99.) His vibrant storytelling style makes the movie: At one particularly funny point
he claims his father coined the phrase "senior citizen." When he arrived in the city he
remembers riding the street car (which predated the subway system) up to what is now
the far Upper West Side, but was then apparently a loose collection of wood houses and apple
orchards. The family rented the second story of a house for $4 a month. Compared to the
swank townhouse he lives in in the film, these are truly humble beginnings.
Surprisingly (for someone unfamiliar with Hirschfeld's early history) he originally set
out to be a sculptor. The statues (and also watercolors) shown really drive home that
the best artists often only arrive at their most specific and distinctive signature
styles after mastering many others. Once in New York, Hirschfeld discovered the
theater, which inspired his life's work: Most folks who don't recognize the name "Al
Hirschfeld" will likely recognize the fluid ink line drawings for which he's best
known. Once he finished working as an art director for film productions (A job he fell
into by accident, "like all things in life," according to the artist) he set out on a
70 year journey chronicling the theater and film world with his distinctive
caricatures. The amazing thing about how prolific his work is is that nearly every time
an interviewee in the film drops a name, which happens with alarming frequency, the
film is able to cut to yet another Hirschfeld portrait. A peek at the Hirschfeld
collection is a tour through nearly all of western culture for the 20th Century.
Since Hirschfeld's career lasted for so long he is able to reminisce about the kinds of
social progressions that most people can only read about in books. For example, early
on his caricatures appeared simultaneously in many New York dailies, most sadly long
gone: The Herald-Tribune, The Brooklyn Eagle, The World-Telegram. At one point the New
York Times demanded that Hirschfeld add a bra to a nude portrait while the Tribune ran
the same piece unedited. An article about the obvious alteration was entitled "All The
Nude That's Fit To Print." Eventually the Times decided it wanted a monopoly on
Hirschfeld and asked him for exclusive rights to his work, although it wasn't until
seventy years into their relationship that he says they asked for an official
Other than Hirschfeld's famous style, the most well-known aspect of his work is his
incorporation of his daughter Nina's name into each work, with a guide by his signature
as to how many times it appears. Fans make a game of finding the hidden words and the military uses them as an excersize in training pilots' ability to quickly spot tiny details, but
what's surprising is how ambivalent the artist is about this world-famous design element. He
almost sounds like he'd like to remove the Nina's from his process but is well aware
that he'd disappoint his audience. What's even more interesting is the rueful way Nina
herself views the tribute. The notoriety of her name, she feels, has overshadowed any
achievements she's tried on her own. And other commentators express some reservation
about the detail, suggesting that this gimmick has held back Hirschfeld as an artist.
It's a credit to The Line King that it doesn't just present the "Nina"
phenomenon as just another cute quirk, but an actual multi-faceted aspect of the
artist's long career.
It's the depiction of Hirschfeld's artistic process, however, that really wins The
Line King points with this reviewer. Hirschfeld is shown vigorously sketching out
his portraits in pencil and then carefully but fluidly going over them with his
old-fashioned pen. The film lovingly lingers on the barber's chair he sits in and his
ornate slippers. This sort of patience and attention to detail really makes a film
portrait come alive. One sequence shows a series of drawings of various productions of
"Long Day's Journey into Night" dating back to the mid-50's before showing Hirschfeld
creating a new one for a production featuring Jason Robards. This kind of filmmaking
comes closest to capturing the creative process.
The full-screen shot-on-video image is fine. There are times when it exhibits some
extra noise but mostly it is colorful and decent. Some of the video has the smeary look
of earlier video formats, however.
The Dolby stereo audio is acceptable. Voices are totally clear and the mix is simple
and to the point.
There are only a couple of extras but they're both very nice. One is a look at
Hirschfeld creating a portrait of Paul Newman. He works from a photo and spends many
hours on it. The piece itself only runs a few minutes, but it's a nice way to see the
subject take a project from blank page to completion. There is also a click-through
gallery of a dozen or so works. The only annoying thing is that the drawings aren't
identified by date, but it's a good supplement.
It's easy to see why The Line King was nominated for an Oscar in 1997. It takes
its subject seriously enough to really explore his life but does so with wit and heart.
Folks interested in documentaries and art will really enjoy the skill with which the film was
made and fans of Hirschfeld's work may want this in their collection, however, as the retail price is pretty steep, for most people this makes a perfect rental. A fine film that deserves to be seen.