Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Between the Folds (Green Fuse Films/PBS, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Between the Folds, a 2008 documentary by Vanessa Gould (she’s credited as director, writer and narrator — and, aside to Charles, in the last of those capacities she pronounces the “t” in “often”) about origami. I remembered origami — a traditional Japanese art involving folding square pieces of paper to make often elaborate shapes — from my childhood, when San Francisco public television station KQED (back when the network it was part of was still called National Educational Television!) ran a show about it and for a while I was taking pieces of binder paper, folding them diagonally and tearing off the 2 1/2 inches at the top so they would take on the square shape needed for origami.

What I hadn’t realized is that in the 45 years between those “educational” shows on origami and this one, the art form has become a lot more elaborate and attracted attention from the scientific community, both as a way to teach mathematical concepts and as a sophisticated amusement in which computers are used to design origami patterns, which are then executed by hand and often result in elaborate sculptures of elephants and other animals. I found the show sometimes excruciatingly boring, sometimes fascinating — I especially liked MIT professor Erik Dumaine, a real-life Doogie Howser who went to college at 12, got his Ph.D. at 20 and is a full professor at his alma mater at 24. He’s got long hair, a winning smile, and is cute in a kind of dorky way I find appealing — and he has that disarming manner of someone who’s so much smarter than you are he doesn’t need to push that in your face.

There were all sorts of people profiled, including artists who work exclusively in origami and have had exhibits and sold works (and one of the artists profiled actually manufactures his own handmade paper on which to execute his origami creations), and the whole show was appealing but also a bit “precious,” taking an approach that unquestioningly endorses the importance of the subject matter and expects us to do so too. The library put this on in full “discussion” mode, complete with a post-film Q&A (which I skipped out on) and a group of origamists doing their thing at a table in the library’s first-floor lobby. It’s supposed to be on the Independent Lens series on PBS (though it’s anybody’s guess whether our KPBS affiliate will bother to show it at all, or if they do if they’ll put it on exclusively at 2 a.m. the way they ghettoize a lot of PBS’s more esoteric programming) and it’s a program I’d recommend with reservations; like the origamists themselves, Gould’s movie is a bit too clever, too “twee,” for its own good — but it’s still a lot of fun and it’s a good deal nicer to spend an hour on TV with people who get off on paper folding than put up with the screaming meemies on Fox news!