For those who've experienced Richard Serra's environmental iron sculptures, this doc is fascinating, with the sculptor (and college buddy Philip Glass) offering very intelligent commentary on his career and process-driven method. In the absence of the twisting, tapering rust-colored structures Tappeiner's gliding, panning camera provides a good experiential substitute for works that really need to be seen and walked through in person to be understood. For those less familiar with Serra's work, this might be a dull artist doc — not to be confused with an artist bio, since very little (well, basically nothing) of Serra's personal life ends up onscreen. Does this verbose San Franciscan have a partner or a family (or friends, for that matter), or does he just fly into museums and steel mills like that other man of steel, Superman, then disappear until the next time a foreman needs to consult one of his graphite sketches to figure out where to put a 7-ton metal slab?
In sharp distinction from Louise Bourgeois, whose recent biopic at Film Forum was considerably more interesting than this film, Serra's art contains little of his own experience and therefore the omission of his personal life is somewhat justified. That said, it's this lack of a more candid connection in favor of modernist artspeak that keeps Thinking on Your Feet from transcending the category of DVD-bound artist documentaries into something more engaging. Visually, meanwhile, the crisp imagery of Serra's installations looks terrific on the big screen, and repeated visits to the German steel mill where his massive sheets are formed are the stuff of sci-fi space docks and alien torture chambers. You practically expect to see Han Solo, cast in metal, propped up against a wall somewhere. Glowing, molten metal, steamy cooling contraptions and hulking steel-bending mechanisms prove nearly as poetic as the minimalist installations they churn out for Serra. Strange industrial spaces and modernist musings aside, those not already interested in Serra's work might have a hard time getting into this exploration of his artistic process.
Opens August 20 at Film Forum