Art Meets Life and Afterlife in The Proposal

The Proposal. Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories

If you did not know going in that The Proposal is a documentary, its establishing shots may mislead you into believing you are about to take in a suspenseful thriller (which, in a sense, you are). Multicolored walls and boxy structures are seen from interesting angles and through changing natural light, which casts shadows that speak of the twists and turns to come.

Actually speaking in voice-over is Jill Magid, a slight woman who looks and sounds younger than her 46 years. The Proposal marks the directorial debut of the Brooklyn-based artist, who forms a love triangle of sorts with Italian architectural historian Federica Zanco and one of Mexico’s greatest architects, the late Luis Barragán. It’s the stuff of UN noir.

Barragán was known for fusing Modernist styles from Europe with his native landscapes. Before he died in his Mexico City home in 1988 and his cremated remains were interred in the family vault at Mezquitán Cemetery in Guadalajara, he had bequeathed his work and copyrights to his business partner, Raúl Ferrara.

After Ferrara passed away in 1993, his widow, Rosario Uranga, says she tried without success to sell Barragán’s professional archive in Mexico but ultimately consigned it to gallerist Max Protetch in New York. Also in the 1990s, Rolf Fehlbaum, owner and CEO of Swiss furniture company Vitra, proposed marriage to Zanco, who said that in lieu of an engagement ring, she wanted the Barragán archive, which her fiancé went on to buy from Protetch for $2.5 million.

Zanco in 1996 established the Barragan Foundation—registered without the accent, as The Proposal frequently reminds—and the architect’s archive landed in the basement of Vitra headquarters in Birsfelden, Switzerland. Casa Luis Barragán, the architect’s home and studio, is preserved with his original furniture and personal belongings in Mexico City, where architects are invited to study and guided tours for the public are available by appointment. Though Zanco had initially promised Barragán’s professional archives would be accessible as well, that had not happened by 2012, when Magid visited Casa Luis Barragán.

It’s worth interjecting here, as Magid unapologetically shows in her film, just how obsessed she had become with Barragán by then. So enchanted by his life’s work that she was compelled to get inside his head, she requested overnight alone time in Casa Luis Barragán. The request was granted because Magid is an internationally renowned artist known for performance-based exhibitions derived from her having embedded herself with U.S. military personnel, the Dutch secret service and England’s largest citywide video-surveillance system.

Magid was forbidden from sleeping in Barragán’s bed and instead directed to the bedroom that had been occupied by “all his girlfriends.” While living and breathing in the place, Magid learned from the curator the story of how the architect’s archives got locked away in Europe.

Pouring on the charm to get access to the archives in 2013, but being dismissed as a mere “artist” by the “scholar” Zanco, planted the seed for “The Barragán Archives,” another Magid project aimed at exposing where humanism and authoritarianism cross. However, this time, she could raise a question to be posed over Two-Buck Chuck and Costco cheese cubes at a gallery-exhibit opening: Should anyone be able to forever lock down a beloved artist’s legacy? More precisely, as the notes to Magid’s ongoing exploration put it, is the examination of the “intersection of the psychological with the judicial, national identity and repatriation, international property rights and copyright law, authorship and ownership.”

It is a project that found her buttering up Zanco, coming face-to-face with Zanco and ultimately, with Magid’s own proposal, exposing Zanco. The film will tell you that along the way, Magid has won the support of Barragán devotees, colleagues and family members in Mexico, where the artist/filmmaker helped to make the return of the architect’s archives a national quest for justice.

Revealing just how far, just how audacious Magid has gone in trying to make that happen is best left unreported here, as it would spoil the impact of her compelling documentary and its double-entendre title. Let’s just say a certain family vault at Mezquitán Cemetery in Guadalajara has been disturbed and a certain jeweler’s chin is permanently stuck to the floor.

Magid’s in-your-face skills transfer seamlessly to her new medium of film, with her artist’s eye creating engagingly lit and framed sequences that will make Wes Anderson jealous. Of course, it helps that she could lean on the documentary chops of editor Hannah Buck, whose previous projects include this year’s Vision Portraits, which profiles blind and visually impaired artists in various mediums, and 2018’s Black Memorabilia, which explores the market for racialized artifacts.

Buck and Magid spent time in the editing bay cutting the footage collected by cinematographer Jarred Alterman, who previously lensed the docs Bisbee ’17, about the mass deportation of 1,200 immigrant miners a century ago at the Arizona-Mexico border, and, most important for our purposes here, Project X, a short documentary on a top-secret surveillance site in the heart of Manhattan.

Project X was directed by Laura Poitras, who based her film on National Security Agency documents. Poitras is also the executive producer of The Proposal, which she originally wanted Magid to make as a documentary short. It’s to the credit of both that they realized enough material existed for a feature-length treatment that is in desperate need of a happy ending.

The Proposal was directed by Jill Magid. Opens Fri. at Edwards Westpark Cinema, Irvine.

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