Film Review: Altina

One artist's long, kaleidoscopic life is explored in detail in this comprehensive but somehow drab doc.

Do you remember harlequin glasses? Those whimsically upturned frames which seemingly every sight-challenged woman wore pre-1967? They were invented by one Altina Schinasi (1907-99), the subject of this documentary directed by her grandson, Peter Sanders.

Actually, she did far more than provide a cat-like, literal sight joke for half of the world's population. Far more. As a painter, sculptor and filmmaker who garnered an Oscar nomination for a doc about her teacher, George Grosz, and champion of victims of the Hollywood Red Scare, she touched countless lives in special ways, her work and life always informed by a resolute feminist sexuality quite bold in its day.

She was the daughter of a Turkish immigrant who made a fortune with a patented cigarette rolling machine. In the 1930s, she studied art with Grosz and designed window displays for Fifth Avenue stores, which led to her inventing those infamous glasses, inspired by Venetian carnival masks. She formed her own company to distribute them and was credited with revolutionizing the eyeglass industry. Married four times, she moved to California in the 1940s, where she produced further art and made George Grosz’ Interregnum (1960), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

A stint in D.C. with her third husband, Charles Carey, followed, during which she created furniture incorporating human faces and elements which she called "Altina," or "chair-acters." These highly collectible pieces—which more than verge on kitsch—really put her on the map in the art world. The final chapter of her life, with her fourth husband, Cuban artist Celestino Miranda, unfolded in in Santa Fe, where she wrote her memoir, The Road I Have Traveled.

Whew! Pretty exhausting, and Sanders' film covers the life of his grandma in exhaustive detail, laced with interviews from the likes of such Altina intimates as actress Zoe Caldwell, costumer Jane Greenwood, novelist Jonathan Richards, as well as her husbands Carey and Miranda, and her sons, the late Dennis and Terry Sanders.

It was an amazing life, but surprisingly, it does not register excitingly on film. The approach is uninspired and prosaic, too much the work of a dutiful family member than intensely probing and revelatory. Schinasi was undoubtedly a fascinating character, but this record of her life maintains a somewhat too respectful distance to really uncover what made her tick so passionately and chameleon-like all those years.

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