Garden of Life & Death

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday June 27, 2018
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A 2017 documentary, shot in 2014, introduces the work of a tall Dutchman named Piet Oudolf, an innovative landscape gardener. He's written books you can buy, and large public projects you can visit, so as an infomercial it might succeed in creating demand, or at least desire for a better documentary. The film is 71 minutes with four minutes of credits, and so content-sparse it could be whittled down to 30. If you're a gardener or plant-lover, or yearn for footage of plants waving in a breeze, you have from June 29-July 1 to see "Five Seasons" at Yerba Buena, the final film of its Architecture and Design Films Showcase.

For a documentary, "Five Seasons" is short on facts, context, and garden lore. Producer-director Thomas Piper seems to be one of those uncurious souls who simply does not ask questions, or line up a nice sampling of people to ask. He doesn't seem to care about the individual plants themselves, which are in fact the subject, and although mute, deserve star treatment. There are endless shots of Piet walking through gardens he's planted, taking pictures of meadows he hasn't planted, and turning his blue eyes on the camera to speak in English and Dutch of his love for plants. There's endless music in various styles and moods overscoring montages of unidentified plants, which is maddening until you abandon hope.

We learn: Oudolf, born in Haarlem in 1944, grew up in the bar and restaurant run by his parents, and had a series of jobs before finding the one thing he knew he wanted to devote his life to. Age 37, he bought an old farmhouse in Hummelo, in the Netherlands, and started a nursery. There he raised and sold plants with a difference: not just the obvious cheery flowering plants, but outlying quirky ones interesting for their structure and seedpods. Slowly but surely he became familiar with many, many plants, and began incorporating their life cycle in gardens designed to be beautiful well past the flowering.

Oudolf is a towering clotheshorse with a carefully arranged forelock that falls just so alongside his right eye. His features are sharp, his face gaunt, and in repose he seems sad, but speaking about plants he's hopeful and even vulnerable in his passion. He wears checked shirts, jeans, and an array of field jackets that are not worn or tattered. He has the vanity of the artist who performs for the public, an interesting quality for someone whose work is based in Nature, time, and patience. He has the humility of the sage, saying, "Life is about birth, life, and death. And that is the garden as well. What we do in our whole life span happens here in one year. That works on your soul."

Over the past 10 years, Oudolf has published a number of books and designed some large gardens in New York City, Chicago, and Bruton, England, all of which we're shown in fall, then winter, spring, summer, and again in fall, these being the "Five Seasons" of the title. As the organizing principle of a film about the complexities of planting it's unimaginative, but it might have worked if the filmmaker cared about seasons. The cinematography is uninspired, without close-ups or time-lapse, settling for gauzy group shots of plants that give a vague Impressionist placemat feel. This is a missed opportunity to raise consciousness about the nature of plants in general and a new philosophy of gardening in particular.