Going back to Hitchcock or the silent film era, one could say that the thriller is the quintessence of cinema. You could also say that the defining moment of a thriller is the one that makes you go, “Oh. My. God.” When that happens (which is rather rare these days), it’s a privileged and exhilarating feeling, one that lifts you straight out of yourself. Lately, however, I’ve been experiencing this sensation in what seems like a most unlikely place may sound like: documentaries about the art world.
In a way, it’s not really a surprise. Art-world documentaries often capitalize on the human audacity of forgery and theft, the excitement of finding and debunking fakes, not to mention the sheer sticker shock of it all. (You might call that sticker shock in 2019, when Jeff Koons’ 3-foot-tall silver rabbit sold for $91 million at auction and Theft.) But I’ve also found that an art-world documentary that has the quality of a thriller, like Leonardo Lost or The Price of Everything, can start with an outrageous or even criminal situation, but whatever As stunning as the rabbit hole of reality and illusion is, you then find yourself falling down.
Allison Otto’s The Thief Collector is an art documentary that culminates in a standout moment of Oh. My. God.” At first we think we’re looking at the story of an oddly isolated art theft — and for a good distance we are, and we’re riveted to it. In 1985, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Jerry and Rita Alter entered the pensioners It was 9:00 a.m. and the museum was mostly empty When Rita distracted a guard, Jerry walked over to the museum’s most prized work, “Woman-Ocher,” an abstract Expressionist portrait painted by William de Kooning in 1955 and proceeded to cut the canvas straight from the frame, he rolled it up and hid it, and he and Rita walked out of the museum into a rust-colored sports car and set off on the Away.
The Thief Collector recreates this robbery in staged scenes with a couple of actors: Sarah Minnich and Glenn Howerton, who slightly mugged a hideous fake mustache (which Jerry was wearing that day). As it turns out, however, this brazen act of outright theft, crazy as it was, isn’t the weirdest part of the story. The Alter took the painting home and hung it in a cheap gold frame behind their bedroom door, more or less concealing it. Her humble desert home was filled with random little works of painting, sculpture, and native art, many of which were amassed on her world travels. But the stolen de Kooning was just for her. It became her private masterpiece and remained there until her death (Jerry died in 2012, Rita in 2017). It was then that it was discovered by Dave Van Auck, one of the owners of Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques, the local business that had been hired to sell the Alter’s property.
The discovery of “Woman-Ocher” solved a 30-year-old art heist mystery that had grown more sensational over the decades, as the painting, which was worth $400,000 at the time the Alter took it over, is now valued at $160 million would have. The Thief Collector dedicates itself for a while to this undercover history of “common” art theft. As the director of her first feature film, Allison Otto expertly weaves photographs and silent film, and she interviews art scholars like de Kooning biographer Mark Stevens, agents on the FBI’s Art Theft Task Force, and several relatives of the aged, most notably her kindly bewildered human of a nephew, Ron Roseman (who was appointed executor of the estate), all to paint a portrait of who the Alter were.
Jerry, tall and dashing in a slightly geeky way, and Rita, a kind of radiant ’50s earthmother, were former New York City public school teachers (he taught music, she was a speech therapist) who shared a passion for international travel. They found the money to make several trips a year to exotic and adventurous places, sometimes off the grid (they lived in a cabin or slipped into a country they weren’t allowed to be in). Jerry published a book of short stories called The Cup and the Lip, which chronicles the exploits of a couple very similar in age through travel and various illegal acts. The stories, presented as fiction, portrayed the characters as adrenaline junkies cloaked in a self-imposed atmosphere of mystery and deception.
The mystery of who the Alter were, along with theories as to why they were driven to steal that particular de Kooning (it’s speculated they may have clashed with de Kooning at the fabled Abstract Expressionists’ pub, the Cedar Tavern ), doesn’t seem all that remarkable to us. We keep waiting for another shoe to fall. And finally it does.
It’s all about a septic tank.
The film analyzes Jerry Alter’s collection of short stories as a book of secret confessions: his way of telling the world all the things he and his wife have done and yet keeping those things secret. And they include some pretty extreme acts. The idea that the Alter would simply walk into a museum and steal a famous painting, despite overwhelming evidence that they did just that, cannot be fully analyzed as an isolated crime. There has to be more to the story. The Thief Collector traces this story by filling in a criminal pattern that culminates in a possible act that will blow our minds. could it be true The main piece of evidence is a little crude, but here’s this: The alters who built their own home had a septic tank in the yard that they haven’t replaced or cleaned for 40 years. If you were a guest in their house and asked to go to the toilet, they would instruct you not to flush anything solid down the toilet. Instead, they would dispose of it themselves.
Why on earth would anyone do that?
The film offers an explanation, and it’s one that has an uneasy plausibility (although it’s never been proven). Before our eyes, the alters become characters from a novel by Patricia Highsmith. Not just art thieves, but Central American sociopaths living outside the law. The Thief Collector is a nimble and entertaining analysis of a crime. It’s also a portrait of art and obsession. But if it makes you go, “Oh. My. God.” It’s a film that used art to touch on something essential about how strangers—or maybe I should just say the downright stranger—walk among us.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/the-thief-collector-review-1235221801/ ‘The Thief Collector’ Review: An Art Doc with an ‘Oh. My. God.’ factor