A portrait of a brilliant artistic mind but infused with something extremely personal and sad, The Secret Life of Lance Letscher is one of the more emotionally piercing studies of the tortured artist that I’ve come across, and is easily one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen so far in 2017. Directed with a sense of honest grace and exuding a wonderful eye for style by Sandra Adair (likely best known as Richard Linklater’s long-time film editor, having cut every picture of his since 1993), the documentary premiered earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival, a fitting venue considering that Letscher himself is an Austin native, specializing in multi-layered and exquisitely colorful paper collages, which typically have a pop-culture bent to them.
The film tracks Letscher as he takes on a new challenge – crafting a large mural made of metal along South Congress Avenue in one of the city’s most trafficked business districts. Adair, who also edited her own picture, gives her doc propulsive rhythm that matches the operatic musical score by Graham Reynolds; this is a bold explosion of color and sound, and considering the material that Adair had at her disposal (Letscher’s artwork is utterly stunning and nearly impossible to contemplate at times), it was probably tough to decide what to show on screen, and what to leave on the cutting room floor.
The patience that’s required by Letscher to accomplish his methods and goals is staggering to witness. Adair and her probing but respectful cinematographer Jason Gamble Harter get up close and personal with Letscher so that the audience can understand the painstaking process that he endures to create – cutting an insane amount of extremely thin slices of paper which are then combined and layered over one another, creating a mosaic effect that still maintains a sense of coherence, despite the multitudes of colors and ideas which are seemingly competing with each other for attention. One of the best things you can say about any successful documentary is that people who are already familiar with the subject or person up for discussion will enjoy the piece just as much as the uninitiated.
I was totally unaware of Letscher’s art world contributions, and it’s a testament to Adair’s confident abilities as a storyteller that she’s able to delve deep into the humanistic root of her film, allowing Letscher’s pain bubble to the surface without resorting to cheap sentimentality or lazy aesthetic decisions which might’ve cheapened the message and lessened the overall impact. His troubled family life as a child is explored, which then segues into his own struggles as a father and husband.
I’m continuously drawn to stories about real people, whether or not it’s through the documentary form, or true-life cinematic narratives that take their inspiration from the world around us. And I’m a total sucker for stories that center on intense personal triumph, and while this isn’t Rocky or anything like that, Letscher’s life is rich in drama, love, and ambition, and it was inspiring to see someone process and work through their demons in order to create something that feels as if it’s bursting out from the seams of his inner-being.
Watching Letscher grow as a person and stretch himself as an artist while he undertakes the construction of the mural from scrap metal is amazing to observe, as you see a human being approaching all that they’ve come to understand in their field with a set of new eyes, with strict determination to finish the job at all costs. Adair observes casually but passionately; you get the sense that her many years as a film editor for one of the more astute and relaxed of filmmakers has prepared her well for this sort of project. The Secret Life of Lance Letscher is available via ITunes on November 7th, and comes highly recommended, especially for those who value art in all of its adventurous forms.