Documentary Review — The whimsical, dark life and art of “M.C. Escher: Journey Into Infinity”

The camera tracks down what is unmistakably a young woman’s naked back as the voice of Stephen Fry, throwing himself into an amusing dudgeon, reads from the letters of the puzzle print-maker M.C. Escher, griping about “the hippies in San Francisco” who are “printing my work clandestinely,” turning it into “place mats” and color-tinting it for posters and what not.

Beneath all this grumping is a rasping buzz. And then the camera reveals that this young woman is getting a grand tattoo based on the works of one of the most widely disseminated, appreciated and posterized artists of modern times and all times.

Fry vamps Escher’s quizzical, mocking words on 1960s “California” kids and “their addiction to narcotics,” and rocker Graham Nash recalls his early fandom moving him to call the Great Man at home in the Netherlands.

But but, Escher complained, “I am not an artist. I’m a mathematician!”

Fry performs a rejection letter to a certain Rolling Stone who inquired about acquiring unseen Escher art for “a record sleeve” (album cover), ending with a huffy “please inform Mr. Jagger that I am not ‘Maurits’ (his first name) to him, but, respectfully, ‘M.C. Escher.'”

Escher’s bemused incredulity with the generation that discovered and popularized his work, late in life, reminds one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s shocking realization of what hippy fans figured was “pipe weed” in his Middle Earth novels, embraced by the same tuned-in/turned-on generation.

That sets the tone for Robin Lutz’s delightful documentary, “M.C. Escher: Journey Into Infinity,” a playful but serious look at the life and work of a wildly popular woodcut printer, lithographer, painter and mezzotint print-maker Maurits Cornelius Escher.

Using animation, interviews with his surviving family (and Graham Nash), archival footage of Escher at work and old family photographs, with Fry narrating from Escher’s own writings, Lutz paints a most entertaining if somewhat limited (No art experts, art world fans, etc.) portrait of the man, his mathematical obsessions, his travels and his work.

We hear about his childhood, learn that he abandoned architecture in school, see early sketches and landscapes — unmistakably his, with an architect’s polished, fine lines — and visit the places that formed his eye and informed his art.

He went to Tuscany as a young man and met his wife there. And no one who knows Europe and Escher’s work will be surprised that the man was transfixed by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, an ornate Moorish castle covered in mosaics, frescoes, archways and gardens, “the whole” of it, Escher enthused, “a work of art.”

Escher, often doing his drawing in one of the towering, white-walled Reformation churches in Belgium or the Netherlands where he lived, conjured up perspective-challenging puzzle pictures where “you don’t where where to begin, or end.”

The repeating patterns of “tessellation” fascinated him, and generations of young fans lost themselves in his most famous works, which were turned into millions of posters in the ’60s, ’70s and beyond.

The film, coming to New York and LA Feb. 5 ( streaming thereafter) visits a Milan retrospective of his work with the cleverest “put yourself in an Escher selfie” gimmick I’ve ever seen in an art exhibit.

Escher brings that out in creative people, from rock stars and black light poster purveyors (who put color in his art) to filmmakers who saw a “Labyrinth” of a movie in a single Escher print.

If Ben Stiller’s getting lost in artwork in a “Night at the Museum,” you can bet your bottom Guilder that it’s in an Escher maze.

As I noted, the one shortcoming here is the lack of artists, collectors and academics to place him within the ranks of great artists, or dismiss him as another faddish creator of “Big Eyes” or pop art or multi-dimensional hanging jigsaw puzzle posters for teenagers wanting something trippy to stare at as we conduct the chemical experiments of youth.

No matter. The people have spoken, as has the marketplace, and we know what we like.

So much so that a lot of us are willing to get M.C. Escher’s masterworks needled into our skin fifty years after his death, sixty years after the first Tommy Chong to take a long gaze at an intricate picture that hinted at infinity and noted, “Far out, man.”

MPA Rating: Unrated

Cast: George Escher, Jan Escher, Graham Nash, Liesbeth Escher, narrated by Stephen Fry.

Credits: Directed by Robin Lutz, script by Robin Lutz, Marijnke de Jong. A Kino Lorber/Zeitgeist release.

Running time: 1:21

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