OK, another blog post. It’s a bit long and rambling, but you’ll want to read this one. Promise.
I've lost track of how many times I've flown to the east coast over the years to interview different people for this project. I've just returned from yet another trip there – my first taken since COVID first reared its ugly head – and it was a rather bittersweet experience.
In the five years since my dad’s death, every visit back has been marked by the loss of yet another relative – the last one being my cousin and godson, Stephen, who was only 30. I miss him terribly, and I would have loved for him to have helped on this project. He was a gifted photographer.
In the spring of 2006, when my mother was terminally ill, my dad and I made the uncomfortable location scout for where the family burial plot would eventually be. I visit it with every trip. The cemetery is crowded now, and both my parents, an uncle, and an aunt are all there. They were all my favorites.
Time, family, and friends slip away through the years. And if we try to find solace in the hope that our memories (or others’ memories of us) shall last, it’s cruel to realize that those, too, can all too easily fade away. If not from time, then from unspoken words, secrets, and lies.
Every family has its drama.
A segue, here, into my progress on the Richard Amsel documentary might seem, to the uninitiated, ill-suited or melodramatic. After all, this is just a movie about a movie poster artist, right?
It may have started out that way. But as more and more truths surfaced about both the man and his art, the more this project has consumed me. What started as a fascination became an obsession.
Perhaps my own bittersweet feelings – about family, about loss and regrets – were all the more intensified on this trip, as I was finally able to get a definitive answer to the single question that’s furiously danced inside my head since this project’s inception over seven years ago. (More on that later.)
There's been so much drama behind the development and making of this documentary that it could easily warrant a film of its own. Thus far I've been either coy or restrained about the subject, opting to say too little rather than too much. But the time has come for me to bring some of those issues to light. They concern the involvement of Richard Amsel's family.
Rather, the lack of.
Starting in 2014, I was in lengthy, ongoing discussions with Richard Amsel's closest surviving family to collaborate on this project. Over the course of more than a year I shared all my work, research, contacts, ideas – anything and everything I had on Richard Amsel, which, since late 2007, was the culmination of all my efforts in developing the website and subsequent film. It represented literally thousands of hours of work, years of my life, and was a considerable investment of whatever money (and would-be life savings) I was able to sacrifice.
Unfortunately, my efforts were not reciprocated in any way. I took certain promises in good faith, but as the months passed, I was met with increasing resistance. And critical questions remained unanswered. (Examples: Did Amsel have a will? Who owned his estate? The rights to his work? Why hasn’t there been a book?)
I could go on and on writing about my dealings with these different members of Amsel’s family, as well as how each of them behaved towards each other. (Actually, I did; I originally wrote another five paragraphs here that I ultimately decided to omit, for the sake of everyone involved, as well as my own.)
Suffice to say, I truly, sincerely, desperately tried – hoped, wanted, plead – to work with Richard Amsel’s immediate family on this project. I wanted them to be a part of honoring Richard’s legacy, to share their memories, their joys, and the pride they must feel in having such a talented, remarkable person in their lives.
What I was not willing to do, however, was whitewash the truth. Nor be lied to, nor taken advantage of.
By the summer of 2015, it was painfully clear that a collaboration would not be possible. It was one of the most heartbreaking, infuriating, maddening, and soul-crushing experiences of my creative career. Yet in retrospect, it seemed unavoidable. Inevitable.
I wished the family well, then set out to continue doing what, in truth, I HAD been doing all along: making the film without them.
Seven years later, in late July of 2022, my flight arrives in Philadelphia. I take a quick breakfast on the road before meeting with my next interview subject. I’d only come to know of her recently. We had a number of conversations online and over the phone, and the ease in which we were able to confide in one another was refreshing. I shared some of the documentary’s frustrating backstory, while she shared some of her remembrances of Richard Amsel, his parents, and his siblings.
She, too, was a member of Amsel’s family.
After entering her home, I needed a few minutes to set up my camera and equipment. We talked about Richard, his work, and his childhood for several minutes leading up to the formal interview. When the camera finally rolled, she smiled and spoke calmly and clearly.
Regardling the Amsel family, her comments were thoughtful, always thoughtful. Yet they were also candid and...
At long last. Honest.
And so it came time for me to ask the question no other family member would honestly answer – one that, up until now, remained a gaping void in the narrative of this whole endeavor.
“Was Richard Amsel rejected by his family because he was gay?”
When the interview was over, I drove an hour or so more to visit another cemetery. I’d seen Richard Amsel’s grave before, but this time it really affected me.
It started to rain slightly. I collected myself and my things, got back into my rental car, and drove off to the Air B&B I had arranged to stay in for the remainder of the trip.
My parents’ house had sold four years earlier. There would no longer be any family couches or bedrooms to crash on.