By Douglas Feiden
The painter and sculptor Eric Fischl is sitting in the kitchen of his Sag Harbor home while his wife, the landscape artist April Gornik, stands by the stove, whipping up French toast for breakfast.
They are both captured on celluloid, musing insightfully about the village they each love, in the opening minutes of a new, but not-yet-released documentary entitled, “Legs: a big issue in a small town.”
“There’s a difference between a town where the road ends and a town where the road runs through it, and Sag Harbor is a town where the road ends,” says Mr. Fischl. “It is everyone’s version of an ideal town,” Ms. Gornik observes a moment later.
What do these pronouncements have to do with the sassy Larry Rivers “Legs” sculpture—a pair of disembodied, 16-foot-tall, white fiberglass, female legs clad in sexy, black-band stockings visible at upper-thigh level—that give the documentary by Beatrice Alda and Jennifer Brooke its name?
Actually, quite a lot. The conflict that has raged over the “Legs” since their arrival in 2008 at the Madison Street home of Janet Lehr and Ruth Vered, and the pitched battles as to whether they ultimately stay or go, “reveals the underbelly of a town seeking to identify its very nature,” the filmmakers say.
The controversial mixed-media art piece installed on the Henry Street side of the corner home may lie at the heart of the 76-minute documentary, say Ms. Alda and Brooke, who are partners in both life and film-making.
“It’s the jumping-off point,” says Ms. Brooke in an interview in a parked car directly opposite the sculpture. Often, the two women finish each other thoughts and sentences, and Ms. Alda quickly adds, “It’s the gateway to examine just what it means to live in a small town.”
One thing it means is having opinions: From one perspective, the mannequin legs are “perhaps a little racy,” says Ms. Alda. From another, they’re “artsy and quirky,” posits Ms. Brooke.
In November, a judge upheld a 2012 ruling of the village Zoning Board of Appeals that sidestepped the issue of art and deemed the sculpture a “structure” that could be removed under the village code, because it wasn’t set back from the property line. The judge hasn’t signed a judgment order, which would trigger the removal, and the owners haven’t yet decided whether to appeal.
But the film is less a tale about a single, if highly charged, issue and more about the quest of colorful and feisty village characters—black and white, young and old, liberal and conservative, gay and heterosexual, artist and politician, local and foreign-born—to define themselves and their community, the directors say.
And there are broader themes at play, says Ms. Alda, a New York University Film School graduate who is the daughter of actor Alan Alda and started her career in film acting herself.
“It’s really about small towns in America,” says Ms. Brooke, a Bryn Mawr College graduate who is also a published poet and essayist.
The women, who are married, co-directed the 2009 documentary feature “Out Late,” about five people who came out in their 50s, 60s and 70s, openly declaring their sexual identities late in life.
A production of Forever Films Inc., which the pair co-founded in 2003, “Legs” will have a closed screening for its participants and interview subjects, who have yet to view it, on Sunday, December 27. Early next year, the women expect to apply to several film festivals, a process that can take three to six months, and the picture will be released at an unspecified time later in the year.
Film festivals typically require “premiere status”—there’s a world premiere, North American premiere, New York City premiere and Hamptons premiere, among many others—and since the directors cannot risk jeopardizing that status, they demurred when asked to screen the film for The Sag Harbor Express.
Instead, they provided a detailed synopsis; several production stills; the so-called directors’ statement, which is a written summary outlining the creative vision for the film; access to interview subjects, and a three-minute opening clip, featuring a score by artist-musician Dan Rizzie, which they showed under the looming presence of the legs.
“The genius of these two filmmakers is that they made a film about a town and called it ‘Legs’—not ‘Sag Harbor’—but they presented it as a way of telling you what the town is all about,” Mr. Rizzie said.
“For this is very much a film about Sag Harbor…. They let people speak their minds about a very controversial topic, they didn’t put words in anybody’s mouth, and they used the opinions of people who thought it was wonderful, people who thought it was terrible, and people who did not care.”
It was the first film Mr. Rizzie had ever scored and composed, and he teamed up with a friend, G.E. Smith, the blues-and-rock guitarist and former bandleader for “Saturday Night Live,” who helped him shape the musical pieces, which they performed together.
Filmgoers will hear “Short Board,” an opening piece of surf music that whimsically sets the stage; “The Bridge,” an instrumental in mid-film that he says accompanies a striking shot of Sag Harbor’s iconic Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge, and his bluesy “Striped Bass Killed My Daddy,” which plays as the credits roll.
Passion is a driving, even defining, force in village life that seems to guide the two directors. At the same time, they call their work “a light-hearted look at what it means to live in a small town—with all of the pros and cons that come with it.” Reconciling these two poles isn’t as tough as it sounds:
“In the end, the film sees our town as we do—a melting pot of individuals with a lot of passion,” the directors’ statement says. “Maybe not passion for the same issues—but passion nonetheless—and for that we remain grateful…and eternally amused.”
Sitting in their parked car, they marvel at the villagers who weigh in angrily and interestingly at governmental meetings on the “Legs” and other topics, then cross paths with each other down the block.
“You see the people you were just arguing with at the Christmas tree lighting,” says Ms. Brooke.
“You see them in the post office,” continues Ms. Alda. “They’ll walk into your exercise class, or they’ll walk into Provisions. And everyone on Main Street knows you.”
One larger-than-life personality who would have relished both the dust-up and the film: Larry Rivers himself, who died in 2002 at age 78.
“I think Larry would feel good that his artwork can still get people to take sides,” said David Joel, executive director of the Larry Rivers Foundation. “I think he’d just be getting a good laugh out of it all.”
As for a documentary that “makes new art out of issues stemming from existing art,” Mr. Joel added, “That’s not just a compliment but one of the key things that great art aims to do—to inspire. So if ‘Legs’ inspired a conversation that then led to a documentary, well, then art is on the move and ‘Legs’ has legs, and I think we’re all better off for it.”
Says, Ms. Lehr, “I’m delighted for Larry Rivers.”
In their synopsis, the filmmakers ask if Sag Harbor is an accepting, welcoming place to live. “Maybe,” they answer, “but if you look closer, there are cracks in the veneer and the town is not all that it appears to be.”
And as she sits in her car, Ms. Brooke says, “Everyone thinks we’re incredibly tolerant…and then, there’s this…” She points in the direction of the “Legs.”