Why do we do what we do? What drives us? What inspires us to get out of bed each morning and tackle the day? This is the core question of director Matthew Kaplowitz’s documentary Nothing Changes: Art for Hank’s Sake, which introduces audiences to successful, yet lesser-known New York-based artist Hank Virgona. When it begins, the 86-year old artist travels from his home in Woodhaven, Queens, New York, to Union Square within New York City almost every day. Each of those days, he works on his craft, whether it’s in watercolor, still life, collage, or sketch, driven by a desire to capture that which exists just outside the eye line, living in the corners, which contains the essence, the unprovoked moments of life. It’s during these moments, Hank will tell you, where the most important things occur. Kaplowitz presents scattered moments over roughly two years in the life of his great uncle Hank, capturing what occurs while everyone else is focused on the art in an attempt to immortalize the man, not his work.
When talking about his work, past or present, Hank comes back to the same notion: “The things you see out of the corner of your eyes are the most important.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but it also seems to be the way Kaplowitz approaches the loose narrative within Nothing Changes. Rather than being specific with its timeline −the doc’s time span is framed by only two mentions of Hank’s age −or chronicling a particular project, Kaplowitz is content simply documenting Hank working in his various spaces: his studio, on the street, or on the subway. Nothing Changes isn’t as interested in becoming an exposé as it is containing the essence of Hank, even with the interjections from Hank himself or various acquaintances, both personal and professional. Though Kaplowitz appears only briefly on camera for a part of a segment examining Hank’s health, his intent is present throughout, suggesting a closeness, a deep admiration for Hank. There is a desire to preserve something of his great uncle which may outlive him and last as long as Hank’s own art, the difference being that within Nothing Changes, Hank is the one being observed out of the corner of Kaplowitz’s eye and we are the audience who divines its meaning.
In many ways, Kaplowitz’s approach is intriguing both narratively and technically. Hank, of course, gets most of the credit for why the film is engaging. As an artist, he’s incredibly at ease being the subject. Whether in close-up or at a distance, Hank exudes a sweetness and charm that the various interviewees discuss. As Hank discusses his process, how paints cost more now than when he started, or even his time-consuming walk home, the audience is captivated. There are moments, such as when Hank explains his solitary lifestyle, where the audience is inclined to feel pity or sadness, yet Hank’s natural delightfulness dulls any inferred edge to his stories. One interesting, though potentially frustrating, aspect of Nothing Changes is that it doesn’t provide any markers about the passing of time despite possessing very distinct sections within the overall film which tackle different subjects, like Hank’s childhood, military career, artistry, influence, current projects, and health. Almost as though tethered by an elastic band, each segment begins with Hank’s present before extending into a specific area of his life and being yanked back. It would be helpful to have greater markers on time other than nature shots of sun or snow, yet the order in which things happen within Nothing Changes is insignificant to the overall documentary. Aside from the introduction and conclusion, any part of the film could run in any order without creating confusion or changing the overall reaction from the audience. Like Hank’s desire for his own audience to get up close, that’s what Kaplowitz achieves here. How they get there is irrelevant.
Listening to Hank talk about his process, his commitment to growth, audiences everywhere are going to be charmed. The work he does is impressive, and the segment focused on his success past and present showcases this, but the focus on Hank himself is what makes Nothing Changes undeniably charming. Even if the various interviews from his studio neighbors, colleagues, and friends didn’t make it clear how sweet and affable Hank is, the stories from him certainly cement the notion. For despite his many accomplishments, Hank has always kept his eye on the present, never so much dwelling on where he’d been or where he’d go, content on capturing the now. Hank passed earlier this year and this film is not a monument to his work, but to the man. It is not for art’s sake, but for Hank’s, and the sakes of all the generations which will follow.
Nothing Changes: Art for Hank’s Sake is available for streaming via Amazon Prime Video.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.