There is one moment in “Jon Imber’s Left Hand,” a one-hour film about the career, the remarkable family life, and the late creative flowering of a painter diagnosed with ALS, that takes the wind out of you. It comes near the end, when Imber, a renowned Somerville artist reduced to painting with a brush strapped to his hand, asks his college-age son, Gabe, for his take on several recent works.
One of them is still on the easel. It’s a portrait — one of scores Imber painted in energetic, highly focused, and increasingly impeded sessions right up to his death last week at the age of 63.
“What do you think?” he asks, his words already slurred by the disease, which causes nerves controlling voluntary muscles to atrophy. “Any of these grab you?”
Gabe, a tall, good-looking kid who appears laid-back but reticent, has wandered in from outside the studio in Maine, where Imber and his wife are spending what they sense will be his final summer.
“None of them grab me especially,” he says. “But they’re alright. They’re good.”
Pressed for more, Gabe mutters something about one portrait’s “weird perspective” before concluding “It’s fine. I don’t love it.”
Gabe’s brave — and, as I understood it — loving judgment is arrestingly out of tune (in a helpful way) with the rest of the film, which marshals old friends, art historians, and curators to lavish praise on Imber, and to explain what makes his late work so remarkable.
“Jon Imber’s Left Hand” screens on Saturday at the Somerville Theater as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston. Produced and directed by Richard Kane, the film is generously sprinkled with images from all the different phases of Imber’s consistently impressive career. A protégé of the New York painter Philip Guston, he created early work that included monumental figure paintings of great tenderness and originality; his later work became increasingly abstracted, loosely brushed, and open — influenced both by Willem de Kooning and the Maine landscape he loved, wryly but deeply.
In the film, Imber himself speaks with articulate honesty and fizzing passion about his work. His wife, the gifted and accomplished painter Jill Hoy, is full of insight; she warms the film from within. And there is lots of intelligent commentary from others.
“Somehow,” notes Deborah Wye, a curator from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “limitations actually can be liberating. I see that with Jon: The limitation has somehow given him another kind of road in to making a painting that I wouldn’t have expected.”
But Gabe is having none of it. Off camera, we hear him again: “Everyone else is kind of afraid to say anything bad. No one’s gonna say anything, ’cept us.”
It’s really the moment that makes this beautiful film, because it’s the toughest, the most honest.
“Jon Imber’s Left Hand” is about more than the legacy of a painter. Instead — or so it seems at first — it’s about that painter’s decision to double down on art at a time when he could easily, and forgivably, have done the opposite.
The response, in all who looked on, was admiration, esteem, and even — perversely — a kind of envy. ALS is a cruel disease, one that no one (as Imber himself often said) would wish on anyone. But watching this film, many will find themselves thinking, as I did, Would that I could die so well — with such courage, energy, integrity, and good humor – and so thoroughly loved.
But of course the story of every death is layered. It looks one way from the outside. It looks different to insiders. And it looks different again — unimaginably so — to the one who is dying. Art and empathy can take us only so far.
As someone who has probably been giving honest, trustworthy feedback to both his painter parents for much of his life, Gabe, one imagines — wandering in from the Maine gloaming, faced with a camera crew, an ailing father, and yet another painting on the easel — had his own priorities. It is beautiful to see him hold onto them.
Kane does a fine job knitting together the achievements of Imber’s career with the exceptional bravery (from the outside, it looked heroic) of his final two years. He gets over Imber’s infectious passion for painting and his many insights with an urgency and elan that are a pleasure to watch. He gives everything its proper weight.
But in the end, I felt this was a film not about art but about love. Love, and a really remarkable family. At one point, Hoy worries aloud about Imber’s ability to cope when he can no longer paint. “Being a painter is who he is through and through,” she says.
But a minute earlier, Imber (already drifting unnervingly into the past tense) has shaken up the whole film’s narrative by offering the thought that “being a parent was more important than being a painter.”
“I’m gonna keep painting ’cause that’s what I do, it gives me pleasure,” he continues. “But I don’t necessarily think it’s what my life was all about. I’m a painter but I’m also a husband, a father and a friend, and my life like that has really felt very full, gratifying, and I don’t know if I need to paint to be who I am.”
And at this point, you might just about be ready to cry.
The film screens Saturday, 12:30 p.m., at the Somerville Theater. Tickets are available at www.iffboston.org. Other screenings are June 29 at the Strand Theatre in Rockland, Maine, and July 22 at the Stonington Opera House in Stonington, Maine.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.