"I'm Vincent Scully. I teach at Yale."
With that excusable bit of false modesty, Scully, Sterling Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, legendary lecturer, prolific author and critic, leads us through the doors of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and into the first hour of a two-part television production, "New World Visions," premiering tonight at 10 (WETA-26).
Despite failings, the most obvious of which is a certain superficiality from packing nearly two and three quarter centuries of American culture (1650-1914, at least a semester's worth of work) into two hours, the film has two principal redeeming attractions.
The first is Scully himself, his demeanor like his professorial tweeds somehow neatly rumpled, his brow just slightly furrowed as he coaxes us with contained gesture and cadenced (if occasionally inaudible) voice to follow where his mind leads -- which usually is to a place very interesting indeed, and sometimes quite surprising, and only infrequently incomprehensible.
The second is the attention the camera is able to devote to the objects with which Scully weaves his story. Although the film is intended as the "first of a continuing series of special programs about the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Scully and producer-director Lorna Pegram (who also gave us "The Shock of the New" series with Robert Hughes) make sure that we leave the confines of the Met to visit famous cities, sites, paintings and sculptures essential to the plot. Wherever the objects are, the camera feasts its eye and ours upon them -- the sinuous lines of a Queen Anne silver pitcher, the intransigent head of the Confederate officer in Winslow Homer's "Prisoners From the Front" -- a distinct advantage over the darkened lecture hall.
The first segment is the more compact and comprehensive of the two -- understandably, in that these same adjectives might fairly be applied to American culture in the colonial, immediately postcolonial and preindustrial years with which it deals. In the second segment (airing at 10 p.m. Friday, April 12) one feels the press of time and space as Scully tries against the odds to fit it all in -- the Civil War, nationalism, westward expansion, scientific advances, industrialization, urbanization, immigration.
Inevitably he cuts corners and, curiously, Scully's abiding scholarly pursuit, American architecture, gets relatively short shrift. Sometimes the producers seem overly concerned that the program is turning into too much of a lecture, so they insert some visual fluff (many, many seconds of rolling ocean waves to go with Winslow Homer). Sometimes Scully simply leaves us dangling, for instance when he compares the skeletal frame of the full-standing figure in Thomas Eakins' affecting portrait of his brother in law (Louis H. Kenton) to those of Louis Sullivan's contemporaneous skyscrapers.
Ah, but Scully exudes the intensity and confidence that, had he only the time, he could tie this choppy history together, and when he concentrates his attention and affection upon this or that object, be it a humble product for the home or a painted masterpiece or a great public ensemble (including, it should be mentioned, a passionate tribute to the Mall, from Henry Merwin Shrady's Grant to Daniel Chester French's Lincoln), the flow of his witty, provocative, insightful intelligence can hardly be stopped.
Scully on Eakins' portrait of his wife: "We know that she was young when he painted her, but as he painted her, he progressively aged her, and he made her thinner and thinner until finally she looked very ill, and her eyes are dark and deeply shadowed, and her hand rests on her knee as if it were an old woman's hand, all corded and powerless, and down below her weightless figure is Harry their dog , all red and warm with an animal presence . . . What he is painting is most of all his fears, and the reality of the human condition, and it seems to me that he's the greatest painter of human loneliness and human mortality that America has ever produced."
The camera lovingly follows Scully's rich vein of thought on this and many another American icon, and one can become, during these hours, a student spellbound by the master's voice. Scully is a very, very good teacher.