REVIEW: Cavedigger [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 39 minutes | Release Date: 2013 (USA)
Director(s): Jeffrey Karoff

“I’m a digger of caves and a piler of rocks”

Sculptor Ra Paulette is an amazing artist. His philosophical manifesto for space and the metaphor of interior versus exterior is well-put and meticulously brought to life through malleable sandstone to create unimaginable beauty in a collision of Mother Nature and mankind’s mark as builder. I couldn’t help but remember my days as a freshman art student dealing with a project entitled “Containment” wherein we had to play with aesthetics and utility in order to embody the word. We had an allotment of wood and glue; Paulette has the entirety of New Mexico’s landscape. And while his gorgeously intricate caves become the result of his profession, it is the doing that truly becomes the most fruitful part of the exercise.

This is a good thing considering Jeffrey Karoff‘s documentary Cavedigger shows how few of Paulette’s projects actually saw completion. Whether the unwavering attitude of his benefactors believing they were in charge of a creative “team” or the dwindling funds from finished pieces estimated at two months taking over two years, much of what’s begun ends in disappointment. Ra isn’t one to dwell on these failures, however, since they are out of his control. Either God’s earth or the people letting him dig on their land give up—Paulette himself never quits until he’s locked out of the site and pushed off to the next magnum opus to spend his time. And time it takes, enough to prove to all those around him the real price of genius.

The short succeeds because it doesn’t try to get by solely as a biography about an eclectic artist and his magnificent work. Karoff attempts to dig deeper into motivations and consequences of what it means to create for oneself instead of financial gain. He interviews two owners who stopped production on commissioned caves—Christina Stevens and David Heath—to detail the aftermath of battling egos defeating artistic vision. And we meet friends Liz Riedel and Shel Nymark to witness the result of providing carte blanche to scrape away to his heart’s content. We see the stunning religious experience completion conjures against the roughly rushed tombs of potential courtesy of unwillingness to let him create. Don’t get me wrong, Stevens and especially Heath have caves worthy of tourist traffic, but Riedel’s allows us to understand their missions were unfulfilled.

Paulette is an artist and the way he handles himself proves such because he’s conscious his art comes at the detriment of human relationships. His wife Paula Seaton is a saint to stand by and support them financially while he’s off in with his shovel and wheelbarrow because we know Ra would pick the work over her any day. But it’s hard to deny this self-taught dropout sculpting caves for twenty-five years that ability because he’s using nature’s canvas like no one else today. The film is a bit schizophrenic in its want to rally around him one second before letting us see him as a self-serving bully and brat, but I applaud Karoff for putting both onscreen since every great artist possesses this duality. Ultimately his artwork’s legacy will say whether it was worth it and looking at these caves I’d say it was.

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