Some art is a scream, whereas other art is but a whisper. The Proposal is a scream buried inside a whisper, basically the kinkiest of all ASMR. Jill Magid’s documentary identifies huge questions inherent to artistic ownership and then just kinda points at them. She doesn’t try to actually answer those complex queries as much as she tries to put a literal ring around them. Whether or not her—let’s go with “unique”—solution to a somewhat profound problem seems icky, The Proposal stands as both a quietly fascinating visual pastiche and a reminder that the privilege of wealth also claims countless unseen philosophical victims.
Luis Barragán was a legendary and luminary Mexican architect who died in 1988. Don’t worry, being dead does not prevent him from making an actual present-day physical appearance during The Proposal. In 1994, the vast majority of his work and associated copyrights were sold to Rolf Fehlbaum, the head of a Swiss furniture company. No, not that Swiss furniture company; you can keep your Poäng chairs and Ektorp sofas (relatively) guilt-free.
Rumor has it that Fehlbaum bought Barragán’s estate as part of an engagement present to his wife Frederica Zanco. Trust, this history lesson will all come together in a minute. Magid, who is herself a renowned visual artist, is displeased by the fact that access to Barragán’s work is insanely gated. Zanco denies Magid’s request to visit Barragán’s archives, but the two continue a correspondence. This is entirely by Magid’s design. You see, she feels so passionately about freeing Barragán’s work and returning him to the people of Mexico that she comes up with a—let’s go with “beautifully grotesque”—exchange for Zanco to consider.
The very fact that The Proposal has a spoiler to avoid makes it more interesting than a wide swath of similar films. The resolution may be deeply, profoundly unsatisfying, but that’s not Magid’s fault. However, she is responsible for perhaps evading a few key questions related to her quest. Magid is an American who barters with a wealthy Swiss citizen ostensibly on behalf of Mexico. Assuming even the most noble of motivations, that’s still a pretty colonial solution to a pretty colonial problem, one that probably deserved a bit of response.
Although Magid never outright vilifies Zanco, her film does paint a pretty thin villainous mustache over her image. Zanco and Fehlbaum obviously chose not to participate, but they have said publicly stated that the engagement story is incorrect. That’s a pretty huge issue, considering Magid’s art piece and film both symbolically and literally hinge on that supposed catalyst.
All of this makes for a very intriguing, messy, soft, complicated film. As a visual artist, Magid’s documentary is little more than an extension of her exhibits, in the most positive sense. Not every good painting or poem need provoke a major reaction, or even an identifiably singular one. The Proposal is a brief contemplation, sparsely constructed and able to spark complex discussion. That’s a successful exhibition by any measure.
Grade = B+