House of Stronzo
Directed by Matthew White | Review by Helen Wheels
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]atthew White’s “House of Stronzo” is a feature-length documentary that follows Pete Cecere, an eccentric collector as he locates permanent homes for his 5,000-piece folk art collection – including trinkets, figurines, paintings, carved animals, masks, and wall hangings. Cecere lives out in the middle of nowhere; in Virginia, 85 miles from Washington D.C. He loves the seclusion but doesn’t act like a recluse. Friends are always welcomed, says Cecere, and he makes sure the trip is worth it by feeding them well and giving them a comfortable place to sleep. The man has the gift of gab, and there’s no shortage of stories that he wants to share with the director.
Folk art, outsider art, or some other kind of whimsical collection fills every room in Cecere’s multi-level home. He says that his menagerie reached as many as 30,000 pieces at one point and in 1990 he auctioned off 18,000 of them. Cecere has a keen eye for what is historically important as well as what makes up an excellent representation of many different styles of folk art. His taste in traditional American, Mexican, and African American paintings and crafts resulted in numerous museum-worthy acquisitions throughout his life. Each piece is so much more than an object to Cecere, though, he considers them his children. As such, he feels an obligation to find them all good homes before he passes away. He has a special affinity for struggling artists that were driven to create despite whether their work sold.
White does an excellent job of capturing the excitement and passion Cecere feels about his treasures. In one scene, in addition to giving the man room to talk about his purchase, the director uses close-ups to highlight the excitement. He implements an intimate shot of the collector’s hands as Cecere carefully opens an envelope that contains a hand-painted necktie. We see the enormous collection as we hear him describe the art on the tie. The juxtaposition highlights the fact that there’s a fine line between collector and hoarder. White’s documentary does its job in illustrating how thin it can get.
Throughout the film, Cecere tells stories about various pieces in his collection. One that he’s particularly fond of, El Chapo, is a relief carving portrait of the Mexican leader of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel. Cecere is fascinated by the symbolism in the art. However, he’s aware that because of the nature of the person in the portrait it’s unlikely that any museum would be interested in becoming the caretaker of the work. It’s unfortunate, according to the collector because the portrait is a historical artifact. White interlaces interviews with a former U.S. Ambassador, Foreign Service Officers, museum curators, and Cecere’s daughter, who offer glimpses into the world of this interesting man. It’s obvious that Cecere is highly respected and somehow this elevates his considerable acquisitions from hoarding to ” a preeminent collector of folk and outsider art in North America.”
As Cecere explains his collection and unapologetically describes his obsession, we come to understand that part of his fascination are the stories behind the objects. He’s a natural philosopher; a curious observer. Cecere is a man who loves research and understanding the ideas behind the creations. White captures his subject at authentic moments to highlight his humor and punctuate his points. The director expertly weaves in B-roll to add visual elements to Cecere’s storytelling. He, like Cecere, builds a story and reveals each piece in a way that keeps the audience interested, waiting to see where the next turn will take us.
Ultimately White’s documentary is much more about the psychology behind the eccentric man who spent his life collecting folk art. You could say that Cecere is a hoarder and it wouldn’t be far from the truth. He makes comments like, “if you like cowboys why stop with one? Why not twenty, or thirty, or forty?” The thing is, we come to see through his stories why his collection is important. It’s not just one man getting carried away by his fascination with works of art. His need to collect all these things is a gift that he curated throughout a lifetime. Even his house itself is a work of art, with a mural painted by the architect’s wife.
“House of Stronzo” is Matthew White’s seventh film. It has won numerous awards including the Cult Critic’s award for best documentary and the Calcutta International Film Festival’s outstanding achievement award. You can find White’s documentary work featured on Amazon Prime, iTunes, PBS, the Documentary Channel, and internationally on the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel.
Find out more about the “House of Stronzo” by going to the official site.
Helen Wheels is an independent filmmaker, freelance writer, and visual artist. She has produced, directed, worked as a set designer and scenic painter, and has been an assistant director on dozens of films. Wheels graduated from Shoreline College with an AAAS in Digital Film Production and is continuing toward her MFA in New Media Communications. Known for her eye to detail and advanced research skills, Wheels is currently researching historical events for her latest script and is in the process of developing her online writing business.