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Virginia Lee Burton - A Sense of Place - documentary DVD / independently produced DVD review
Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating: 3 1/2 stars
Narrator: Lindsay Crouse
Director: Rawn Fulton   Distributor: Docurama
DVD release: 23 September 2008   Runtime: 87 min. (1 disc)
Format: Color, DVD-Video, NTSC
DVD Features: Audio tracks (English), Selected clips, Trailer, Filmmaker biography

The multi-talented Virginia Lee Burton is best remembered for her pioneering work as a children's picture book writer and illustrator. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel remains a steady seller for its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, since it was first published in 1939. She was first and foremost a graphic designer who, in her home of Folley Cove, Massachusetts, taught the locals how to design and block print fabric.

From a photographic point of view, Rawn Fulton's film Virginia Lee Burton - A Sense of Place is boring: for all Burton's geometries, the drama of angularity that plays throughout her illustrations in her books and the print designs that Folley Cove Designers still sells, the camera simply pans across pages and fabrics with plain-Jane horizontals and verticals, penetrating the material with slow zooms, the old in-and-out. It works, but it's dull.

It's Burton's work that is the excitement of the film, for the narration is pretty standard PBS profile stuff. Except to extol her virtues as an artist and teacher, the film doesn't probe her relationships with her husband or the women who gathered around her and ultimately formed the Folley Cove Designers.

There's no denying the power of Burton's images, though, and however plainly displayed they wet the aesthetic palate. Her exploded view of Mary Ann the steam shovel's anatomy is the center spread of a generation or more of children fascinated by the workings of machines. Burton's angles and curves - for Mary Ann always seems to be exploding herself across the page-embody a language of motion that is instantly narrative, captivating, delighting and emoting all at once. Her illustrations especially have Carl Sandberg's poetic muscle, epitomizing an age when explosions were cool and the anatomy of industry was sexy.

This film is a must for historians of ideas and will no doubt find resonance with anyone interested in the debt we owe Burton for the way picture books for children continue to be written and illustrated.

The DVD has about 30 minutes of selected extra scenes; the trailer; a filmmaker biography.
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reviewed by Brian Charles Clark
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