Review of Thérèse Heliczer’s The Invisible Father
The Invisible Father (2020). 57min. Directed by Thérèse Heliczer. Featuring Thérèse Heliczer, Delphine Casper, Marisabina “Cookie” Russo.
Have you heard of Piero Heliczer?
If not, surely you’ve heard at least one of these names: Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground, Allen Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas. Creative powerhouses.
Heliczer was a friend and contemporary of all four, along with many other memorable creators of the 1960s and 1970s. The history books may kick Heliczer to the footnotes, but the art he left behind provides evidence of a vibrant, creative life and an impressive network of collaborators.
In an effort to learn more about a person that even filmmaker Thérèse Heliczer, Piero Heliczer’s daughter, had limited knowledge of, Heliczer dove into creating The Invisible Father, a documentary that chronicles her father’s life, work, and relationships. The film incorporates a rich mixture of interviews, photographs, found footage, and Heliczer’s own 8mm film work. As evidenced by its rich panoply of sources, the film serves as an excavation of a creative life that has been all but overshadowed.
Though Piero Heliczer’s story is largely hidden, The Invisible Father suggests it’s hidden in plain sight. Writer Johan Kugelberg describes Heliczer’s influence in the film, stating he “linked people and different disciplines,” thus igniting collaborations that churned out some of the 1960s most cutting-edge work. But Heliczer was not just a connector of people or an inspiring nexus point. He was a poet, filmmaker, and interdisciplinary artist in his own right.
The film opens with a montage of images featuring and/or created by Heliczer. Accompanying voiceover narration reveals itself to be a conversation between mother and daughter, filmmaker Heliczer and her daughter Delphine Casper. The daughter asks her mother, “Who is Piero Heliczer?” The filmmaker responds that she understands him to be a poet. When Delphine repeats the question, the filmmaker admits that when she met her father at age 19, he was drunk, disheveled, and incomprehensible, hardly the poetic genius of her mother’s stories.
From this point, Heliczer embarks on a journey to learn about her father through the vantage point of those who knew or worked with him. Interviews with family members, writers, and artists reveal a complicated person who possessed both an immense talent and a pained history.
A career that began as a child actor quickly took an unfortunate turn as World War II consumed Europe and Heliczer’s then-home, Italy. In archival footage, his mother, Sabina Heliczer, suggests a traumatic incident in Heliczer’s childhood, compounded by the war, may have laid the foundation for his struggles later in his life.
After the war, Sabina Heliczer explains that she took her children to America and prioritized their education. Her son Piero embraced his mother’s efforts, gaining entry into Harvard. While he didn’t complete his studies there, his network of friends at the college afforded him connections that would influence his entry into 1960s creative circles.
The documentary relays Heliczer’s highs and lows that included complicated interpersonal relationships, self-imposed homelessness, and mental health struggles. Footage from Heliczer’s later life in 1988 shows an affable, intelligent man, homeless and living outside a Manhattan bookstore. He even muses over the name of the bookstore, The Rare Book Room, “So rare they’re never there!” There’s no sign of struggle or unhappiness in these shots, which cut to footage of a barefoot, smiling Heliczer reading his own poetry in the store the same year. He’s in his element, be it reading aloud inside of the store, or setting up his elaborate book collection at his camp outside of it.
The juxtaposition of Heliczer living on the street with him reading poetry is a wonderful example of the two spaces Heliczer seems to occupy: the worlds of the visible and invisible. In one, he’s a brilliant poet whose deft writing commands the world’s attention. In another, he’s a character on the street. This dual life also plays out in his associations. He’s made films starring Warhol and Ginsberg, boosting their presence while staying behind the camera, remaining somewhat invisible himself. If there’s anything the documentary expounds upon, it’s that Heliczer was seemingly everywhere in the 1960s and ‘70s art scene, yet still hidden from view.
Heliczer’s investigation into her father’s life answers questions about both his poetic genius and his relative invisibility as part of a creative scene that birthed some of the most lauded poetry, art, and music of the 20th century. By the end of the film, it’s clear that perhaps his greatest contribution to the arts is a daughter who knew little of her complicated father while he was alive, but who continues to amplify his existence in the wake of his death.
Piero Heliczer may not be a household name, or even a prominent arthouse name, but his presence ripples through modern and contemporary art. Thérèse Heliczer’s touching documentary won’t let the world forget him.