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The birth of an idea

A visually delicious show delves into the creative process

An image from Abstract: The Art Of Design
An image from Abstract: The Art Of Design

In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here’s what to point it at

What you deserve to watch:

“Love hides in the strangest places," sang Jim Morrison in the Doors song Love Hides, and all the examples he gives for places where love can hide — “in familiar faces", “in narrow corners", “in molecular structures" — apply as perfectly to art as well. Art is everywhere, hard to define, and, more often than not, affecting us in overwhelming and unexpected fashion. A framed painting on a museum wall is art, as is the base of your iPhone where the glass kisses the aluminium.

Abstract: The Art Of Design, an eight-episode documentary series on Netflix focussing on artists and their creative process, chooses its creators loosely and inclusively. The show’s subjects range from an architect to a graphic designer, from a photographer to a set-designer, from an illustrator to the man responsible for Marty McFly’s sneakers that lace themselves. It is a fascinating peek into the creative process, into the discipline it requires to identify actual inspiration and to then seize on it.

Where does an idea come from? Dashed if any of the creators actually know, but documentarian Morgan Neville brings us intimately close enough to his subjects for us to nearly hear the wheels turning in their heads, to see the lightbulb gradually come alive.

The show is visually gorgeous, with imaginative cinematography and flow that, from episode to episode, differs dramatically in order to most appropriately capture its subject. The first episode, for example, about illustrator Christoph Neimann — the man behind some of the coolest New Yorker covers — tells its story tentatively, breaking the fourth-wall a few times, cutting off the narrative with short visual gags, and basically doodling around the margins a fair bit. The second, about iconic sneaker maestro Tinker Hatfield — who made the first Air Jordans and the Back To The Future shoes — is packaged in vividly bright colour, with a funky, nearly staccato edit pattern and hot slow-motion shots, sexy and slick to its sole.

I was turned onto Abstract by an illustrator friend, but as soon as I watched the first episode I felt the need to reach out to a screenwriter buddy and urge him to give it a whirl. The creative process is a beautiful but bewildering one, and, as the show explains, an inherently lonely one. Which is why we need all the help we can get in realising that our madnesses, occasionally, have methods.

Documentary of the week:

We’re a few days away from the 89th annual Academy Awards, and while the Moonlight vs La La Land vs Hell Or High Water debate rages on, it’s time to catch up with one of the most revelatory and powerful nominees. Ava DuVernay’s brilliant 13th is streaming on Netflix and I recommend you swiftly move it to the front of your watchlist. Named after the thirteenth amendment of the United States — the one prohibiting slavery “unless as punishment for a crime" — the documentary reasonably but relentlessly breaks down the way black Americans were criminalized en masse.

It is an astonishing film, both scathing and level-headed. It systematically makes its case through fact and analysis — analysis of this calibre is itself a thing of beauty — and the details make DuVernay’s narrative impossible to ignore. She is a striking filmmaker, and, if you are left moved by the film, look to Netflix again for 13th: A Conversation, where the director sits across from Oprah Winfrey and explains her motivations and filmmaking decisions. The way she uses montage in this film, for example.

To my mind, few — if any — historical documentaries have been as compelling, and DuVernay’s film, which forces the viewer to confront America’s not-so-secret shame, is one that can, and should, leave you shaken. It may not be the frontrunner at the Oscars, but 13th may well be the most essential film to come out of 2016.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on and fortnightly in print.

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