22 Sept 2021
Pete Rix, Anna Rix, Eva Rix
Shape, Refine follows Pete Rix, a carpenter who specialises in rocking horses. In interviews and candid footage, we learn about his childhood passion for woodworking, his decision to leave a digital design career, and the amount of work that goes into each rocking horse. The director, Dean Harris, is a friend of Rix’s, and as such has a personal connection to the subject.
At 12 minutes, the documentary is so short that we only skim the surface of Pete as a person, his family life, and the career itself. Based on the information that we do get, though, it seems perhaps that the story may be quite a shallow one; there is no suggestion that Pete struggled at all to make the decision to switch from digital to analogue, as it were, and despite some mentions of the work being time-consuming (he states that it took him a year, working three hours per week, to carve a lime likeness of his dog’s head), he has only a positive outlook. He remembers fondly a gift of a pond yacht from his grandfather, and making balsa wood models as a child. More recently, he recalls the first purchase of an old rocking horse, the shock that it was in much poorer condition that he’d assumed, but how he relished the challenge anyway. Simply put, there is no conflict here, nothing more complex to which the audience can connect.
This trend continues in the direction. The candid footage in the workshop either focuses on the tools and the horses emerging from the wood, or close-ups of Rix’s face in concentration. Other than some footage of Rix with his wife, Anna (who barely gets a mention, but works with Pete in the workshop), and daughter, Eva, the rest of the documentary is made up of interviews with Rix, who appears relaxed if rehearsed. There are no really interesting decisions made in the direction of the film, and the same goes for the score, which is comprised of short, forgettable pieces.
There is an interesting moment where Rix states that part of the reason he loves rocking horses is that they help children to be imaginative. He criticises technology, stating that children need other ways to play creatively. He is openly in awe of his daughter’s imagination, but for some reason attributes her creativity to the rocking horse, not to the fact that children are, given half a chance, much more imaginative than adults, and certainly much smarter than even their parents may think. Without such a beautiful toy, Eva would still find a way to be imaginative. There is a sense that Rix believes he is doing something right and just, but he seems quite detached – he talks philosophically about “the child” as though he has forgotten that he, too, was a child once – and while singing rocking horses' praises, he neglects to mention that they are far too expensive for many children to enjoy.
It is hard to judge Shape, Refine. On the one hand, it is lacking in depth and imaginative direction, while on the other, it is clearly a passion project, produced by one friend about (and for) another. As such it feels almost unfair to criticise it harshly, when at the end of the day, it is a personal film, and hopefully will serve as a positive memory for Rix and his family for years to come. However, Harris has shared the film widely – it does not exist solely for the Rix family – and it is unfortunately a very shallow, unimaginative piece that borders at times on pretentious.