By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The story (as told by Rick Orr himself) goes that, while Orr was scrounging around, trying to make a living picking in a post-eBay world, he was approached by a couple of college kids who wanted to make a movie about his life. Orr declined, but the film students kept after him until he finally relented. On one condition: He'd do all the filming himself. The young men agreed and, a few months later, Orr returned their camera and the several "rolls of film" from which Picking for Picasso was culled.
The direct-to-DVD film, in which Orr is the only person seen, is riveting in a serene, sluggish way. Orr chats amiably about picking while driving around town in search of treasure. He looks straight into the camera that's wedged onto the dashboard of his van and reminisces about his glory days: the time he found a stack of rare Helmut Newton photos; the 350-year-old Francesco Ruschi painting he bought from a slum in Glendale and sold for six figures to a museum in Italy. We watch him broker a deal for a small, unimportant painting, purchase a William Saltzman canvas at an auction, drive past his recently foreclosed house in Scottsdale. ("I came home last week, and they'd changed the locks," he tells the camera. "There was a note on the door from the sheriff telling me not to go in.") There are lots of shots of Arizona desert rolling past his van window; stark footage of jumbled junk shop interiors; an endless parade of Orr's many head rags.
"If this movie sucks you in," says Steve Stoops, owner of Stevens Fine Art in Phoenix, "it's because Rick's depression is so contagious." Stoops, who's known Orr for 15 years, recently showed the movie to houseguests who have no interest in art or antiques. "And they were spellbound, because it's a movie about a world most people don't even know exists. It's a captivating story."
It's also a vaguely disingenuous one. The one-sided phone conversations—a testy one with a client who owes Orr money; an emotional one with his daughter, who's too busy to see him—seem staged and stilted, and some of the speeches about waiting for that big find seem rehearsed. The film commences with Orr telling the story of that first Picasso and ends with him, on his way to check out a storage unit full of junk, running out of gas. He walks the rest of the way to the appointment, and the film wraps up with a montage of newspaper headlines (e.g., "Man Finds Lost Picasso for the Second Time") suggesting that, among the pots and pans and other ephemera in that storage unit, Orr discovered—and bought—"Three Wise Men," the very same Picasso painting that breathed life into his career.
But a little quick digging on the Internet (that 21st-century scourge of the picker) turns up absolutely no evidence of such a news story, a story that would certainly have merited a column inch or two. And, of course, there's the obvious question: If Orr actually did again find and resell "Three Wise Men," why is he presently living in a mobile-home park?
Orr caves in immediately when asked about the veracity of his biopic. "I never meant for the movie to be taken as completely autobiographical," he says. "That's why I never say my name in the film. It's more a movie about a guy very much like me, but with a more hopeful ending to his story."
OK. What about the college kids who made the film? "That part's made up too," Orr confesses. "I shot it with my own camera, and I hired a guy off Craigslist to edit it for me."
All this truth-bending might make one wonder just exactly how much of Rick Orr's life story is invented, if it weren't that he's so forthright about being a loser.
"Why the hell would anyone make up a story about a guy who's spent his life doing nothing but driving around," he asks, "pawing through other people's junk?"
Rick Orr has been driving around pawing through other people's junk all day long. All he's come up with today is a pair of small seascapes by the German painter Otto Nautschmann, for which he paid $35 at a yard sale. "I'll probably get $100 for them," he says. "It's not big money, but it's something. It keeps me motivated, keeps me hopeful that there's still something left out there."
Orr makes one last stop at a downtown thrift. The owner greets him at the door with a hug. While they chat, Orr circles the store, touching canvases as if the texture of their dried paint can tell him about their value. His phone rings, and he excuses himself to talk to a client.
The client is calling to say she has cancer. She's recently purchased a piece of Paolo Venini glass for $12,000 and is trying to sell it to help pay her medical bills. She'll take $6,000 for the piece, which is among her favorites. Orr tells her he's sorry. He calls her "hon." He says that not only is her piece of glass only worth a couple grand in today's market, but he thinks she should sell it for whatever she can get. Her health, he reminds her, is more important than Italian glass.