Stripped

stripped

In a recent review, I discussed the film Dear Mr. Waterson. It was an overly sentimental look at one of our time’s most beloved comic strips Calvin and Hobbes. That film scratched the surface on the politics and cultural ecology surrounding the specific strip, allowing a number of people to relive their favorite iterations of the comic strip. In essence, it was one big “we love Calvin and Hobbes” tribute. While it was entertaining and nostalgic, it was a shame the movie didn’t delve deeper into the creative process and business model of the comic industry. At it’s best Dear Mr. Waterson was a fun little trip down memory lane; at it’s worst the film was a self serving parade for the director to talk about how he’s their biggest fan. The title of that film centered around an unresponded letter to the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson. In Stripped we get all the missing elements, as well as hear, for the first time for most of us, Bill Watterson as he talks about the industry that made his creations pop culture icons.

 

Stripped is a documentary film that sets it’s lense squarely on the comic strip industry refuses to look at anything else. Directors David Kellett and Frederick Schroeder allow the giants of the comic strip world drive the narrative. Their examination is vast, touching on everything from the creative process to licensing of merchandise. The vast differences in philosophy between comic creators is staggering considering all their creations resided on the same page of a newspaper together. The crux of the movie is the divide amongst the newspaper comic creators and those thriving in the digital age. The real joy is simply in listening to people that are absolute giants of the industry discussing their work. Jim Davis (Creator of Garfield) and Bill Watterson were two of my highlights, but there are many, many more that offer their insights and experiences into the art and business model of the fantastic medium.

 

Very early on there is an obvious divide between the older generation of artists and the newer. Having little knowledge of the inner workings, it’s absolutely fascinating to watch the two sides discuss why their particular business model is the best. We have artists vouching for syndication on one side, the idea that you sell your strip to a syndication and they sell it to individual newspapers. Then on the other side are the digital age artists that pay to host their own websites and sell their own merchandise swearing by their method. Despite differences all the creators featured in this film share a passion for their medium. They love it almost as a parent would love a child. They’re angry with it at times, tired of it. But it is what defines them, and the act of putting words and pictures together fuels them in a way that allows for a perfectly paced documentary film.

Stripped would be a fun watch for anyone, even more so for someone that grew up loving the funny pages. Among the interviews is the first ever recorded interview with Bill Watterson, which is itself worth the run-time of the film. The pacing is perfect with a score that is neither distracting nor boring. Ideas and ideologies are bounced off the viewers all while the evolution and history of a beloved medium draws itself onto the screen. It is not, however a story with an end. Comics, despite what some might say, are not dying. This is a time of transitioning and change. A time of uncertainty, but one of hope. This is the message of Stripped. A message that may or may not be true, but one that immensely interesting to hear.

 

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Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

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While recently discussing emotionally devastating movies to watch (I know, right?), a number of titles got tossed around, but I finally settled on a documentary feature on Netflix entitled Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. It turned out to be one of the most emotionally taxing films I have ever seen. I was told to watch the movie without looking at any synopsis for the film, and I didn’t. I went into it blind and would strongly encourage anyone else that wants to watch it to do so as well. That being said, stop reading this right now and go watch it. Once your eyes have dried come back here and we can discuss it further. If you prefer, you can just keep reading, as I anticipate some of you will do. I won’t give away much in the rest of my review, so if you decide to keep reading I won’t blame you.

 

The movie is about Dr. Andrew Bagby. Bagby was a man that was loved by just about everyone that he that had the pleasure to know him, he was kind, witty and smart. The film seeks to memorialize him by talking with everyone that he knew. The filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne, was one of Bagby’s best friends growing up. That’s why, when the news of Andrew’s untimely murder reaches him, he sets out to preserve his friend’s memory. Yes, Andrew Bagby was murdered. While the initial intent of the film was to record numerous people talking about who Bagby was to them, it turns into a fascinating and absolutely heart wrenching look into the faults that face the legal system. As the film progresses, details about the incident that left Bagby dead. Slowly Andre’s parents become the focal point as Andrew’s former girlfriend and accused murderer comes forward with the news that she is carrying Andrew’s child. Andrew’s parents then proceed a long legal battle for custody of their grandson.

 

The pure emotional energy is overwhelming. Those interviewed for the film express a great deal of joy in reminiscing about Andrew Bagby, and then instantly crumble into to tears. The movie is a case study on injustice, and pain and hatred and anger and loss and devastation, so much so that the weight of it is shared with the viewer. I normally am turned off from films with a political agenda, whether I agree with it or not. But I have to recommend this movie based solely for it’s genuine emotional value. Very few movies have had the effect that Dear Zachary had on me. It highlights both the evil in the world as well as the hope. When people grieve they find the darkest parts of themselves seeping out, and this film is all about grief in the most horrendous of circumstances. It is, however about hope and determination. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but one I would recommend.

 

“Dear Mr. Watterson” is a letter with no reply

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Art is a universal concept for expressing an innumerable amount of ideas. The mediums by which art is expressed are as far ranging as the imagination. Some are held in high esteem and others are only considered art by those that practice their particular medium. There is one form of art, that is cheap, inexpensive and loved by millions. Cartoons, referring to drawn comic strips that use a limited number of panels or space to connect a string of thoughts or a singular idea using a mixture of still images and text, has captured the attention of the world throughout generations. Bill Watterson gave us one of the best comic strips of all time with Calvin and Hobbes. The strip, for the two of you that aren’t familiar with it, follows the adventures of an overly imaginative six year old named Calvin and his pet Tiger named Hobbes. They embark on philosophical and imagination fueled treks across universes while rarely leaving their neighborhood. In the film Dear Mr. Watterson new filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder uses interviews and nostalgia to fuel his own adventure; one that seeks to summarize the emotions surrounding this iconic comic.

Funded on Kickstarter Dear Mr. Watterson is a documentary in which Joel Allen Schroeder interviews Comic strip artists, fans and historians. He respects Bill Watterson’s thirst for privacy by not attempting to interview him, but digs into the mania surrounding Calvin and Hobbes. The documentary is served up in a number of segments ranging from topics about licensing and copywrite all the way to the decaying nature of the newspaper comic page. Mr. Watterson’s reclusive nature is absolutely evident throughout the film, and is noted by almost everyone that is interviewed. We’re introduced to a person with a rich philosophy on art and human nature, but he only speaks through his creation. We are served a tiny glimpse into a vast and interesting world, one that in some aspects is dying with the newspaper business and in others is striving in the digital age.

 

The movie itself is propelled primarily by a strong sense of nostalgia. Too much of the content was a nudge to audiences that sought to say “remember how good that one strip was?” when it could have been spent divulging further information on both the industry and the history surrounding comics and Calvin and Hobbes in general. It’s a phenomenal strip, to be certain, but we all know that and as fun as it is to see someone reminisce about cutting out sunday papers and tacking them to their wall, a documentary should be first and foremost informative, otherwise I would much rather simply discuss the comics with people that I know. That isn’t to say that the film completely squanders it’s opportunity; far from it. Though the transitions from segment to segment are largely self serving to Schroeder, he certainly includes some interview gems. In particular the ones that speak to the climate surrounding the comic industry shortly before Watterson retired.

 

While perhaps relying too heavily on nostalgia, Dear Mr. Watterson manages to take a beloved piece of art and puts it under a lens that allows us to view it more in depth than we might have otherwise done. Calvin and Hobbes is universally loved, and Schroeder does his best to let you know that he loves it just as much as the best of them. We’re given a rare glimpse into the mindset of cartoonists, and allowed to hear from those that worked right alongside one of the greatest comic artists of all time.

 

A little late for a scare, but here it is!: The American Scream

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Observing an individuals interaction with their hobby is one of the most transparent windows into the type of person they are. It doesn’t particularly matter what type of hobby they have, should you find yourself in a position to witness the process of someone laboring at something they love to do, you’re going to get to know them a little bit better. This could apply to anything from building model airplanes to playing in a city softball league. The principles remain the same. There are countless documentaries that follow enthusiastic hobbyists in their pursuit of perfection towards odd practices, but one that was recently recommended to me was especially interesting, and equally fun. It was an opportunity to watch varying levels of Do-It-Yourselfers in action slaving away at making haunted mazes for trick-or-treaters each year.

 

The American Scream follows three families as they prepare for Halloween. Each of these families has an annual tradition of setting up incredibly elaborate haunted mazes in their backyard and homes. The first family we see shows an obsessed father that works as a software engineer by day and spends the majority of his spare time designing props and scenes for the upcoming holiday. His family helps him and for the most part enjoys the hobby, but it’s not without it’s toll. Next we see a grown father son duo that are kind hearted, albeit slightly odd. Their approach to scaring is not nearly as professional as the first family, but they eagerly piece together props with instructions they’ve found on the internet. Finally we meet a man that, along with the help of his children, chooses quantity over quality for his maze, building props out of just about anything he can get his hands on. We observe these three families as the days count down to Halloween. We observe them as they interact with their passion, and it’s a blast.

 

The film itself is fairly generic for a documentary. Switching between interviews and fly-on -the-wall style shots, we get to both observe the creation of the mazes in action and hear the families discuss the emotional implications that these mazes represent. But the real fun comes towards the end of the film when the three mazes open up for one night. The entire neighborhood comes out to try the three mazes, and the creators reap the fruits of their labor by basking in the screams of their community.

 

The entire “haunting” culture is interesting. What is often viewed as weird on the surface can be linked to more “normal” human traits. The fascination can certainly come off as macabre, but it’s not without it’s charm, and that charm lies solely in the individuals that choose to put their strength and effort into a passion project like this. One thing that was brought up was the communal aspect of Halloween. Thanksgiving and Christmas are more family holidays, whereas Halloween is about the community. Behind the makeup and the blood lies a surprisingly warm tale of human kindness.

Best Worst Movie

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    Cult films are recognized as such for their fiercely devoted, but often times small, fanbase. While the majority of the population may be blissfully ignorant of a particular piece of film history, there is a small portion that recognizes the merits or find themselves amused at the folly of a particular movie so much that they elevate it to the status, in their collective minds, of a classic film. I watched a documentary this weekend that centered around the lives of the actors, and the filming of a cult film that I reviewed a little while back; Troll 2. Best Worst Movie not only does a fantastic job of explaining to you why Troll 2 is well worth your time to watch, but it presents a fascinating narrative following the lives of people that, 20 years after the fact, realize that they’ve developed relative stardom.

 

    Michael Stephenson directs this film in an attempt to bring to bring light to the fact that a phenomenon has been nurtured to the point that those involved in movie, do indeed have fans that loved their work, albeit for the wrong reasons. Stephenson played the young boy, Joshua, in Troll 2; in this movie he remains largely behind the camera. The real focus and voice piece of the documentary is George Hardy, a well known and loved dentist in Alabama. It is made clear within the first minutes of the movie that Hardy is loved by just about everyone he encounters, even his ex-wife has nothing bad to say about him. Hardy is absolutely blown away by the reception, that his little movie that he was so embarrassed about most of his life, receives at screenings for devout followers of the film. We follow most of the cast as they interact with their fan base and we watch George Hardy’s ego swell during the course of the film. It’s fun to see people who have forgotten (or have tried to forget) their acting “careers”suddenly get the stardom that they had hoped for. While it’s a blast to watch fans and actors react to one another, the humanity in the story reveals itself when the obscurity of the movie subjects George Hardy to particularly uncomfortable situations, including him sitting at a “Horror Convention” booth for almost the entire day with almost no visits.

 

    Michael Stephens attempts to reconnect the entire cast and crew for the premier that Troll 2 never had. In this quest we get a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people who took a crack at their dreams of making movies and had it not quite pan out. Some managed to have relatively successful careers, some found other paths to success and others continue to strive towards that goal. For all the hilarious nonsense that Troll 2 turned out to be, it garnished a surprisingly touching story for those involved. Best Worst Movie manages to accurately explain the phenomenon that is cult films, as well as present a surprisingly relatable documentary.

Vernon, Florida

 Vernon

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t afraid of Florida. It seems I can’t turn on my computer without reading strange news stories about a man dying in a cockroach eating contest or a sinkhole swallowing someone up in the middle of the night. I can not attempt to understand the level of strange things that seem to seep from the depths of that south-eastern State. Therefore, it stands to reason that one of the most fascinating and hilarious documentary films I’ve ever seen takes place and centers around the residents of a little town called Vernon, Florida. Unlike the last documentary I reviewed (or really any other documentary I’ve ever seen) this film has no real agenda, it doesn’t intend to show how people deal with a certain situation nor does it address a social issue. Instead of making some kind of political point, this film simply highlights a lifestyle that most people would consider odd.

Errol Morris delivers his second feature under some strange circumstances (seriously, everything about this movie is strange). Vernon, Florida was originally supposed to be titled Nub City in which he interviewed the inhabitants of Vernon discussing the town’s reputation for lobbing off their own limbs in order to make a living off of insurance. This had to be scrapped due to the fact that the people he interviewed threatened to murder him. Plan B was used and Vernon, Florida was born. Rather than focus on lost limbs, Morris simply allows the residents of the town talk about their lives and their hobbies. What emerges are some of the most bizarre conversations I have ever heard. The local worm farmer talks about his business and how if you want to get in to worm farming you might as well forget about what the library books say, because they’re almost all wrong. We hear a man who is more passionate about turkey hunting than anything else in the world. The pastor in the town delivers an entire sermon focusing on the worth “therefore”.

The format of the film is different from other documentaries in many ways, one of the most noticeable being the lack of narrative. While documentary films focus on real life, they almost always use something as a form of narration. In Vernon, Florida, we aren’t following one particular persons journey, we aren’t shown questions asked to interviewees, we don’t even hear any of the film crew. We literally sit there for almost an hour (it’s a very short movie) and watch the inhabitants talk. It’s an iffy move that wouldn’t work under most circumstances, however in this instance, the longer the people talk the more entertaining the film becomes.

Something that has become popular with reality shows is quick editing and sound effects. The editing deck allows the manipulation of circumstances to make people look favorable to the public or idiotic, all with just a few slices here and there. Almost all of what we see in “reality” TV is manipulated for the sake of ratings to the point where situations are so far from what really happened that the people in the shows wouldn’t recognize what’s happening on screen. Where modern reality shows mock the people involved, this documentary does not stoop to that level. We’re shown some of the most bizarre lifestyles and, honestly, some of the strangest individuals I’ve ever seen. And yet the filmmaker feels no need to mock them. This movie is hilarious, but it showcases a different lifestyle, one where the town is happy with their existence. The residents of Vernon freely give interviews and talk about their beliefs and their day to day life, for that Errol Morris delivers their story with long cuts and few edits to the public. It’s funny, but this movie is not there to humiliate the residents of Vernon, rather it’s there to give us a glimpse into a life that is hilariously different from our own, and most likely a whole lot simpler, which is something that almost anyone would want to have.

Monster Camp

The particular way in which an individual chooses to spend their free time reveals much more about their interests and who they are than any one conversation could. In Monster Camp a group of individuals is examined specifically because of the way they choose to use their free time. In our society their are certain norms. It is expected for people to be interested in sports or politics, or even video games. However, what is uncommon (for the large majority of the population) is the subject of this documentary. Live Action Role Playing, or L.A.R.Ping, is essentially playing a video game in real life. This requires real people with real jobs and lives of their own to dress up and learn over 200 pages of rules.

Monster Camp follows the process of a few different events, all within the “Nero” universe. Nero is the name of the game, just as one might sit down and play “Halo” or “Call of Duty” only in this instance the specific rules regarding the game must be closely adhered to. The movie is interesting, if for nothing else, but to see just how one would run something like this. Costumes, rules, characters, plot lines; all these things have to be carefully set up, leaving very few people to run the success of a much larger group of players. Having run small scale versions of what this movie portrays, seeing the scale of the world that they run is incredible. To do something like this, something that is universally seen as “nerdy” requires so much skill and imagination in order to organize the story lines and battles, while at the same time giving players free range to do anything they want within the scope of the game. This movie is just as much about the players and their relationship to each other, as it is about the game that they all love.

Stereotypes are a dime a dozen when it comes to nerd culture. The funny thing about stereotypes is that they typically stem from some truth. In watching this movie, you can see exactly where these generalizations stem from. Typically, the types of people that become intrigued with these games have fewer social skills and enjoy fantasy, fiction and video games. This is escapism at it’s highest form. A few of the players realize that it’s escapism and realize that they are indeed trapped in this game, the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred for them. While as a viewer it becomes comical at times, there are various instances where individuals explain to the camera just how damaging an addiction to gaming, or any other escapist function, can be. Then there are the ones who live for nothing but the game. While it’s comical and entertaining to watch, there is a real human drama that unfolds in this movie. These individuals, who fall in love with their games, are drawn together and form bonds of friendship, and occasionally love. The complexity of separating real life with their RPG characters becomes a subject that is discussed as well.

This film shows a class of people that have generally been mocked and ridiculed for their interests and lack of social abilities having fun in a way that is different than the norm. Just as there is levels of intensity in anything there is so in this game. As far as documentaries go, it’s short, sweet and surprisingly heart warming.