Tag Archives: Outsider Art

CAPSULE: MR. JONES (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Karl Mueller

FEATURING: Jon Foster, Sarah Jones

PLOT: Deep in the woods, a documentary filmmaker stumbles on the residence of “Mr. Jones”, a legendary builder of scarecrows whose works are rumored to cause madness.

Still from Mr. Jones (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Mr. Jones isn’t nearly as bad as you might have heard. It took something of a pummeling because its last act is so weird that it confused and alienated many viewers. That said, although the movie may be worth a rental or Netflix stream for weird horror fans on a slow night, it’s not the kind of game-changer it would need to be to make the List of the Best Weird Movies of All Time.

COMMENTS: The filmmaker has stopped taking his meds and has “no idea what this movie is about in the first place.” That’s not a confession from the director’s statement to Mr. Jones; it refers to the nature-doc movie-within-the-movie that would-be auteur Scott has retired to the country to make. Scott and wife Penny decide to change the focus of their unfocused documentary in midstream when it appears they have stumbled upon the hideout of the celebrated reclusive scarecrow-maker (?!) known only as “Mr. Jones.” That setup covers the first half to two-thirds of Mr. Jones, with Scott and Penny’s descent into madness constituting the film’s final act.

As far as horror icons go, the shambling, hooded Mr. Jones doesn’t do much—oh, except for bring insanity in his wake. The movie’s early scenes are effective at creating unease and tension, from the unexpected appearance of a cloaked figure in the background of certain shots to a nerve-wracking moment when Scott gets lost while exploring a strange labyrinth underneath Mr. Jones’ shack. The final act, which traps the couple in what seems to be an eternal midnight filled with nightmares inside of nightmares, is where the movie tends to lose its audience.

Unlikely as it might seem for a guy who’s setting out to make a nature documentary, Scott films himself and his wife sleeping, and having sex. The “found” footage that composes Mr. Jones is also, at times, heavily edited, including addition of a voiceover and soundtrack song, along with one heavily manipulated travel montage. There are even moments (especially late) when the movie appears to shift viewpoints within a scene, or move from a first-person to a conventional third person point of view. The fact that the film we’re watching has clearly been through extensive post-production breaks the Blair Witch vérité spell. Many people point to the movie’s seemingly inconsistent use of the found-footage format as a flaw, and perhaps it is. Perhaps the perspective shifts are less arbitrary than they appear, however. The question, I suppose, is whether Mr. Jones‘ ramshackle construction is the result of sloppy craftsmanship, or a reflection of an unreliable, unstable narrator. Related question: if sloppy craftsmanship inadvertently conveys a psychotic state of mind that is appropriate to the subject matter, is that a bad thing, or a happy accident?

Mr. Jones got a raw deal with both audiences and critics. I think this is a result of difficult market positioning. The film is too thoughtful, ambitious and surreal—and too PG-13—for the average horror fan. At the same time, it’s not polished enough and too genre-y to make much headway in the arthouse press. In other words, it’s too smart to be a popular success, but not smart enough to be a critical hit.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“You can’t really dip into dream logic if you have nary a single eye-popping visual, and in doing so, Mueller completely wastes a unique, potentially durable concept…”–Gabe Toro, Indiewire (festival screening)

CAPSULE: IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL: THE MYSTERY OF HENRY DARGER (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Jessica Yu

FEATURING: Dakota Fanning, Larry Pine

PLOT: Documentary on Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago janitor who secretly wrote a slightly insane, 19,000 page fantasy novel about a child slave rebellion, illustrated by hundreds of incredibly detailed full size paintings.

Still from In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger (2004)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Outsider artist supreme, a devout Catholic with an innocently fetishistic obsession for little girls, Henry Darger is a persona every weirdophile should be acquainted with. The method behind this solid and respectful documentary isn’t itself weird enough to make this a candidate for the List, but if anyone ever attempts a literal adaptation of Darger’s opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, I suspect it will be a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: With one exception addressed below, In the Realms of the Unreal  uses only standard documentary tools to tell the tale of Henry Darger: interviews with people who knew him, readings from primary sources (his autobiography and his 15,000 page novel), still photographs of the places and people the poor janitor knew, and most significantly the man’s own paintings. The world Darger invented inside his head, a mixture of the Bible, the American Civil War, and children’s storybooks, populated by saintly little girl warriors in pigtails and frilly dresses bearing bayonets, is so inherently fascinating that the documentarian does best to get out of its way and let it speak for itself. The few facts that are known about the recluse’s life are given to us chronologically, followed by glimpses of events in the Realms that may have been inspired by his life experiences. Darger was orphaned at a young age. The bookish boy had trouble fitting in with his peers at the orphanage, and was sent to live at a “home for feeble-minded children,” where he was forced to labor on a work farm. After several failed escape attempts he was finally successful at fleeing the farm and made his way to Chicago where, after a short Stateside stint in the army in World War I, he settled into a lifelong routine of cleaning the floors at a Catholic hospital, attending Mass three times a day, and spending his evenings in his lonely room constructing the Realms of the Unreal. In this world, the evil Glandelinians (whose soldiers dress like Confederates wearing graduation caps) fight mighty battles against the Christian armies of Abbieannia. The conflict is sparked by a slave rebellion led by the seven Vivian girls, saintly children who occasionally exhibit magical powers throughout the epic war. The children are sometimes aided by winged Blengins, mythical creatures who can appear as dragons or butterflies with the face of children, or as children with rams’ horns. Darger himself appears in the story, summoned to help the Abbieannians due to his cosmic reputation as an enemy of all who hate and oppress children. Even more fascinating than the 15,000 page narrative supplemented by detailed lists of battle casualties, generals, and lyrics to the various military anthems were the hundreds of paintings Darger used to illustrate the Realms. Incredibly detailed landscapes full of odd folk beauty were  populated by angelic little girls whose faces had been traced or copied from newspaper advertisements. Disturbingly, the children are often naked, sometimes bound, and occasionally depicted as eviscerated or choked. Even more disturbing, and the weirdest aspect of Darger’s very weird opus, is the fact that he invariably drew his naked little girls with tiny penises. Theories for this odd conception of the female body range from the symbolic to the psychosexual to the commonly held notion that Darger was simply so sexually naïve that he had no knowledge of the anatomical differences between males and females. The apparently innocent, ambiguously erotic nature of these nude tableaux endow Darger’s work with a mysterious and intriguing artistic friction. When not working on his novel or paintings, Darger obsessed about the weather, carried on conversations with himself while speaking in different voices, tried to adopt a child, and wrote angry prose railing at God when the Church turned down his adoption petition. Henry Darger, the janitor from Chicago, was a very strange and sad man whose self-imposed loneliness, religious torment, and utopian longings found a secret outlet in art. Unspoiled by formal art training or by any sense of social shame, Darger created a hermetically sealed alternate universe, a world weird in the purest and noblest sense.

Although it is a conventional treatment overall, two criticisms have been levied against Jessica Yu’s documentary. One, often raised by film critics, is that the film fails to seek out experts in psychology and art history to help give us a deeper perspective on Darger. Of course,  only a critic would complain that a movie didn’t feature enough input from critics. The other, somewhat more serious objection, offered by Darger fans, is with Yu’s decision to crudely animate certain scenes from Darger’s action-oriented war paintings. In my view, the addition of occasional movement in the battle scenes (there’s probably only a minute or two of actual animation) does no real damage to the images, but nor does it add anything. One offended fan angrily asks whether we’d accept a documentary on Picasso or Gauguin that set their masterpieces in motion. Since that idea doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I may be the wrong person to ask.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Was this simple man sick or was he genius? Yu leaves that to the viewer to decide, and in the end, that’s alright. In Darger’s apartment, the surreal became real, and a testament to the life’s work of a simple man.”–Greg Wilson, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD. JR: THE NEW TESTAMENT

This is the second half of a two-part overview of the career of Ed Wood, Jr. You can read the first part here.

Before the terms Art Brut, Outsider Art, and Naïve Art were bandied about freely, Ed Wood, Jr. personified those concepts. Of course, Wood himself had to die first before being canonized as one of outsider art’s patron saints. Predictably, with that canonization came an institutional sheen of sorts, and Wood became the proverbial yardstick of “so bad it’s good” filmmaking.

Orgy Of The Dead (1965) was written by Wood and directed by Stephen C. Apostolof (AKA A.C. Stevens). This was Wood’s first of many collaborations with the soft-core porn director. Orgy stars TV-psychic Criswell in what has to be his biggest role. Our lounge lizard clairvoyant serves as a bloated and clearly inebriated host called “the Emperor.” He eccentrically delivers dialogue recycled from Night of the Ghouls (1959) straight off of cue cards: “Once human, now monsters! Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!” William Bates is horror writer Bob. Bob’s girlfriend, Shirley (Pat Barrington) just has to ask “Why Bob? Why those horror stories?” We’ll never forgive her for asking that after being made to suffer through Bob’s response: “My monsters have done well for me. You think I’d give that up so I could write about trees or dogs or daisies? That’s it! I will write about my creatures pushing up the daises!” Shirley plants a kiss on him. “Your puritan upbringing sure doesn’t hurt your art of kissing.” “My kisses are alive!” (she sure told him!) “Who’s to say my monsters aren’t alive?” Bob and Shirley are looking for an old cemetery so Bob can get inspired when, lo and behold… a car crash! “Aah!”

Still from Orgy of the Dead (1965)As our victims lie unconscious, in the very cemetery they were looking for, Criswell intones: “Time seems to stand still. Not so the ghouls!” Bob and Shirley wake up to the sound of music. But, no, Julie Andrews is not on hand and as Shirley perceptively says, “I can’t believe anything dead is playing that music.” On their way to find the source of the music, they spy a nubile lass doing a lethargic striptease. Bob can’t Continue reading THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO EDWARD D. WOOD. JR: THE NEW TESTAMENT

SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974)

“Everything needs an opposite. We have a White House, so now we need a Black House.”

“The problem with Harlem is too much sex, drugs and violence. If we took all the children of Harlem and made them memorize the names of the 99 Pharaohs then there wouldn’t be sex, drugs and violence in Harlem anymore.”

“The Saturnians told me to play the music of the black prophet, Duke Ellington, but the black man paid no attention so now I am playing the music of the white prophet, Walt Disney, and spreading the shield of his beauty over the face of the Earth so the Saturnians will not destroy us” (followed by a half hour jam of ‘Pink Elephants on parade’ which occasionally sounds like its source material).

Such is the wisdom and personality of the late free jazz artist Sun Ra (paraphrased quotes there, pulled from memory) who apparently (and delightfully) really believed in his own voluptuous excess and gibberish (enough to establish a Space Age monastic communal order among his followers; the Intergalactic Arkestra, and, posthumously, a church named after him). Claiming to be a Saturnian, Sun Ra would appear on stage, dressed in goodwill Pharaoh garb, with the planets of the solar system revolving around his head.

Still from Space Is the Place (1974)In 1974 Sun Ra made his only film, Space is the Place, directed by John Coney, who also never made another movie. It is an odd artifact, a hybrid of science fiction, blaxploitation and (too little) avant-garde jazz.

In the film, as in life, Sun Ra is the quintessential outsider and space is a metaphorical Eden for this much put upon black man. The plot is threadbare, involving villainous pimps and dealers, Black Panther avenger protagonists, local nightclubs, pool halls, cat houses, and, of course, an Outer Space Continue reading SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974)

KING OF PLUTO (2004)

Sheila Franklin’s 2004 documentary, The King of Pluto (2004) focuses on the art of Michigan politico Mike Wrathell. From the outset, it is immediately apparent that Wrathell is a genuine oddball.  I say the film is about Wrathell’s art because it is not really about his life at all.  He and Franklin do not delve into the why of his art, what drives him, or where he came from and that’s just fine because this approach renders the film as quirky, vague, and enigmatic as Wrathell’s art.

Poster for The King of PlutoWrathell considers himself a Warhol-inspired dadaist who is obsessed with the planet Pluto.  He recollects that when he met president George W. Bush, he asked Bush to support a mission to Pluto.  Bush replied  “I’m going to send you to Pluto!”  Wrathell (in 2004) predicts the mission to Pluto will be a reality by 2006.

Wrathell’s art can be seen on film can be purchased there as well.  Wrathell’s silk-screen art, not surprisingly, often deals with Pluto, but he also covers celebrities, such as Maurren O’ Sullivan, John Travolta’s “Pluto Night Fever,” Ted Koppell as an Orwellian Micky Mouse, and Gilligan (as a Plutonian).  Wrathell also covers events and topics such as 911, images of Saturn, Venus, Neptunians, Blue Dracula, and why he prefers Martha Stewart to Barbara Walters.

Wrathell is a Republican and has run for various offices, unsuccessfully.  He tells us about buying a CIA baseball cap while he was in New York City near ground zero.  He buys it so potential terrorists will think he is CIA.  Or, they will think he is not CIA since an agent would not wear a cap reading “CIA”; or, a CIA man might buy a cap reading CIA to make us think he is not with the CIA, when in actuality he is.  Who knows?  But, on reflection Wrathell admits the cap was worth five bucks.

Still from King of Pluto (2004)He takes us to Burger King where he describes the perfect Whopper as having two tomatoes, or three, if you order extra tomato, which is what he orders.  Wrathell sits down with his Whopper and explains that it should have three tomatoes.  When he unwraps his sandwich, he discovers it to be a Chicken Whopper.  He returns the sandwich and hums, masking his displeasure, as they make him a new Whopper.  They do it right this time and the world is good again.

Back to the art.  Wrathell shows us watercolors on postcards and on lined notebook paper.  He has started a movement, he says.  It is the Ultra-Renaissance art movement, of which he is the sole member.

In the end, I am not sure who Mike Wrathell really is, but then I don’t know much about Pluto either, other than that the idea of it seems pretty cool, and that is good enough.  In the end, I would say Wrathell flies the freak flag high.  He is the kind of artist to sit down and have a couple of beers with, let him talk as you drink, and the more you drink, the better and better his talk sounds.  That is a recommendation.