Dear Mr. Watterson (2013)
Directed by: Joel Allen Schroeder
Starring: Berkeley Breathed, Jef Mallett, Stephan Pastis
I guess it’s time for me to reveal that I’m a huge nerd. No wait, I’m not done yet: I’m a huge nerd who reads a lot of comic strips and who is very interested in the history and world of comic strips. Okay, now you can reel back in shock, clutching your heart, telling ‘Lizbeth that you’re comin’. Was growing up reading Calvin & Hobbes a big part of this? I dunno, maybe. It’s certainly an amazing comic strip, and one of the few that genuinely qualifies as art. So when I saw a documentary about it on Netflix, I just couldn’t resist, even knowing how much damage it might do to my image as a super-cool bad boy on a motorcycle wearing a jean jacket and smoking a corncob pipe or whatever it is you kids think is cool nowadays. I’m cool.
Dear Mr. Watterson is a documentary where the filmmaker explores the affect Calvin & Hobbes had on his childhood and on the newspaper comic industry. He talks to a bunch of contemporary comic authors and artists about Bill Watterson and his work and visits the town that could have conceivably been the inspiration for the strip. However, since Watterson himself has been living in seclusion since the strip ended in 1995 and he also didn’t show up for this documentary, it’s pretty light on information and just kinda wanders around in search of content. It didn’t really have a set goal in mind, but I think the eventual end message of the film is that Watterson was constrained by his publishers and fellow artists, made very few changes which only affected his own work, and after he left things went back to the way they were before, if not worse. Uplifting.
The biggest failing of this documentary is not the lack of information, that was pretty much going to happen no matter what, given the source material. The problem is that it’s so unfocused and spends way too much time about the filmmaker’s own personal experiences than I personally think is appropriate for a documentary. If it was about something that really affected this guy’s life in a major way, I could understand… I guess. Basically he’s just saying, “I liked Calvin & Hobbes when I was a kid, so I made a movie about me liking it.” I appreciate the sentiment, but the movie could’ve really benefited from a more in-depth look into the reclusive artist’s work.
Degenerate Art (2012)
Directed by: M. Slinger
My mom’s been interested in glass blowing ever since I can remember. Of course, every time she made me sit and watch some guy make a piece, I was a little kid and the person was just making some cutesy little snowman or some shit like that, and I could not possibly have been more interested. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I never really thought of a glass pipe as being anything other than a tool, and definitely not an art form of any sort. Well, I was wrong.
Degenerate Art is a documentary about the underground world of glass pipe-making. Sure, the things are used for smoking weed, but drugs have nothing to do with it. It’s a movement of young men and women taking a new medium and finding out what they can do with it, and that’s just awesome. I could talk all day about how cool it is that people are still finding new ways to create art. I only with this doc had done the same.
Basically what it comes down to is that this is just a poorly-made documentary, and it’s a damn shame. It was definitely able to pique my curiosity about the art form, but it completely failed to answer every single question I had about it. For instance, it seems like an obvious step to start your documentary about glass blowing by telling your audience even the vaguest idea of how glass blowing works before launching into the self-congratulating fellatio of the artists involved, but nope. The director was clearly involved in the movement, and does a very bad job at explaining any background to people who don’t know anything about it. And I really WANTED to know more about it. I understand that it’s a little tricky, just because these people ARE making drug paraphinalia and it’s kinda sorta illegal-ish? But it just feels like if you made a documentary about programming in the 60’s and you completely failed to mention what a computer is or does. I really wanted to like this movie more than I did, which is the most disappointing feeling to have coming out of a documentary. Maybe in a couple years after weed is legalized we can get a real filmmaker to take a crack at the subject material.
Global Metal (2008)
Directed by: Sam Dunn, Scott McFadyen
Starring: Tom Araya, Ken Ayugai, Rafael Bittencourt
This is the sequel to the documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, which is also good. Whereas the first one is just about the culture that surrounds the metal genre of music, Global Metal is about metal in countries outside of North America and Europe, and it’s pretty damn interesting. Turns out that metalheads are pretty much the same no matter where you go.
Sam Dunn, metalhead and anthropologist, travels the world to other areas outside North America and Europe where metal is popular, like Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, and the middle east. This isn’t some boastful metal journal about how awesome it is that it’s converting the whole world under its banner, though. Instead, the film focuses on how metal affects these people in their different places, most of which are impoverished or oppressed, and metal allows them a way to vent. He also looks at how the local metal bands have altered the genre, making it more their own.
I actually really liked this documentary. He had already covered the mainstream metal community in his first film, leaving him open to explore all these different facets in this movie, and it’s super interesting. It basically comes down to a very simple idea that it’s just a good kind of music for people who feel angry and rebellious, no matter if it’s because you are a 30 year old pizza delivery driver still living at home or a person literally barely scraping by in a dictatorship somewhere where there are volcanoes and hurricanes constantly trying to kill you. Which is pretty metal itself. I highly recommend this film, and if you’re not very familiar with the mainstream metal culture, the first one as well.
Technopolis Now! (2012)
Directed by: James Shaughnessy
Starring: Leonard Kleinrock
I’m not normally interested in “futurist” documentaries, usually because they get caught up their own asses about the specific topic they’re pushing and how it’s definitely totally going to happen and anyone who doesn’t agree is an idiot. Technopolis Now! is not like that. It just presents a number of concepts and has some experts (and some other people who got popular because of the internet) talk about them.
Technopolis starts out talking about the formation of the internet, and goes from there to talk about how this massive invention has started to change humanity from a social and anthropological standpoint. They dip a little into some futurist theories like the singularity, but mostly it’s a very interesting view on the state of modern humanity.
It’s a documentary that’s well put-together, concise, and it actually makes you think about the subject matter. That’s pretty much what all documentaries should aim for, in my opinion.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009)
Directed by: Jessica Oreck
I’ll be honest, I watched this movie because I thought it would be some sort of Godzilla-esque monster movie, based on the title. I’m pretty sure that was the whole idea, and it worked beautifully. Once I realized that it was actually a documentary about Japan’s fascination with insects and beetles in particular, my hopes got raised again! That actually sounds kinda interesting!
So it turns out that the Japanese are just ga-ga over beetles and they’re one of the most popular pets over there. That’s… about as much information as I got out of it.
I don’t know how much you can blame cultural differences for how confusingly this documentary was put together, since I think some American lady was behind the whole thing, but it was definitely hard to follow. It felt like the film had ADD, constantly jumping from one subject to another with no rhyme or reason, leaving none of the talking points all that well developed. So basically I got disappointed twice. I guess it was cool to learn that they keep bugs like pets over in Japan the way we keep fish. Differences in cultures are pretty neato.