Directed by Steven-Charles Jaffe. 85 minutes.
As Randy Newman sings in his infectious end titles song, ''He's different/ And he don't care who knows it.'' The idiosyncratic style of cartoonist Gahan Wilson is not easily forgotten. His
darkly humorous cartoons are alternately surreal and fantastical, horrific and scary,
and are often ready to explode out of the frame. The bizarre characters and monsters that populate the self-contained universe Wilson has created represent
his child-like delight at lifting under the veil of what we take for
granted or think we know about 'civilised' society. (His world is pretty much what the world of John Carpenter's THEY LIVE looks like if you don't wear the special sunglasses!) Provocative, disturbing, but always very funny, his work carries the weight of truth. Belying their status as cartoons never to be looked at, his cartoons are genuine works of art. His life's work, at least partly fuelled by his ongoing attempt to conquer his personal demons, paint a thought-provoking, deeply ambivalent historical picture of America
in the last fifty years - ecological destruction and the debacle of the Vietnam
War were examples of issues that came under his satirical, outrageous eye.
Like most great artists,
Wilson remains an enigma. An enigma that his filmmaker friend, the veteran
producer Steven-Charles Jaffe (GHOST, THE WIND AND THE LION, WHO'LL STOP THE
RAIN, NEAR DARK) was determined to get to the core of in a documentary that
became a seven-year labour of love.
GAHAN WILSON: BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD
is an intimate portrait; a low-key, engaging intimate portrait of a fascinating man. It looks at both how Wilson himself was inspired
to be a cartoonist and what continues to inspire him, and how his work has
inspired a diverse group of cartoonists (including Mike Mignola, Stan Lee and Neil Gaiman, the latter expressing his love of Wilson's 'Nuts' strip), filmmakers (Guillermo Del Toro talks of discovering Wilson via Playboy and Nicolas Meyer offers his theory of why Wilson uses monsters in his work), novelists (Peter Straub) and comedians (Bill Maher and others), whose stories are warm, funny, personal and moving. There are also interviews with previous and current colleagues, friends and family members. Wilson himself is very much present in the film, on hand to let us know his thoughts on his
birth (where he was 'born dead'), childhood (with alcoholic parents - a mentally ill mother and an inventor father), his career, his inspirations, mortality, ecology, religion and his
battle against alcoholism (which he talks about in a frank fashion). Jaffe also follows him on his weekly meeting at the
New Yorker where he shows what work he has to sell. We also get to see him work
at home and follow his daily routine, and visit the home where he grew up.
Jaffe often had to jump on a plane and be ready at a moment's notice to film his interviews. This immediacy translates to the screen where self-conscious artistry is traded for captured conversations and moments. Jaffe himself credits the film as 'A Steven-Charles Jaffe Rough'. Subjects are allowed to express themselves freely and the film does not feel manipulative or forced. It's quite clearly an attempt to try and understand the personality and talent of a brilliant man more deeply using the medium of film. Jaffe's love and admiration for the man is palpable.
The film makes a completely persuasive case for Wilson's great importance and unique talent as an artist, despite the fact that he is not as well-known as he should be. It's
also a testament to the power of the imagination and it's ability to inspire
others and make them reflect upon their daily lives and the world around them.
Wilson's cartoons are unique in that they can be appreciated, enjoyed and understood by
people both young and old, and BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD fittingly has the same
quality. It's historically interesting, and a fascinating look at a unique man, a
true subversive and humanitarian who at the age of 83 is still publishing his cartoons monthly in Playboy and every other week in the New Yorker. Most importantly though, it works superbly as an introduction of the man's work (hence its Best Documentary win at Comic-Con) for the uninitiated, helped immeasurably by frequent examples of his brilliant work. If the film doesn't leave you scurrying to buy up books of his art, then one's taste must seriously be put into question!
Gahan Wilson's official site.
Official site for the movie.
My interview with Steven-Charles Jaffe.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.