A good year for women on film, as exemplified in new releases The Eyes of My Mother, Miss Sloane, and more
Matthew Lickona 5 p.m., Dec. 9
Look, every now and then, even a blog has to up the word count a bit. Hence the existence of longform.org, and also of posts like this one. I thought it was worth it; I hope you will, too.
Last Sunday, Steven-Charles Jaffe's documentary Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird won the Best Documentary award at the 2011 Comic-Con International Film Festival. The film traced the famed cartoonist's career from its roots in his frightening childhood (both Wilson's parents were alcoholics), to his professional peaks in Playboy, The New Yorker, and National Lampoon, to his influence on such contemporary cultural icons as Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen Colbert. The judges selected it over such fare as Michael Barnett's Superheroes (an investigation of would-be real-life superheroes) and Mark Daniels' Comic Books Go To War, which Jaffe himself called "a serious, wonderful film about cartoonists going to war in Sarajevo and Afghanistan" and making art based on their experiences.
Steven-Charles Jaffe (left) and his brother Robert after the Comic-Con screening of Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird. "I really rely on my brother," says Jaffe. "He's my backstop, my security blanket, and my second cameraman."
For Jaffe - a longtime movie producer with films such as Ghost, Star Trek VI, and Time After Time to his credit - the victory was a deeply gratifying milestone on a journey that, in some ways, began nearly 50 years ago.
"I was 11 years old," recalls Jaffe, "and a friend of mine shared an issue of Playboy magazine with me." There he was, "looking at Playmates for first time in my life," staring in the way that 11-year-old boys will stare. "And then I see this bizarre thing" - a Gahan Wilson cartoon depicting Leonardo da Vinci looking at a mushroom cloud and being counseled by an aide: "And supposing you do repress it, Leonardo? Someone else is certain to come across it again in a few years." As if to heighten the effect of such a supremely impressionable moment, his friend decided to set fire to the dry grass surrounding Jaffe. Years later, Jaffe told Playboy that he "didn't sleep that night, wrapped in horrible fantasies that the fire was spreading and burning down neighboring homes and the families in them - a waking vision made all the more hellacious with images of Wilson's cartoon and the naked Playmates dancing in my head."
Why did the cartoon stick in his mind alongside the pinups? "I was a Charles Addams fan when I was a little kid," says Jaffe, "and this was like Charles Addams in color. Gahan used this fantastic color palate. The cartoon kind of took the grayness out of the cold war era I was growing up in, and it just riveted me."
Illustrating the notion of Wilson as "Charles Addams in color" is one of the easier things to do in this world. The two cartoonists shared many interests: seemingly placid husbands and wives who plot violent demises for one another, the casual presence of monstrous evils in everyday life, even a morbid delight in the death of Santa Claus. Thus Addams:
"The little dears. They still believe in Santa Claus!"
And thus Wilson:
"Well, we found out what's been clogging your chimney since last December, Miss Emmy."
Fast-forward to 1990, when Jaffe found himself the executive producer of the surprise smash Ghost. "My secretary said, 'You've got a hit movie. You can meet anybody now.' Most people would have said, 'I want to meet the head of Bank of America,' or 'I want to meet this movie star.' I said, 'I want you to find Gahan Wilson and get him on the phone.' Ten minutes later, he's on the phone with me, and we're having a really fun conversation. I said, 'Have you ever thought of doing something for the movies?' He said, 'All the time.' And we started up this wonderful friendship."
Ever since, Jaffe has been trying to get an animated Wilson project off the ground, with varying degrees of failure. "But at some point along the way," he recalls, the notion of making Wilson himself a subject took hold. "I was visiting my friend Walter Murch - he had edited Ghost, and he had something to do with Crumb," the documentary on the legendary underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. "I had shot this tiny test interview with Gahan, and I showed it to Murch and said, 'If you think it's hopeless, I'll forget about it, but I think there's a documentary to be made about this wonderful guy.' He looked at it and said, 'You gotta do it.'" Wilson was willing, and so Jaffe took off his producer's cap and set about making a movie on his own.
"I thought it would take me three months, and then I'd be back producing regular movies. But then I realized what a serious responsibility this was, and that I had to make this as great a movie as possible." Five years, a chunk of his personal fortune, and 175 hours of footage later, Jaffe had his documentary.
If the terms "cartoonist documentary" and "serious responsibility" sound a mite incommensurate, you might want to suspend your judgment until you hear The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert tell the story of his first encounter with Wilson's work. I won't spoil it here - it's one of the finer, more touching moments in the movie. But I will say that Colbert appreciates Wilson's genius for illustrating the more nightmarish anxieties that can plague a child, especially when that child is brought face-to-face with the limitations of the grown-ups in charge of his young life. For pure emotion, Colbert's story is matched perhaps only by a veteran's onscreen recollection of encountering a Wilson war cartoon on the bloody ground of a smoldering battlefield.
You might also consider the cultural reach of cartoonists such as Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes, Charles Schulz of Peanuts, or (to reach back into history a bit) Walt Kelly of Pogo:
These were men graced with a peculiar and powerful artistic genius. All of them glimpsed the profundity and struggle and humor of life, and all of them managed to transmogrify it into a daily, illustrated account that was as accessible to children as it was to adults. Calvin's shrewd insight into morals and manners, Charlie Brown's anxious endurance in the face of suffering, Pogo's gentle poke in the ribs of Man, the political animal - these may often prove a young soul's first introduction to the vagaries of the human condition. They have such lovely drawings, you see.
Out beyond the borders of the funnies section, we come to The New Yorker. I regard the magazine's cartoon bank as a funny, fascinating cultural history - the character of a given era frozen in single panels, our very own cave paintings of Lascaux. (Yeah, that's over-the-top, but go ahead - spend a couple of hours there and see what you think. You know, after you finish this article.) Even Playboy, a magazine cheerfully devoted to its own particular cultural agenda, is willing to read the signs of the times when it comes to cartoons:
"Look at it this way: he didn't leave you pregnant or give you the clap. That's being lucky in love!"
That's Wilson's world. His cartoons mattered to Jaffe. They mattered to Colbert, to Guillermo Del Toro, to Neil Gaiman. "It was so cool to get to talk to these guys about my childhood hero," says Jaffe. The film is under 100 minutes long, but Jaffe says he has "so much great stuff that when the DVD comes out, we'll have some really significant extras. Del Toro talked to us for something like two hours."
Interestingly, however, actually presenting those cartoons turned out to be one of the hardest parts of making Born Dead, Still Weird. "I didn't even deal with the cartoons until I had finished with the interviews. I thought, 'This is going to be like eating dessert - easy and fun.' But when I inserted the cartoons, they stopped the movie." A static image may work wonders on printed page, but when you stick it in amongst moving pictures... "So I thought, 'When Gahan describes a cartoon, he's always making sound effects. I should get my sound designer to bring these still images to life that way. And I'll get my composer to do music that makes them into something...that feels alive.'" The overall effect is nicely engaging. Case in point: a gradual pullback shot on a drawing of a man with devils climbing out of his mouth. Skittering violins and high-pitched squeals make the devils dance in the viewer's mind. Eventually, we see that the man is on a psychiatrist's couch. A beat, and then we are treated to the caption: "Well, I think that's the last of them!"
Other aspects of the filmmaking proved more serendipitous. "Gahan kept throwing me these little gifts, and I didn't realize how significant they were until I was finishing the movie. 'Oh, Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor at the New Yorker, thinks you should immortalize the cartoon sales ritual," in which would be cartoonists (including old pros like Wilson) sit down with Mankoff and present their work for his review. "'He doesn't know how long it's going to keep going, and he's never let anyone film it before.'" (For a wannabe cartoonist such as your humble correspondent, it was a heady scene, as was the cartoonist's lunch that followed.)
Now, Jaffe is seeking a distributor, a search that's gotten a little easier in the wake of the Comic-Con victory. "The Con is a force to be reckoned with - internationally, everyone covers this." Going in, he says, "it was a little scary. It's very humbling to go into a competition without studio support. I know what the support is like - you don't have to do anything, just show up. This has been a labor of love - I put my savings into it, and I turned down other movies because I was in the middle of editing this one."
Happily, it paid off. "I called Wilson from the Con to tell him we had won," says Jaffe. "Tears of joy - you could hear it on the phone. He was so happy and proud. It was a great day."