Dysfunction. Squalor. Obsessive compulsion. Bad hygiene. Mommy issues. Mental illness. Prurience. Degeneracy. Creativity.
There’s a compelling strain of documentary film that lifts the lid on outsider artists who work in the shadows. 1994’s Crumb, about R. Crumb, who certainly had some measure of success before Terry Zwigoff’s film, set the mold. A decade later, In The Realms of the Unreal (POV 2005) took the form to a higher level by animating the work of artist Henry Darger. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about a manic depressive musician followed a year later and, more recently, among others, there’s been Marwencol and Art And Craft (POV 2015).
Now, there’s Almost There, a poignant, humane, sharp-eyed look at Peter Anton, a miserable wretch of a man at the end of his life, toiling away in his parents’ home in East Chicago, Indiana. Filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden (the film was executive produced by Justine Nagan who recently took over as Executive Director of POV) enter Anton’s mold-infested shanty of a house to discover a treasure of paintings, drawings and, most important, a series of scrapbooks entitled “Almost There,” that tell — through paintings, pictures and words — of Anton’s life of disappointment.
Rybicky and Wickenden show Anton, it seems, as they discover him; at turns, intriguing, sad, funny, inspired, angry and disturbing.
Almost There goes a step further than the films listed above by doubling back on itself when the directors stumble on new information well into production, and they appear to have a crisis of conscience. How do they get through it? Partly by revealing Rybicky’s personal connection to the subject matter, namely his own family’s history of mental illness and dysfunction.
This turn is catnip for me — and I’m sure for others — and can serve as a case study for filmmakers and students who enjoy wrestling with documentary ethics. See this educational guide that was made to complement the doc. What is a filmmaker’s responsibility to his or her subjects? Does it trump an ethical responsibility to a larger community? How important is it to reveal a director’s point-of-view to an audience?
I lapped this all up, even if Rybicky and Wickenden didn’t cover all the bases. I could sense the careful editing going on when Rybicky filmed his family. And it seems to be a failure of the film to just bring his life into it, but leave Wickenden out. (Clearly, decisions about self-revelation were hashed out and we should at least get a clue why Wickenden remains outside of the frame.)
But that’s just to say that the film is brave enough to reveal its own seams, and it is, overall, the stronger for it. It’s a powerful and honest film about art, family, aging and, heck, being human.
Almost There is one of the best documentaries of the year; a lack of buzz and its late release, last week, might preclude it from landing on some top ten lists of 2015, but it will surely be making mine. If you’re in Chicago or LA, you can still catch it in a theater or else you can find it online here.