Review: Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird

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To the young, artists' careers seem like bottle rockets: a skyward blast illuminating the heavens for a moment before descending back to earth a shamble of blackened paper and gunpowder. Indeed, this fate awaits many (do you really imagine future humans collecting Thomas Kincades or listening to Limp Bizkit?). Others, however, do not fall but instead are swept into orbit. Like a comet they visit the netherworlds of obscurity only to be rediscovered a generation or two later -- even Shakespeare suffers occasional disfavor.

I believe the eponymous subject of the documentary, Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird is such an artist. While many may not be familiar with Wilson by name, few will be wholly unfamiliar with his work as his cartoon creations still inhabit the pages of the New Yorker and Playboy from time to time. Last Saturday I had the pleasure of viewing the film and speaking with the director, Steven-Charles Jaffe.

Jaffe discovered Wilson's work at ten years old while looking at his first Playboy magazine -- this is a common introduction, as many of the famous fans interviewed in the film will attest. As a bullied outsider he felt an immediate kinship with the cartoons. Years later, after Jaffe became a successful Hollywood producer (Strange Days, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to name a few) he used his connections to contact Wilson. For years he shopped around various adaptations of Wilson's work to no avail. Time and time again he was told that the work was simply too weird, too risky for the bland American palette. Eventually Jaffe shifted focus to a self-produced documentary, "a seven year odyssey" as he describes it.

Through interviews with Wilson, his family and an array celebrity fans as diverse as Stephen Colbert, Stan Lee and Randy Newman, the film offers a comprehensive portrait of the artist. Some of Wilson's greatest cartoons are interspersed throughout giving viewers (such as myself) an introduction to his work. As the film unfolds we see how each cartoon is deeply informed by the artist's troubled life. He synthesizes his fears, feelings of alienation and inimitable wit into a large and transgressive body of work. Like all good artist, Wilson uses his medium as the mechanism for making sense of life.

Director Steven-Charles Jaffe and me at the IFC Center in NYC

The film's succeeds most when it focuses on the artist and his work. Now in his eighties, Wilson still works regularly in his small Long Island studio. After a blip of commercial success in the mid-twentieth century he has by and large faded from the public eye but has never ceased to work. In the film we see him waiting in his turn along with a handful of other artists to submit his work for consideration at The New Yorker -- a rare window into the cutthroat world of cartoonists (who'd've thunk it?). While the film lacks in a single point of focus like Robert Crumb's sexual obsessions in the 1994 documentary Crumb which was an explicit inspiration for Born Dead, Still Weird, it features several insightful meditations by Wilson on his career, imminent death and trademark monsters. There is a particularly beautiful scene of Wilson watching his favorite film, Bride of Frankenstein, one of the greatest movies about misunderstood monsters. His eyes dampen with tears during one of the exchanges between the blind man and the monster.

One of Jaffe's stated intentions is to introduce Gahan Wilson to the uninitiated and renew interest in amongst those who may have forgotten him. I for one hope he succeeds. Catch a screening at the IFC Center at 323 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY between now and Friday. It's definitely worth your time.

Watch the trailer here:

Tags: Gahan Wilson, Steven-Charles Jaffe, Stephen Colbert, Stan Lee, Lewis Black, Neil Gaiman, Hugh Hefner, Nicholas Meyer, Randy Newman, IFC Center

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