Magical Universe

Even in black and white Al Carbee's world is full of magic.

Even in black and white Al Carbee’s world is full of magic.

(2013) Documentary (Wheelhouse) Al Carbee, Jeremy Workman, Astrid von Ussar. Directed by Jeremy Workman

Florida Film Festival 2013

Art means different things to different people. Some prefer the more traditional, others the Avant Garde. Some people will take two blocks of wood, nail them together and proclaim it art. Others will nail those same blocks of wood to their head, film it and proclaim it art. There are some who think that it isn’t art if it isn’t challenging you or pushing your boundaries.

Al Carbee thought a lot about art and the artistic process. You see, he had this thing about taking pictures using Barbie dolls as models. His late wife never really understood it and was actually kind of embarrassed about it but Al just kept things on the down-low. He created these elaborate environments for his pictures and created collages with them. They began to look more and more like art.

Jeremy Workman, a young filmmaker, was vacationing with his girlfriend Astrid von Ussar in the area around Saco, Maine when he got a call from a newspaper editor friend telling him about Carbee, so Jeremy went and shot some video of Al and his work. He made a documentary short called Carbee’s Barbies which you can Google – I believe it’s available on YouTube and if not, he shows it in its entirety during the film.

In most cases like this, that would be the end of it but Jeremy and Astrid continued to correspond with Al who’d send long, rambling letters, sometimes with pictures. Soon the idea came up for Jeremy to do a feature film on Al. Jeremy was agreeable and began to do just that. He showed some of the early footage to Astrid who to his surprise was not very happy. “You’re making him look like a crazy person,” she admonished sternly, “You need to put Al in there.” And she was right, Jeremy realized.

Frankly put, it’s pretty easy to go down that road. On the surface of things, Al is pretty much a whacko and I leaned over to Da Queen several times and said so. To her credit she said nothing and held her opinion to herself (until after the movie of course – Da Queen isn’t shy about sharing her opinions with me or anyone else for that matter). As the movie progresses you get quite a different opinion of Al than just a lonely old man playing with dolls.

Much of the film is wrapped around an exhibition of Al’s work at the local art museum, an event which really seemed to vindicate Al and bring him some satisfaction. It’s not that he needed an audience for his work – he mostly made it for himself I suspect – but to be validated as an artist, to be told his pictures have some value. That was important to him.

Throughout the time that Jeremy knew him Al was having money troubles. He was deeply in debt and had to improvise his environments using whatever he could find. Most of his Barbies were found in thrift stores and at tag sales (that’s New England for yard sale or garage sale if you’re reading this on the West Coast).

Although Al had made substantial renovations to his home, they were almost all his own handiwork and to a certain extent somewhat Winchester Mystery House-like in their layout – the house is described as something of a labyrinth by one of the few who were given access to the inner sanctum (Al had also dug a cavern in which he placed Barbies in an atmosphere that was described as “magical.” Unfortunately, Al passed away a few years ago after a brief illness and his landlord, who had waited with baited breath for Al to go, bulldozed the property and much of his art (although his nephew apparently saved quite a bit according to Workman). Mostly, this film remains as a testament to what he accomplished.

Da Queen thinks he’s an artistic genius and maybe he is. I’m really not going to make that determination; that’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself. What I can say is that this documentary takes you inside his world, allows you to experience his art and more importantly, allows you to experience the man as well. In my book, that makes this a crackerjack documentary that is worth seeking out and given the glut of documentaries out there that don’t even do that, that’s pretty solid praise.

REASONS TO GO: Not your standard documentary. An interesting look at the creative process.

REASONS TO STAY: Some people might be uncomfortable with the concept (hopefully they’ll watch the film and come to a different understanding about it however).

FAMILY VALUES:  While the concept of an old man taking pictures of Barbie dolls – some without clothes – is a bit creepy, there isn’t anything here I wouldn’t feel comfortable letting a kid watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Workman has directed several documentary features and shorts, he is best known in the industry as an editor for which he has an Emmy nomination (in 2002 for the Oscar telecast).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film made its world premiere at the Florida Film Festival and will doubtlessly be hitting film festivals around the country for the foreseeable future.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Universe of Keith Haring

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 42

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