Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts


Art that evokes the primal side of man.

(2021) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Bill Traylor, Sharon Washington, Jason Samuels Smith, Richard Oosterom, Greg Tate, Russell G. Jones, Charles Shannon, Dr. Howard O. Robinson, Radcliffe Bailey, Leslie Umberger, Roberta Smith. Directed by Jeffrey Wolf

 

Bill Traylor is a name that may not register with the average American unless the average American happens to be an art lover – most average Americans aren’t, however. Traylor was born into slavery in Alabama back in 1853. Following Emancipation, he became a sharecropper and supported his growing family as a farmer – he was practical enough to grow edible crops rather than cotton, although he grew a lot of that as well.

He was also a bit of a drinker and a carouser; his marriages were dotted with infidelity on his part, fathering children by many different lovers. In his 80s, he was no longer able to work on a farm and so moved to Montgomery, where he was homeless off and on and supplemented his relief checks with drawings he made on found paper.

His work has been called “beautifully simple,” “primitive” and “powerful,” all of which are accurate. In many ways his drawings are reminiscent of the cave drawings that were drawn tens of thousands of years ago. His pictures are vibrant, full of movement and capture the era of slavery and the Jim Crow South.

We are treated to art experts discussing his work and its significance, black artists who discuss his lasting influence on African-American art, and his descendants who regale us with anecdotes about his colorful life. Actors read relevant passages from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith adds motion and sound to the interpretation of his work. All of this is set to a magnificent blues soundtrack.

The problem with the film is that it is often extraordinarily dry, playing like it was meant for an advanced art history course at an Ivy League school. There are a lot of talking heads which when given the vibrancy of the art that we’re shown seems a bit counterintuitive.

It is the artwork that is the center of the film and Wolf takes great pains to show us as much of it as he is able. We are given artistic insights into the work; arguing couples are shown pointing in different directions, animals are totems that are predators in some cases, observers in others. The color blue represents the blues. It’s hard to believe that Traylor accomplished all of this with scraps of cardboard and paper, pencils and children’s poster paint, but he did.

Sadly, much of his work was discarded years after his death and presumably has been lost forever, although some hold out hope that it may surface in an Alabama landfill someday. There are still several hundred pieces of his work available and there is no denying its power and pull to the human spirit. If you’re going to see one documentary about an artist this year, this is the one to catch.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is as compelling as it’s creator. Wonderful blues soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally becomes overly dry with too many tallking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: There are descriptions of horrific violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Traylor preferred to work with scraps of paper he found in the trash rather than clean sheets of paper that admirers would give him; he would work the imperfections in the scraps into the artwork.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maya Angelou And Still I Rise
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Two Gods

Mandibles (Mandibules)


The No-Pest strip isn’t working.

(2020) Fantasy Comedy (Magnolia) Grégoire Ludig, David Marsais, Adéle Exarchopoulos, India Hair, Roméo Elvis, Coralie Russier, Bruno Lochet, Raphaél Quenard, Gaspard Augé, Thomas Blanchard, Philippe Dusseau, Olivier Blanc, Jean-Paul Solal, Dave Chapman, Marius Colucci, Jézebel Marques, Pablo Beugnet, Marie Narbonne. Directed by Quentin Dupieux

 

Anyone familiar with Dumb and Dumber and other idiot buddy comedies of the 90s knows that watching stupid people do stupid things can be entertaining, if only to make us feel better about ourselves. In a more woke era such as this, there may be those who might have an issue with people who are portrayed as “intellectually challenged” for laughs.

Screw those people. Manu (Ludig) is a bearded kinda-sorta-hippie stoner who is best friends with Jean-Gab (Marsais). They both have IQs somewhat below that of coral. When Manu gets a job to deliver a suitcase that will pay him 500 Euros, he doesn’t think too much that it might be illegal. It doesn’t even bother him that he doesn’t have a car. He just knows that he needs one, so he hotwires a disreputable-looking Mercedes and takes off with Jean-Gab.

While en route through the picturesque byways of the South of France, they hear an odd buzzing sound as well as thumps coming from the trunk. What have they gotten themselves into? Well, it turns out that there’s a fly in the trunk – one the size of an Alsatian.

Normal people would slam the trunk shut and run screaming in the other direction. Not Manu; he hits upon a get-rich-quick idea utilizing the fly as a kind of trained flying monkey to steal valuable items. He and Jean-Gab set out to train their new pet. In an odd case of mistaken identity, a beautiful rich gal (Hair) mistakes Manu for an ex-lover and invites him and Jean-Gab to a mansion for the weekend. The two bumbling lowlifes at least know enough to try and keep their fly secret, but the suspicious resident Agnes (Exarchopoulos) – who shouts everything she says and takes offense to everything due to a brain trauma caused by a skiing accident – knows the two are up to something.

Dupieux has carved a name for himself with absurdist comedies like Rubber and Deerskin. He takes oddball concepts that might be found in a horror spoof – killer tires, killer jackets, giant houseflies – and turns them into something quite different than you might imagine. I can’t say that I was a big fan of Rubber and I haven’t seen Deerskin but this is by all accounts his most accessible film yet, and I did find that it actually made me laugh.

Ludig and Marsais are a sketch comedy duo in France, so it’s no surprise that the chemistry between them is strong. You can believe they are BFFs and the witlessness of their characters makes for some pretty decent comedy (such as when they attempt to cook a simple meal on their own – they are literally a couple of guys who could try to boil water and burn it.

The character of Agnes is a little overdone and is a bit of a waste of the talents of Exarchopoulos, so good in Blue is the Warmest Color. Her constant shrieking gets on the nerves quickly and while she has some funny moments, it just feels like weirdness for its own sake, a problem Dupieux sometimes demonstrates.

Still, while this is certainly an acquired taste, it isn’t necessarily one most people can’t acquire. If you’re going to get into Dupieux, this is the movie that’s going to do it for you unless you have a preference for the truly off-beat. This is as mainstream as the French director has ever gotten; that doesn’t mean he won’t necessarily continue to head in that direction, but this may well be a one-off. I hope not.

REASONS TO SEE: Bizarre but entertaining nonetheless.
REASONS TO AVOID: Pretty much an acquired taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and strange situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fly puppet is operated by Dave Chapman, who performed similar duties in the Star Wars movies.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zombeaver
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts