Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story (2019)

My first exposure to the iconography & persona of the cult British comedian Frank Sidebottom was in the 2014 black comedy Frank, where he was portrayed by Michael Fassbender in a Fleischer cartoon-style paper mâché mask that he never removed onscreen. It turns out that luchadorian gimmick of never appearing in public unmasked is just about the only detail from the “real” Frank Sidebottom’s life that was at all factual. The appeal for savvier (and, let’s face it, British) audiences in seeing a documentary about Chris Sievey, the musician behind the Frank character, is in finally getting a peak under that mask to learn about the artist who created it after decades of cheeky mystery. The appeal for relative newcomers like myself, lured in by the Fassbender film or the Pop Art iconography of the Frank mask on the poster, is just learning about the Frank Sidebottom art project in the first place. What was Frank’s whole deal? Why do a specific subset of British pop culture nerds care so much about a decades-long bit built on a single sight gag – a sinisterly cutesy paper mâché mask? In either case, whether you’re looking to learn about Frank Sidebottom or about Chris Sievey, Being Frank is a definitive, helpfully informative documentation of both characters from start to end.

In the early goings-on of the film, it appears as if Sievey were a Daniel Johnston-type figure: a troubled young Beatles fanatic who lost his goddamned mind inside his own weirdo art after a few youthful experiments with LSD. Survey’s self-obsessive back catalog of home movies, Outsider Art drawings, and moldy cassette recordings of early music projects certainly recall the raw material of the wonderful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but comparing the two artists’ personal lives in a direct 1:1 parallel does them both a disservice. Despite how he was portrayed in Frank– which is now clearly a work of fiction – Sievey was not some mentally ill free spirit who lost his true persona inside the Frank costume. A few myth-building interviewees in the documentary (mostly art dealers & punk scenesters) will try to convince the audience that there was no telling where Sievey ended & Frank began, that their personae were inextricable. That doesn’t seem to be true to the family & friends who knew Sievey well, though, the same way a luchador or an Andy Kaufman type would only drop the bit once in private. Give or take a decades-long bout with alcoholism, there wasn’t anything especially mysterious or enigmatic about Chris Sievey as a human being. He was just an incredibly driven, meticulous artist who wanted to turn his passion for songwriting into a lucrative profession, and Frank was his best chance to make that dream happen.

In that way, Sievey most reminds me of the microbudget backyard filmmaker & songwriter Matt Farley, who regularly churns out a massive flood of multimedia content for a small crowd of dedicated fans. So much about Sievey’s feverish commitment to the Frank Sidebottom project is distinctly Farleyesque: his aggressive self-promotion, his habitual publication of his personal phone number, his detailed record of his personal sports stats (in this case, revolving around a minor league soccer team), his obsessively fussed-over hand-drawn zines, his absurd dedication to prideful small-town localism (in this case, the village of Timperley). That’s not a sign of madness or possessed genius. It’s just a driven artist with a superhuman work ethic. Sievey’s story affords Being Frank drama & pathos in other ways, though. There’s a heartbreaking story to tell here about a fame-focused artist who almost made it big as a Legitimate Musician (most notably with his sarcastically chipper New Wave group The Freshies) only to be overshadowed by a paper mâché novelty act of his own creation. There’s even more heartbreak in interviews with his close family who had to suffer his self-absorbed bullshit whenever he’d put his various projects over their day to day wellbeing – which is always the risk when you love or depend on an artist. I just think framing Sievey as an outsider weirdo instead of a tireless, hardworking showman is doing his artistry a disservice, and I’m saying that as someone who still loves the movie Frank for its own merits as a work of fiction.

Maybe you’d disagree with me and believe Sievey to be a mad, tortured genius who lost himself inside Frank’s paper mâché head. Maybe you wouldn’t think he’s a genius or an impressively productive artist, but rather a half-arsed troll who lucked into a pre-Internet meme that happened to pay his (many, long overdue) bills. Whatever the case, Being Frank does Chris Sievey the service of contextualizing Frank as just one (wildly successful) project in the artist’s decades-spanning portfolio, offering a fairly comprehensive view of who both Frank & Sievey were separate from one another. It’s a thorough document of a bizarro art project and a necessary counterbalance to the fictional mythmaking that’s sprung up around it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006)

I don’t remember ever crying over a celebrity’s death before this week, when Daniel Johnston died of a heart attack at 58 years old. A singular talent as a songwriter and a cartoonist, Johnston deserved so much better than the hand that life & biology dealt him. He lived long enough to see his work respected by other outsider artists who could tune into the pained genius of his uniquely perceptive song lyrics, but he was also crushed under a life-long struggle with schizophrenic & manic-depressive episodes that could only be kept at bay with a debilitating routine of heavy medications. Johnston’s art, career, and eventually his body where cut short by a mental disorder beyond his or anyone’s control, and it fucking sucks. He deserved so much better.

The one minor consolation in his passing is that Johnston recorded hundreds of songs about death & depression while he was alive to help fans process this deeply shitty news. His low-fi recordings & confessional songwriting style established an intimacy with his audience that’s only fueled by his relative in-the-know obscurity. I first heard Daniel Johnston in the pre-file-sharing days when I got my hands on a burned copy of the Kids soundtrack (years before I saw the actual movie), which featured his song “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” It was a perfect intro to his insular world for not only reflecting his fixations on Death & pop culture iconography, but also feeling like a window into an obscure, unobtainable catalog of outsider music – the exact kind of in-the-know exclusivity you crave as a teenager. It took me years to piece together a collection of Daniel Johnston recordings in the early aughts, starting with a purchase of his sole major-label release Fun and eventually moving on to what stray mp3s I could find on file-staring platforms. That changed drastically with the arrival of The Devil and Daniel Johnston in 2006, a documentary about the fame-seeking-turned-reclusive singer that told his whole life’s story thirteen years before his death. Suddenly, Johnston’s catalog was more accessible in local pop culture media stores; I could find cassettes, CDs, and reissue LPs of his work with much greater, much appreciated ease. He also miraculously started appearing in concerts nearby, arriving as one of the first touring acts I remember seeing in New Orleans post-Katrina, and at least twice more in the decade since.

Weirdly, with this sudden wealth of Johnston material in my life after years of waiting & searching, the documentary itself became almost more of a personal favorite than the recordings it was promoting. You’d think that as a 20-year-old hipster dipshit (with all the protective “I got here first!” snobbery that comes at that age of music fandom), I would have had a chip on my shoulder about a documentary boosting Johnston’s public profile (to the point where his song “Story of an Artist” that’s prominently featured in the film was recently deployed in an Apple commercial, unfathomably). Instead, it became an obsession, the first documentary I ever truly fell in love with. We would watch this film over & over again in my college years, back when it was much cheaper & more convenient to just grind the few DVDs you owned into dust than to constantly loop back to the (rapidly disappearing) local rental stores for fresh content. Not only did The Devil and Daniel Johnston fill a need for more information about a niche musician I could previously only access through the occasional scraps that trickled down to Southeast Louisiana, but the story of his struggles with mental health really hit close to home at that time. A close college friend, like Daniel, had recently triggered an inevitable crisis with bipolar disorder in a period of recreationally experimenting with LSD. After he shed his possessions, began raving about God & The Devil, and started putting himself & others in danger in high-risk situations like moving traffic, we eventually (and conflictedly) found ourselves having him committed to a grim mental institution nearby. Unlike Daniel, that friend appears to be doing fine now, but it still meant a lot to see that same story play out on the screen at the time, even with the worse ending.

Revisiting The Devil and Daniel Johnston the night his premature death was announced, it felt great to confirm that, yes, this is an exquisite specimen of the modern documentary and that I didn’t replay it incessantly in college only because I loved and related to the subject. In the thirteen years since its release, the film’s visual & storytelling style has since become a kind of standard norm in documentary filmmaking, but it really felt emotionally & formally exceptional at the time. Talking-head interviews, still photographs, home movies, television clips, and animated illustrations of Johnston’s songs combine to create a collage portrait of an artist whose world had been fractured many times over. Seeing this template repeated for other troubled artists like Amy Winehouse, Betty Davis, and DEATH in the years since has admittedly lessened some of the film’s impact as a structurally playful piece, but there are still details to the film that make it feel unique in its musician’s portrait genre. Firstly, Johnston’s life story of recording songs in his basement while his parents yelled at him from the stairs to give up on his dreams and get a job, only for him to later make those very tapes infamous by elbowing his way onto MTV (in-between joining a traveling carnival & working at McDonald’s) is incredible. Then, the way his mental disorder disrupted what could have been a thriving career as a songwriter by making him obsess over The Devil and a “love of his life” who he hardly knew (before finally wrecking his ability to take care of himself on a daily basis) makes the film just as much of an emotional experience as it is an informative one. Finally, the wealth of documentation of Daniel’s daily life—from audio recordings, super-8 home movies, photographs, journals, etc.—afford the filmmakers a wealth of material to illustrate the story they’re telling. It’s an incredibly rich experience, one of the very best of its kind.

Much like Johnston’s countless songs about death & depression in his music catalog, this documentary is incredibly helpful in processing the heartbreaking news of his passing. Also like with his songs, that process is not necessarily easy or fun. The opening shot is of Daniel talking in a selfie pose with his super-8 camera pointed at a mirror, announcing, “Hello, I am the ghost of Daniel Johnston,” as if from beyond the grave. Much of the movie plays this way, prematurely covering his life & art as if he were already dead. The final credits play over footage of Johnston posing in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume in what appears to be a public park, obscured & wraithlike. It hits an emotionally raw nerve, but it’s also beautifully & radically honest, perceptive work. It’s pure Daniel Johnston in that way, so that the movie feels just as essential to his body of work as any of his songs or drawings. If you’re interested in becoming familiar with the life & art of this eternally tragic entertainer or if you need a way to properly say goodbye after years of sharing an intimate connection with his deeply personal D.I.Y. recordings, I highly recommend returning to this film. It will likely fuck you up, but you might also find yourself incessantly replaying it for morbid comfort & for curious friends the way I once did. Life was incredibly shitty to Daniel Johnston, but at least this movie was worthy of him.

-Brandon Ledet

The Arrival (1980)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself increasingly fascinated with self-published outsider art. Discovering the insular communities of Matt Farley, Doris Wishman, Justin Decloux, and Don Dohler – each with their own endless back catalogs & stables of recurring players – is a thrilling alternative to the franchise filmmaking behemoths of modern mainstream cinema, where months of publicity & advertising can often make a film feel overly familiar before it even arrives to theaters. Finding something new that hasn’t already been talked to death in your online social circle takes a little obsessive crate-digging but can be intensely rewarding when you unearth something far out & exceptional. I daresay The Unarius Academy of Science is the most niche filmmaking community I’ve tapped into so far in this pursuit, something that worries me that I may have wandered off the ledge of our Flat Earth and fallen into the deep end of cult cinema. That’s not to say that I’ve personally discovered anything previously unseen or unexplored in Unarius. The Californian UFO cult has been publicly broadcasting their films to the world at large for nearly four decades solid now, something I discovered myself through one of many online articles detailing the history of their self-published propagandist cinema. Even if it was well-charted territory, though, something many Californians discovered themselves through public access broadcasts, there was something truly perverse & transgressive about ordering a Blu-ray copy of the cult’s most popular title directly from them that made me question whether this crate-digging impulse of hunting down niche outsider art was ultimately a healthy one. I feel like I’ve finally crossed a line here, not least of all because I was genuinely pleased by the product that arrived at my doorstep (accompanied by propaganda literature attempting to recruit me into the cult, naturally).

The first and most widely discussed film in the Unarius canon, The Arrival, is a brief hour-long religious manifesto that feels as if it lasts for a thousand past lives. As the film operates more as a meditative religious indoctrination piece than a traditional narrative entertainment, its sense of pacing is cosmically glacial – to the point where it almost triggers a genuinely psychedelic response. According to the Blu-ray cover, “A true story of the first contact with another world is reenacted by individuals reliving their past lives on the continent of Lemuria, 162,000 years ago.” We get no introductory establishment of what life in the fabled Lemuria was like before space alien contact the way we would in a more traditional narrative feature; instead we meet our caveman protagonist in the exact moment he confronts the crew of a UFO that lands before him in 160,000 B.C. It’s like the space alien equivalent of a Christian Passion play in that way, assuming the backstory & context of the event is well-known mythology for anyone who would be watching. The Arrival also subverts typical alien invasion narratives we’re used to in science fiction by making the alien force a calm, consciousness-raising source of enlightenment for the Lumerian caveman rather than evil, Earth-conquering warmongers. Dressed in bald caps & colorful religious robes, they trigger a spiritual epiphany within the caveman that allows him to recall “the past lives recorded in his spiritual body” that he cannot normally access in his physical form. From there, he confronts humanity’s follies of “ego, lust, and materialism” in a backwards trip through his soul’s thousands of years’ journey in various past lives. A brief detour into a past life where the caveman was a militaristic combatant on a Star Wars-type spaceship feels like a glimpse at more narratively traditional sci-fi story, but for the most part The Arrival is a meditative search for philosophical “truths.” It places much more emphasis on its walk & talk conversations with cult-leader Archangel Uriel than the caveman’s deep space laser battles, for instance, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

If you’re not a member of the Unarius Academy of Science (and perhaps even if you are), the most immediately rewarding aspect of The Arrival is going to be the visual splendor of its handmade costumes & sets. The 2D-animated patchwork of the UFO, the regal space alien garb of Archangel Uriel, and the psychedelic screensaver flashes of its visualized spiritual awakening are the exact kind of high-ambition D.I.Y. effects work you’d most want to see from a sci-fi oddity on this scale & budget. Just don’t go into the film expecting to laugh at its camp value or to recoil in horror at its cult indoctrination tactics. This is an overall calming, meditative piece from what appears to be a relatively harmless UFO cult who claim to have achieved a supernatural level of spiritual enlightenment and have accidentally stumbled into making primo outsider cinema as a result. The serene, enlightened tone of the piece is alarmingly convincing; I could easily see myself being lured into its extratextual philosophy if I were stoned & lonely enough in the early 80s and caught this picture on late-night public access. As is, I already feel like I’m allowing The Uranius Academy of Science too much space in my head & wallet, as I’m tempted to order more of their films from their online store to get a better sense of their far-out filmmaking niche. I doubt one of these propaganda films will trigger a genuine trip into a spiritually recorded past life for me, but I took enough pleasure in its D.I.Y. microbudget craft & meditative energy that I’d like to further explore their back catalog anyway. Rarely does being lured into a hidden corner of “cult cinema” feel so literal & potentially unhealthy. It’s an impulse that’s making me question past decisions & current gluttony in my pop culture consumption, which in a roundabout way was The Arrival’s exact stated intent, so I suppose it’s a total success.

-Brandon Ledet

Missing People (2015)

fourstar

I first heard of the visual artist Roy Ferdinand when I attended his one-man show In Your Fucking Face at Barrister’s Art Gallery (when it was still on Oretha Castle Haley) sometime in 2004, As the title of that show suggests, Ferdinand’s work is aggressively crude & transgressive, assembling a unique document of New Orleans at the height of the city’s fever pitch crime rates in the 90s & 00s. An self-taught, outsider artist along the lines of a Henry Darger or a Daniel Johnson, Ferdinand drew portraits of the city & its inhabitants at their most cruel & vulnerable moments. His art is somehow both immediately digestible & impossible to ever shake once seen. The imagery sticks with you in a deeply affecting way, both in its violence’s absurdity & honesty, despite a lack of honed technical skills you’d expect from a more traditionally trained artist.

Roy Ferdinand may have been a somewhat financially successful artist, but he’s far from a household name & information on his personal life is scarce at best. That’s why I was stoked to discover that a documentary about Ferdinand was screening at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art as a part of the 2015 New Orleans Film Fest. Super stoked. Indeed, Missing People was a rare chance to see interview footage of Roy Ferdinand talking about himself, his city, and his art. However, it was far from the film that I was I expecting. Instead of being a documentary about Ferdinand outright, Missing People follows the story of Martina Batan, an art collector & curator who obsessively amassed hundreds of Ferdinand’s pieces for reasons that even she had difficulty understanding. It would be incredible to see a documentary strictly about Ferdinand & his work, but Missing People is not that film. Instead, it serves as a document about the way his art can deeply affect someone in a personal way. And after seeing the film it’d be difficult to argue that it’s ever affected anyone nearly as much as it has Martina Batan.

Described by a close friend & comic book artist Dave Carino as “a cross between Wednesday Adams & Holly Golightly”, Martina Batan was once a young art student with a Joey Ramone haircut in NYC’s highly influential late 70s punk era. The polaroids depicting her energetic youth are a stark contrast with her current life as a middle age divorcee & professional art curator. Living alone with two elderly dogs in Brooklyn, NY, Baton is a deeply depressed, anxious soul, one that rarely sleeps or, ostensibly, enjoys herself. One thing that haunts Batan in an ever-increasing intensity is the decades-old violent stabbing death of her teenage brother, a tragedy that tore her family to shreds. One of the ways Batan processes her grief over the loss of her brother, of course, is through collecting Roy Ferdinand’s artwork.

Batan first discovered Ferdinand while volunteering in New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery shortly after the artist’s premature death in 2005. She soon became possessed with the task of collecting what she describes as “a greatest hits” of the artist’s work. Although Missing People is by no means a straight-forward documentary on Ferdinand & his art, it does feature hundreds of his pieces, by far the most I’ve ever seen, thanks to Batan’s tireless obsession as a collector. Besides the drawings, Batan also collected various ephemera from Ferdinand’s life, including a cowboy hat, boots, and unwashed socks Ferdinand’s two living sisters had entrusted to the owner of Barrister’s Gallery (a detail spookily echoed in Batan’s collection of her slain brother’s similar ephemera). Speaking of Ferdinand’s sisters, as a pair they offer one of the few points of insight into the deceased artists’ life & personality, outside stray interview footage of Roy in 1997, a few anecdotes from Barrister’s Gallery owner and, of course, the work itself. Roy’s sisters are particularly endearing in their dismissive laughter after hearing their brother describe himself as “an OG retired”. Whether or not roy was a certifiable “original gangster”, his self-declared role as a “journalist” & a “documentarian” that lead him to record “simple portraits of neighborhood characters” suggests that he at least had some kind of first hand experience with New Orleans’ crime element. As Roy himself puts it, he felt compelled to depict “guns, drugs, violence, and church” in his work because that’s what happens in a city where you constantly see “cops shooting at drug dealers, drug dealers shooting at cops, drug dealers shooting at each other.” Leave the scenic streams & meadows to the artists who live where that’s the reality. Although Roy’s sisters couldn’t corroborate his self-image of a “retired” hard criminal, they did admit that he often sold his paintings as a means to support his crack cocaine habit, saying “When he did his most eye-popping pieces, he was high as a kite.”

Not enough is really known about the “true” Roy Ferdinand to support a full-length documentary in the traditional sense (not that I wouldn’t love to see someone try). As one interviewee puts it, Roy was somewhat of a “performance artist”, adapting to many personas over the course of his lifetime: cowboy, voodoo practitioner, crack addict, fine artist, limo driver, French Quarter eccentric Chicken Man’s “official bodyguard”, etc. Although Missing People makes little to no attempt to offer a full portrait of the artist as a man, it does wonders to establish his role as a docuementarian. Roy explains the reasons he depicts the victims of horrible acts of violence is to preserve their likeness beyond being a mere headline in a news story. He says, “If it wasn’t for me, nobody would remember that these people existed.” Perhaps that sentiment is the essence of Martina Batan’s personal connection with Ferdinand’s work, seeing as how her long-deceased brother suffered a similar fate to many of Roy’s subjects, just in New York instead of New Orleans. The movie offers little in the way of answers.

As Martina struggles with her brother’s mysterious death, with her own failing health, and with an uneasy relationship with Roy’s sisters (who are justifiably suspicious & jealous of her collection of their brother’s work), Missing People paints a bleak, complicated picture. Much like Roy Ferdinand’s artwork, the documentary is painfully honest in an absurdly open, vulnerable way, refusing to play by the rules. Missing People documents the life of a great, little known artist not by offering a traditional biography, but instead focusing its attention on a few people still actively engaged with his work a decade after his passing. It works in the same way that Room 237 revealed a lot about the power of ambiguity in Kubrick’s The Shining by exploring the crackpot theories the film inspired instead of documenting the production of the film itself. As I said, as a fan of his work I would love to watch a proper, full-length documentary about Ferdinand (if that’s even possible), but that’s not at all what Missing People is aiming for. Instead, Roy is just the connective tissue in a story about the people living in his wake. It’s a bold & often frustrating choice, but in a lot of ways the film is more fascinating & satisfying for it.

-Brandon Ledet