If you’ve seen American Animals, you know that the word “struggling” really does go hand-in-hand with “artist.” The problem in that film is you can’t simply manufacture a struggle and suddenly declare yourself an artist. Director Chris Brandt takes us into the real struggles of the titular artist in The Illumination of Jim Woodring.
The documentary’s material is primarily a look at Woodring’s art over the years, an interview with him as he’s working on one of his pieces, and a college speech he gave several years ago. Brandt masterfully pulls these sources together to tell a coherent story of Woodring.
From the beginning, Jim Woodring goes to great lengths to explain that he considers himself a cartoonist. The dictionary defines a cartoon as “a drawing intended for satire, caricature, or humor,” of which there is no synonym. Critics refute his designation because they find no humor in his work. What Woodring is is a surrealist painter blending reality and with dreamlike elements and he earned the title cartoonist thanks in part to his most famous work “The Frank Book.”
“He had recurring dreams that his parents were trying to kill him, which didn’t go well with his mother.”
But getting back to the struggle. Jim Woodring has a disorder that he’s had to cope with from childhood. He has what he calls perception problems. Early on, he could not tell the different between fantasy and reality. Waking from a night’s slumber, his dream would extend itself into his conscious reality. If he was watching television, he could find no distinction between animation and live action programming. He also endures facial blindness as he cannot distinguish individual faces, even that of his wife.
This disorder made growing up difficult. He is a child of the 50s and his parents lived under the perceived threat of nuclear annihilation, communism, rock ‘n roll, and homosexuality. Adding on the pressure of day-to-day life, Jim’s mother didn’t know what was wrong with her son and wrote him off as weird and disturbed. He had recurring dreams that his parents were trying to kill him, which didn’t go well with his mother.
Whenever Woodring would close his eyes, he’d see eyes looking back at him, headless animals, and benign apparitions. Like a good mother of the 50’s, she’d cry out, “what’s wrong with you?” as if a child would know the answer. She’s ultimately become “sick to death” of her son and would succumb to cancer at age 47. How’s that for a tragic upbringing?
“…working on his art serves as just enough distraction to get through his history living with a disorder…”
We next transition to Woodring’s discovery of art. While leafing through a science book he bought, his perception problems turned into an asset as he found that the illustrations inside sung to him like music. Then he discovered the world of surrealist paintings, including Salvador Dali. He made an instant connection with form of surrealism and immediately found a home there. This was his new world to embrace and the only problem was he could draw.
I found Brandt’s documentary to be fascinating primarily from regular display of Woodring’s art. It’s both gorgeous and weird, which is how I particularly love to look at life. And as a person who once dabble in art as a child, watching him draw was riveting. I could stand over his should all day and never be bored. His pencil art is meticulous with soft, defined edges and the way he shades is brilliant. Then he transfers his pencil drawings to ink and the fun just starts over again.
The interviews with Woodring are just as intriguing. He gets into some pretty painful shit. It’s almost as if working on his art serves as just enough distraction to get through his history living with a disorder, growing up in a dysfunctional family, and finding his true calling. While the film does tend to drag in the second half, the story of a tragic man finding life in his art and juxtaposed against his actual work is worth watching.
The Illumination of Jim Woodring (2019) Directed by Chris Brandt. Featuring Jim Woodring.
7 out of 10 stars