Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2013's Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin' directed by Mary C. Reese and Nancye Ferguson.
Daniel Elkin: “Purple is a very difficult color.” So begins the documentary Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin', a wonderful film tracing the rise of one the most important and iconoclastic artists of the later part of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It is one of the best biographical documentaries I've seen in a long time, not only for the information it imparts, but also for the humanness of its central character and its singular message of empowerment.
The press release for this film does a great job by way of introduction:
Robert Williams was an artist in search of a movement. A prolific oil painter whose painstakingly detailed work often featured naked women, death, destruction, booze and clowns, he didn't quite fit the fine art mold. In the early 1960s he was confronted with trendy abstraction and superficial pop art. Schooled in the Hot Rod Culture of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch, he emerged as a leader in the Underground Comic revolution along with R. Crumb, contributing regularly to Zap Comix. His antisocial paintings of an alternative reality were marginalized by the art world for decades although he became a hero of sorts for underground artists.
When he started Juxtapoz Magazine in 1994, his movement found him. Legions of artists looking for a place within the contemporary art world for their cartoonish realism identified with his “LowBrow” aesthetic.
And so we have this movie and thank goodness for that.
This is a film that documents the outsider who, by sticking to his vision and creating a movement of his own, was finally able to kick through the barriers of snobbery and boorishness with such force and intent that he could stride through the hole he created, raise his arms in the air triumphantly and shout “Look at this, I've got something to contribute!” That's MISTER Bitchin' to you, son.
As the documentary reveals, Williams is a man steeped in “oblique or abstract thought” who was born into an age of unmitigated conformity. Through a sheer force of will, he was able to identify himself as himself and become who he was, even though who he was was at odds with every societal influence encasing him. It was no act of rebellion, though; rather it was a keen insight into the truth of the self – and this understanding led him on a difficult road to acceptance. While there were times of community and influence in his life, Williams always understood and embraced his own vision. He worked at his craft and finally found the space where there was no choice but for everyone else to catch up and groove with him. As he says in the film, he finally reached “total freedom to do something really bitchin'.”
While this film spends much of its time focused on Williams' struggle for acceptance, it is really a celebration not only for what he is, but for who he is as well. Not only does it celebrate Williams' art (which deserves celebration), it also celebrates Williams the man – you can't help but admire this guy. After watching this documentary, the prospect of having a conversation with Robert Williams face to face would be as intimidating (due to his obvious genius) as it assuredly would be wild, weird, touching, and fun. Williams in no way plays the role of the tortured artist bemoaning a world that can't grok his thing. Instead, Williams is a huge presence who loves his life, loves his wife, loves his own eccentricity and is a man who metaphorically stomps firmly on the dance floor admonishing everyone else to dance with him.
He's “exercising the compulsion” and could never be anyone other than who he is.
Jason Sacks: My heroes have always been the men and women who find their own way and follow their own vision. These men and women are iconoclasts, idiosyncratic people who have the courage and conviction in themselves to take the leap, to lead the way, to do work that stands outside the mainstream but that maintains a consistently progressive approach to his or her work.
Robert Williams represents all that I love in artists: the ability and confidence to create works that reflect their view of the world, no matter what anyone may say about the material that the artist creates. Williams's art is thoroughly unique, and is very particularly his own work, but his paintings also speak to many others in ways that few other artists can. Williams's paintings are visceral and vivid. It intentionally disturbs the eye with its jagged juxtapositions of opposing elements. It tells stories and illuminates our reality, showing the predictable dullness of modern life as the absurd overwrought illusion that it is.
Maybe the most shocking thing about Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin' is just how normal Robert Williams seems. He seems like an extremely nice guy, in a very happy marriage and delivering work that is meaningful and important to him. He's a man who knows what he loves: hot rods, painting, abstract thought, riding his unicycle. In every possible way, as you say, Williams is the opposite of the tortured artist that one might expect from a man who creates such brilliantly disturbing artwork.
As you can see from the video that accompanies this interview [NEED LINK], Elkin, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Williams along with Nancye Ferguson, one of the producers of the film, at Comic-Con. Mr. Williams did not disappoint. He was smart and insightful about events that happened at the dawn of the underground comix movement. He was a wealth of interesting ideas and reflections on history, effortlessly spinning stories about comix and how rebels were seen in society in the 1960s. His talk of concentration camps in America to round up hippies was chilling but accurate. There actually was talk of such an evil move in our country in that era, and Williams would have been one of those people who was taken away.
Mr. Bitchin' does a wonderful job of tracing Robert Williams's life, placing his life history in context and making clear all the forces and experiences that helped to shape him – his carny days, his life with his divorced mom on the streets of Albuquerque, his involvement with the San Francisco underground scene in the 1960s, his deep relationship with the hot rod culture in Southern California – but it also makes the very interesting point that Williams's art is very outward facing. Though his life events obviously shaped Williams's life and creativity, that's not what he chooses to draw.
Williams chooses to draw satires of the world around him, and I think that's what gives his work real power. He takes a bold, flamboyant approach to his art that intrigues him so much. As you say, he embraces his l
ove for oblique or abstract thought to observe our surroundings and then deliver that world back to us in ways that only he could create. He takes modern society, processes it through his own very unique take on it and delivers our experiences back to us in a lurid way that shows us the absurd surreal playground that we live in. He was never accepted by the fine arts critics as a creator worthy of coverage, but Williams's multitude of fans know the unique brilliance of his work.
Those pretentious people with Ph.D.s in Art can stay in their dull Artforum magazine; I'd rather read an issue of Juxtpoz that includes Williams art than some dull abstract painter that doesn't get me excited. Williams is bitchin'.
Trailer for the film:
Watch a wonderful interview with Nancye Ferguson, director of Mr. Bitchin'.
And watch our fascinating interview with the brilliant Robert Williams.