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 friends Eric Hoffman and Jason Sacks bypass Netflix entirely and talk about an opportunity they had to view 2014’s Seth’s Dominion by director Luc Chamberland.
Daniel Elkin: We live in a golden age, Hoffman and Sacks, where there are people who want to make quality crafted documentaries about odd-ball Canadian cartoonists and then share these films with the world.
Seth’s Dominion is such a film. Ostensibly it is a documentary about the artist Seth, who’s the creator of one of my favorite books, the semi-autobiographical comic It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken. The film spends much of its running time allowing Seth to talk about his process and the themes most important to his work. It also features interviews with a number of Seth’s contemporaries, as well as beautiful animations of some of Seth’s stories. The film is one of those documentaries that satisfies all my criteria for a great film, insomuch as it allows the subject to tell his own story, puts him in context with his times through examples of his work and discussions with others, and provides an objective view through its editing. Seth’s Dominion is a great introduction to the man and his art.
But, more importantly, it’s a film about quiet moments of creation and how memories shape us.
The film opens with Seth saying “There is something very lovely about the stillness of a comic book page… the little people trapped in time.” This Keatsian view of comics as “a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme” brings up not only the beauty/truth conundrum, but harks as well to the silent mockery of the “still unravish’d bride of quietness” – that which remains, a repository of the past, “in the midst of other woe.” There is that permanence that putting images to paper ensures. The past and the present collide over and over again.
An exploration of memory is Seth’s world – it is part of his dominion as much as comics. Most of it is a response to the loss that is inevitable onslaught of time. His art forces questions. As experiences fade from our faces, what do we hold on to in our minds? Why do we become enmeshed in the process? How does memory define us? In all of his work, in comics, in illustration, in his models and puppets, Seth tries to answer these questions for himself. Whatever answers he arrives upon for himself he is able to communicate, and it turns out that as we become his audience, they may just be the answers we are looking for ourselves.
Eric Hoffman: Near the beginning of this charming documentary, Seth – perhaps not surprisingly, given his rather inclusive defense of comic art within the larger spectrum of classical arts – includes among his influences the French Impresionists (which, incidentally, also count among forebears as diverse as Canadian landscape artist Thoreau MacDonald, Jack Kirby and Charles Schulz), as these artists prized “feeling” above “detail.” Looking at Seth’s art, both in the three dimensional comics page and in its sumptuous two-dimensional evocation in the animated segments of this film, the viewer is at once struck by the degree of emotional resonance Seth manages to evoke while utilizing minimal visual components. Seth defends this impressionistic cartooning by describing them as “memory drawings.” The description is an apt one, I think, as one’s memory is defined in large part by those details that are forgotten. What remains, therefore, must be brought into sharper focus if it is to fill in the blanks of those lost details. These rescued images then become, in Seth’s description, “iconic,” in much the same way that Snoopy’s doghouse, the baseball mound and the wall in Schulz’s Peanuts are iconic. These rescued images – for Seth a “flash of captured experience,” become a “shorthand for language” – and therefore a shorthand for a shorthand – a frame-by-frame, page-by-page recording comprised of a limited palette of action.
The filmmakers use Seth’s “Rubber Stamp Diaries” as emblematic of this idiom, as these diaries, comprised of fixed images designed for rubber stamps, used repeatedly and without variation, are a stand-in for various everyday activities or situations, an effort that, intentionally or not, intones that human activity – Seth’s at least – is in a sense ritualized and ascribed. These diaries also situate Seth as above all an autobiographical cartoonist (though he refrains from describing his diaries as “cartoons,” seeing them instead as a “hobby”), whose preferred form of narrative is comprised primarily of digressive vignettes.
Yet these diaries also neatly epitomize Seth’s overall philosophy of comics, which seems to have arrived almost fully formed at the start of his career in the mid-1980s, illustrating Dean Motter’s Bauhaus and Futurist-inspired Radiant City in Mister X. Dominion, Seth’s own fictional city, first introduced in his still ongoing magnum opus Clyde Fans (currently appearing in his infrequent comic Palookaville [1994-present]), similarly frames the action of nearly all his key, later fictional work – which also includes Wimbledon Green (2005), George Sprott (2009) and the GNBCC (2011) – and is as a result as much a character of these stories as its denizens. It’s no wonder, then, that one of Seth’s proposed future works is a long, digressive, dialogue-less work focusing on Dominion’s history and architecture, its physical and tactile existence, something Seth has already explored in his construction (in cardboard) of a scale model of Dominion, to which he continues to add, as though he were attempting to recover a memory comprised of a constructed fictitious reality.
This “fictitious reality” – in which his characters live and interact, and which takes place largely from the 1920s to the 1970s, at which time whatever was left of an earlier, less “shabby” era (for Seth a period when everything from buildings to fashions to everyday objects possessed a quality and sense of craftsmanship) began to disappear – is informed by this irretrievable past that Seth longs to rescue and recreate, both in his comics and in his personal life.
As with his comics, Seth’s anachronistic appearance – the fedora, the suit, the smoking jacket – are a piece with the equally constructed plaques and trophies, antiquated electronics and vintage collectibles that decorate his home. Even his pseudonym – meant to evoke other single-named artists of bygone eras, principally those appearing in The New Yorker, something to which Seth gently and knowingly gestured in his search for the fictional cartoonist Kalo in his semi-autobiographical It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken (1996) – is discrete iterations of this effort to revive the skillfully crafted objects of a lost era, not as fetish but as identity.
Such affectation could easily be chalked up to an unforgivable degree of pretentiousness, yet in Seth’s case, and this is convincingly portrayed in this documentary, there is an overwhelming feeling of sincerity to this self-construction. What this documentary conveys is that for Seth, art and life bleed into one another, and what his aesthetic involves is not simply nostalgia, but rather creative expression. This problematizes the readiness of modern audiences to separate art from artist, as Seth’s art, indeed much of his life, is a kind of carefully curated work that does not pretend an accurate vision of the past but rather provides an active, creative, and deeply personal vision of a richly conveyed inner world.
Jason Sacks: I think you said it very well, Eric, in that Seth is one of those particular sorts of artists whose life and work are continually in dialogue with each other. Unlike some, Seth’s art doesn’t “merely” grow out of his artistic obsessions or his need to convey a complex world on paper. Instead, his art is truly an extension of his approach to the world.
It’s backwards or reductive to think of Seth as “just” an artist, as if being an artist is a profession similar to being a bus driver, shopkeeper or hairdresser. Seth’s art is a part of who he is and how he chooses to live. The artfulness of his existence is on display in everything he does: we see his life reflected in his tightly regimented schedule, in his exhaustive notebooks that tell the story of his fictional town, in the three-dimensional models he makes of his town, in his endless diary pages, in the way he dresses, in the house that he dwells in, in the wife he chose to marry.
As you say, none of this is an affectation. Seth’s approach is not pretentiousness and it’s wrong to even think of this as a lifestyle. Instead, Seth’s world is a reflection of a concept that we all aspire to but seldom achieve: it’s deliberately chosen and constructed, a kind of Mandelbrot set, unique to itself and with patterns that replicate the deeper that one delves into Seth’s small but rich world. He is who he is and who he is who he is, and onwards to infinity.
He is a man who sees his life as ritualistic and ascribed, enmeshed in memory, but he’s also content with that existence. He’s a man who finds profound happiness in the world that he’s created for himself, and thrives in calming, profound silences, inside a womb of joy from which is born magnificent creations.
Despite the fact that his work is deeply sad, Seth is not a sad man, or at least not in the way we understand that concept. Instead, Seth seems to see sadness as an emotion to be explored in his work; embraced as a means of finding profounder insight into one’s fellow man, embracing the manner in which recollection works and that views of the world flow from the creator’s pen or rubber stamps onto the memory maps of the pages that he shares with his fascinated readers.
Seth is not Gil Kane or Wally Wood, desperately trying to create work that’s meaningful to himself but unable to earn a reasonable income working in the artform he loves. That’s a profound sort of sadness that many of us can relate to, but to which Seth is privileged to not have to experience. He’s making a reasonable living doing the work that he loves, and what more can any of us ask? He seems to appreciate how good he has it, and has embraced the strange new fact that an independent artcomics cartoonist can earn decent money. It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.
In that aspect, and in many other ways, I ended up feeling an odd sort of envy for Seth. How many of us get to live the life that we dreamed of constructing for ourselves? Seth’s Dominion is a profoundly fascinating documentary.
Elkin: Okay, Sacks – I know you’re baiting me here by opening up one of my favorite can of worms – the Blue Mask of self-construction. Your final question is the one that Seth’s Dominion shuffles to answer by showing us the possibilities of a conscious effort to not only create the self, but the world in which one lives. This film exemplifies an audacity of authenticity – and it is this that I think you envy.
I’ve been saying this in one form or another in nearly every Convenient Truths column we’ve written together, Sacks – that the world as we perceive it is a construct to begin with and we are constantly adapting our performance in it to suit the role we’ve chosen to portray. You say, that “it’s backwards or reductive to think of Seth as ‘just’ an artist” and I agree with you if we are just talking about Seth as a persona living in an environment that, as Hoffman said, “provides an active, creative, and deeply personal vision of a richly conveyed inner world.” This is the Seth as presented in this film, the insight into the man and how he operates in whatever understanding of reality he has.
But I don’t think it at all wrong to call Seth an artist in the sense of one who can evoke an emotional resonance through his purposeful manipulation of lines, ink, paper, and whatnot. What Seth is best at doing is creating the conveyance of silence and, in that, communicating yearning. To take a step back in a medium that often forces stepping forward shows the hand of the artist. To make a statement out of stillness requires more talent than most of us have.
So much of what passes for comix of personal reflection/experience is loud and flashy and we get wrapped up in a sense that we have to glam up and beat the walls with hammers in order to communicate feelings. In this cinéma vérité, we are all students in the George C. Scott school of emoting, afraid that we will be misunderstood if we close our mouths for a moment.
Having to always have the last word isn’t saying much at all.
Wasn’t it Plato who said, “an empty vessel makes the loudest sound”?
Seth, or at least the Seth that this documentary portrays, makes the assumption, has the audacity, takes the leap to work in the negative space of quietude, and through this choice transmits that sense of yearning I was just talking about, the yearning for something twenty-four carat that, for us, seems to occur when we finally notice that we’re steeped in all the plastic people and things and inauthentic experiences with which we distract ourselves in order to avoid the very silence we so desperately need.
And Seth’s Dominion captures this perfectly, being a quiet, winsome, thoughtful little film.
Sacks: And there again is the paradox inside the paradox: a consciously crafted personality that is intended to move people towards authenticity. It’s an audacity of authenticity (I love that phrase!) and it has more power because Seth created it by choice, not chance. The sincerity of the self-construction brings its power in this remarkable documentary of a most remarkable artist.