Documentary filmmaking rewards the obsessive.
You have to be obsessed to dive into and put in the endless hours to finish your film, often in the thin hopes that PBS, a cable channel or Netflix will show it to the tiny audience that such films typically lure. And often, the most arresting subjects are obsessive themselves — obsessive Scrabble players (movie watchers (“Cinemania”), crackpot hermits who write long, psychotic unpublished (and unpublishable novels (“In the Realms of the Unreal”).
And then there are the quirkier, seemingly more normal obsessives who play with dolls and make art with them. “Marwencol” (2010) was about a brain-injured war vet who posed dolls in this vast, elaborate and fictional World War II town he created in his yard, then photographed as art.
“Magical Universe” is about an old man in Maine who does dioramas with Barbie dolls and then photographs them. Al Carbee had become something of a local celebrity/local character in Saco, Maine — stuffing a huge old house with art — dioramas and collages, photographs and sketches, paintings and the like.
He stuffed a huge barn, “the biggest in Maine,” with more of it. He pulled the barn down and moved it up against his house so he could create a vast, odd and self-absorbed gallery of his works. He dug a tunnel in his basement to create more space for this stuff.
Filmmaker Jeremy Workman was tipped off about him, made a short film and became a lifelong pen pal of Carbee’s. “Pen pal” means that Workman was subjected to hundreds of long, rambling stream-of-consciousness/narrate-the-minutia-of-my-day letters and self-absorbed videotapes.
And Workman maintained the connection, even if Carbee came off as “unsettling” and his letters as “the rants of some crazy person.”
Workman’s girlfriend Astrid also appears in the film, an exotic blond who becomes something of a fresh obsession for Carbee. She chastises the filmmaker for the way he characterizes Carbee, first in his short film and now (by extension) in this feature length treatment.
“You’re making a strong statement that he is weird.”
Well, yeah. “Magical Universe” feels like a visit to a hoarder masquerading as an artist. But wandering through the vast collage that was Carbee’s house, you can understand Workman’s mixed feelings. The film serves to validate the art, in an age where “art” can be anything with a good back story. But the viewer sits through these 80 minutes feeling like an armchair psychotherapist.
Carbee comes off as a narcissist who figured his every random thought was worth preserving on film, paper or painting.
He was a creator, sure. But Workman’s film feels exploitative, and the filmmaker cannot help but make Carbee look a little creepy and a bit pathetic. The only thing that eases your conscience watching “Magical Universe” is the difficulty in deciding, “Who was using whom here?”
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