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 Rude Dude directed by Ian Fischer.
Jason Sacks: At SDCC this year, I was interviewing Tim Bradstreet – a super-nice and smart guy, by the way – when a friend of Tim's walked over to his booth and handed Tim a DVD. "Here's that documentary of Steve Rude. He's crazy," the friend said. The two buddies chatted for a minute and then Tim and I went back to our interview, shaking our heads and happy that we weren't complicated, difficult people to work with.
Rude Dude is the portrait of a brilliant artist who has bipolar disorder. It doesn't skimp in presenting Steve Rude's mental illness or attempt to show the artist in a manner that minimizes his strange behavior; instead, this film ended up for me being a deeply moving sketch of a deeply thrilling man, a documentary that was surprisingly honest in how it shows the effects that his sickness has had on his family and his ever-dwindling set of friends.
Back when Rude and writer Mike Baron created Nexus, at the dawn of the direct sales comics movement in 1981, it seemed Rude was poised to be the metaphorical Next Big Thing. Possessed of an incredible artistic talent – partially influenced by the great Russ Manning, partially influenced by great illustrators from the early parts of the 20th century – Steve Rude's thrilling art style seemed a bolt of lightning, a revelation for any comic fan used to the grittier style that then was popular in comics.
But as Nexus progressed from being a broad hit to an elusive cult classic, as sometimes fruitful outside work dried up in light of Rude's obsessive perfectionism and his deep emotional problems, His career just kind of faded into obscurity, dissipated in the wind and explicitly rejected by the rise of the Image Comics founders, whose styles betrayed none of Rude's influences. Rude didn't flame out or go into movies or become a producer of video games. He always wanted to produce comics and was devoted to that passion. But the assignments dried up for him, and Steve Rude didn't get as many paying gigs as he wanted.
This doc doesn't flinch from stories about the reasons that Rude stopped working for outside publishers. Nor does it flinch from revelatory stories from Steve's mother, brother, father-in-law and his wife Jaynelle, among others, who describe in shockingly honest and painful detail all the horrible travails that Steve has created in their life. Jaynelle reports with real pain how she had to pick Steve up from the police department when he picketed his psychologist and attacked his neighbor's dogs; even more powerfully painful and interesting is that the filmmakers witnessed a visit from a police office (which seems to be a common event) to talk to Rude about a restraining order that his neighbors had taken out on him.
Elkin, I was struck by the fact that despite the fact that though Rude Dude was a bit awkwardly paced, director Ian Fischer does an outstanding job of showing the truth of Steve Rude's life. Fischer doesn't shy from telling viewers the full story of that frustrating and often sad life, but the documentary never feels voyeuristic or exploitative to me. Instead, it feels like the story of a true Rude fan trying to get to the bottom of why one of his favorite artists just doesn’t get much work and is in danger of losing his house.
Rude Dude couldn't have been more different than Mr. Bitchin'. That film shows us the brilliant Robert Williams, a seemingly very happy and normal man who creates incredibly disturbing art. This week's film is the portrayal of a very complex and unhappy man who creates gorgeous classically-influenced art. They'd make a fascinating double feature, don't you think?
Elkin: It would be great double feature if only because of the juxtaposition. As both men try to step out of their comics background and move into the world of “fine art”, Williams ascends while Rude declines.
I think you rightly point out the source of Rude's fall, Sacks. His illness slowly strips away the very success that it, perhaps, inspired in the first place. But isn't this a classic story? How many great artists of various media suffering from mental illness or alcoholism have blazed brightly in their youth, only to unravel into despair as they age. Think of Fitzgerald, for example. Compare The Great Gatsby to The Last Tycoon and you will see what I mean. Or how about comparing On The Road with whatever crap Kerouac was scribbling into his notebook the afternoon of October 20, 1969. Did you hear Roky Erickson's True Love Cast Out All Evil? What the hell is Daniel Johnson up to now?
This list, unfortunately, goes on. And on. Now add Rude's name to the list.
And of course the irony is that the very madness that undermines Rude's career may be responsible for creating it in the first place. There is a creative force to madness and, when harnessed, the insane can produce profound works of art. But there is a short fuse to this. Madness makes most of us uncomfortable. When someone is playing by a completely different set of rules than the norm, it is difficult to know what to expect. Rude has been prone to violence and dark depression and these swings have interfered not only with his output, but his ability to create at all.
It's heartbreaking, it's scary, and it's, in a way, an indictment of so many failures. There's Rude's own failures, of course, but there is also all the failures of those close to him who have failed to help him. Then there is the failure of the mental health system in the country as well and its inability to rescue Rude from his demons.
And then there is his children. When the film focuses on them and lets them talk about living with their dad – that was really tough to watch. I have to wonder if Rude's wife is making the best choices for her family in the long run by sticking with him.
Who am I to judge?
You are right, Sacks. Rude Dude is a real documentary, as in it documents without comment and paints a picture of a man's life. It is left to us, the audience, to draw conclusions about Steve Rude as a man and as an artist. I agree there are times when the pacing of the film kinda wonks a bit, but overall I would rate this film highly for its honesty and openness.