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.A
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 “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, comic artist Seth – perhaps not surprisingly, given his rather inclusive defense of comic art within the larger spectrum of classical arts – includes among his influences (which, incidentally, also count among forebears as diverse as Canadian landscape artist Thoreau MacDonald, Jack Kirby and Charles Schulz) the French Impressionists, 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 for Seth 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.