THEYYSCENE.COM | Pablo Bryant’s brilliant doc Mr. Fish
Pablo Bryant’s brilliant doc Mr. Fish an incredible
deep dive into the uncompromising
life and art of controversial cartoonist
November 27, 2018 by Mike Bell
It takes true talent to make someone root for an asshole.
Well, not necessarily an asshole, per se, but an unabashed, unapologetic, uncompromising and brilliant human being, who doesn’t want or need your acceptance or understanding to live his life, think the thoughts he does or express himself in an unfiltered way.
So. An artist.
And those, actually, at this time and place in history, are the people we should be rooting for.
You will, should you see the fantastic, almost effortlessly likeable and watchable new documentary Mr. Fish: Cartooning From the Deep End from director Pablo Bryant about controversial American cartoonist Dwayne Booth.
It kicks off CUFF.Docs with a Wednesday, Nov. 28 screening at the Globe Cinema, and because of the skills of the first-time feature filmmaker and the subject he focusses his lens on, will make you very much root for Mr. Fish and wish for many more like him.
“He’s very comfortable with who he is, he knows who he is and he’s not ashamed with who he is or what he thinks, and he feels like it’s all good stuff to play with for him,” says Bryant of Booth, who creates under the Mr. Fish nom de plume.
“At times it even comes off as a little bit — not quite high horse, but when someone is that comfortable with that opinion sometimes we don’t know how to deal with that. I think that’s part of what’s cool about him in the film. For me it becomes a reminder that it’s OK for us to have opinions and it’s OK for us to engage in these difficult conversations and we should maybe not take our own opinions so seriously that we can’t have those engagements.”
The film, often reminiscent of the celebrated Terry Zwigoff doc Crumb, about outsider counter-culture cartoonist Robert Crumb — minus the unsettling subplots — follows Booth through several years of his life, and is supplemented by interviews with family, friends (including musician Graham Nash), fellow cartoonists and admirers.
The time frame is from 2012 to 2016, at the very time when the entire art of political cartooning was first hooked up to life support, let alone those who have no problem challenging and offending the sensibilities of both sides of the political and cultural spectrum.
That, actually, was the reason Bryant, a longtime cinematographer, chose him as the person he wanted to showcase for his initial entry into the world of moviemaking.
“In a very simple way it seems to me that the world is on fire and we’re not talking about it in the right way … Especially when it comes to news media, but even popular art — music, television, movies, even a lot of authors are not facing the reality that we’re in,” Bryant says.
“The film touches on how he feels that he was born 20 years too late, he really wanted to live in the ’60s where outrage and dissent and questioning authority and all things were deeply in the culture and expressed through all of the arts. So, personally, for me, why I made the film is you start to feel in a bubble, that you see the world in a certain way but it’s not being reflected, that reality is not being reflected back at you through the arts or through the news media.
“So discovering him was like discovering someone who was in the same universe that I was in, and I think that I was deeply hungry for artists who were really going to look at the world and engage with the world with their art and do the things he does …
“It really spoke to me and it felt vital and important, and he’s also just down for dick joke, so it’s this great balance of looking honestly at the world for the way it is and yet still being playful with his sensibilities and his creativity.”
Likely, you’ve seen Booth’s work in such notable publications as The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones Magazine, the Utne Reader and Slate.com, be it his iconic panel, which features anartist asking for a grant to finish his piece, which is a likeness of the man from which he’s asking for the funds with the words “Fucking Assho” underneath; or his remarkable, timely takes on iconic Norman Rockwell works such as The Problem We All Live With and Triple Self-Portrait.
But the doc lets you see and understand the man and cartoonist who made them in a way that makes you appreciate his gifts as an artist and satirist whose only real compass is to follow his creativity in a way that serves only that creativity and the truth behind it.
As Bryant says, he was inspired by Booth’s unwavering attempts to follow his art and his thoughts through all of the “different tones of expression (that) are available to him — from the really dark, disturbing very, very difficult subject matter to the goofiest, funniest, dirty whatever, it’s all available to him.”
That also includes Mr. Fish’s style, which runs the gamut of simplistic to hyper-real, flying entirely in the face of every cartoonist’s bit of advice, which is to stick with something that is immediately identifiable as you.
“He just said, ‘Fuck that. That’s not the way to honour my creativity. I’m going to express the idea as it comes to me,’ ” says Bryant. “He likes to say he’s just trying to serve the idea.”
Of course, that’s all just part of Booth rebelling against the “commodification of his art.”
That, in itself, is a large part of the film: How can one be uncompromising in their ideals yet still hope to make it in a free-market society? How can someone not be afraid of pissing off all sides of the spectrum while still hoping to earn a living in a capitalist society?
The conflict plays out through several deeply personal discussions with he and his wife Diana, a teacher who, while fully supporting him, also needs to reckon with the real-world repercussions that his unwavering artistic vision has on her, their two daughters and all of their futures.
“The conflict of him and money, his relationship to money and how that affects what he’s willing to do to get money, how he responds to the stresses of needing money, those all play out in his life and with his family,” Bryant says.
“It wasn’t something I wanted to focus on immediately, I was more just drawn to him as an artist. And later after I’d actually been shooting for years and I got an editor onboard we started to really discuss focussing in on that aspect of their life: how does his relationship to money and his disgust with money and the whole money system, how does that affect him personally? And it was pretty amazing to get some of those very intimate arguments with them.
“People always ask me, ‘How did that happen, did you set it up or what?’ It really just unfolded organically in front of me.”
That was because for much of the shooting, Bryant was embedded with the Booths, staying in their home, and privy to breakfast conversations, family gatherings and other interactions.
And as for their participation, the filmmaker says they “never put up any roadblocks for me,” save for some opinions Mr. Fish had on the art they were using in the film.
The final push and the fitting denouement for Cartooning From the Deep End actually came as a result of some of that art, with it actually all-but-completed in 2015 before being shelved for a year.
Then just after the inauguration of Donald Trump, permission was requested from Booth for one of his cartoons — a stunning work featuring No. 45 dancing with a skeleton — to be used on a banner at the women’s march in Philadelphia.
Bryant pulled the camera back out, flew to Philly and shot the final footage which would put a pretty wonderful bow on the doc.
“We get a glimpse into how he responds to Trump’s election with his art,” he says, noting that most of the other work shown was from the Obama era. “So we’re now here as opposed to there.”
And where we are now is that the film is finally out in the world, having shown superbly at several festivals around the world, after CUFF.Docs heading for iTunes where it should, hopefully, find a wider audience and, in Bryant’s mind and intent, a greater appreciation for Mr. Fish.
“Absolutely,” he says of his wishes for the film. “Like I said, I feel like he’s someone who’s facing reality and using his art to reflect how he feels about it and using his art to create conversation and to wake people up and to get people thinking. And audience after audience after audience, I get people coming up to me who look like they’ve had the light turned on and they feel really inspired. I’ve had people say that he’s reminded them to be true to themselves and to really follow their hearts and be brave, and that’s an amazing thing to hear.
“They’re responding to — 80 per cent of what they’re responding to is his art and the other 20 per cent is how the film is constructed and how it portrays him and his struggle and the decline of the art form and the context of how we’re looking at him in the film.
“But that doesn’t matter to me, it’s that people are turned on by him.”
Mr. Fish: Cartooning From the Deep End screens Wednesday, Nov. 28 at the Globe Cinema as part of CUFF.Docs, with both Pablo Bryant and Dwayne Booth in attendance. For tickets and the full schedule please click here.