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Al Carbee was an old man who liked dolls.
He was also something of an unwitting, quintessentially postmodernist artist, whose staged photographs, with their fantasy-scene set-ups featuring legions of Barbie dolls could give the mises en scène of Cindy Sherman or Laurie Simmons a run for their self-conscious, irony-laden invitations to the gaze.
Carbee, who died in 2005 at the age of 91, was not only fond of Barbie, that leggy, plastic, sexless icon-in-miniature of someone’s ideal of feminine beauty, which first came to market in 1959; he also was obsessed with her — or it; choose a pronoun depending on what kind of life or soul your imagination is willing to breathe into this 11.5-inch-tall stick of molded polyvinyl chloride and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, which to date has sold more than one billion units worldwide.
Carbee’s preoccupation with Barbie is a primary focus of the New York-based filmmaker Jeremy Workman’s fascinating new documentary, Magical Universe. Having won awards at numerous film festivals, Workman’s study of the life and little-known — until now, with this movie — creative production of Carbee, a recluse who lived in small-town Saco, Maine, is one of the most compelling, if not always easy to watch, documentaries about an artist to have come along in quite a while.
Workman is now appending an epilogue to his film, which will summarize a recent development concerning the fate of Carbee’s artworks in the period following his death. The movie will have a limited theatrical run and digital release later this year.
I saw Magical Universe a few weeks ago at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, in Chicago, at which time Workman, the film’s director, producer, writer, editor and de facto co-star, answered questions from the audience. More recently, in an interview in Manhattan, he told me more about the themes of his film and the reactions he has witnessed since he began presenting it on the festival circuit.
Magical Universe is an unusual film about a peculiar subject. It is also as much the story of its own making as it is a portrait of the elderly Carbee and a recollection of the emerging friendship among the hermetic artist, Workman, and the filmmaker’s then-girlfriend (and now wife), Astrid. “If your idea of a documentary is one in which a Frontline-style, detached voice narrates authoritatively, then this film might not be for you,” Workman said.
Magical Universe, whose title comes from Carbee’s voluminous “spirit” writings, which describe his worldview in countless letters and scrapbooks, is an inventive micro-budget production — think long, unpaid hours and maxed-out credit cards. To make it, Workman, who runs his own production company and is a well-known creator of movie-promo trailers, employed an arsenal of different cameras — conventional video, HD, super 8 and more — and a variety of editing techniques and on-screen graphics. The look and feel of the film reflect those of Carbee’s mixed-media, collage-based art.
The movie is also deeply personal, and at times intriguing, cloying, funny, charming and unsettling. Carbee’s story and, thus, the film, are steeped in an ocean of pathos and beg the heart-wrenching question: How could any human being ever have been so lonely? (At one point, in a videotape he made himself, we see Carbee tell his camera, “When Jeremy dropped in on me, it seemed wonderful to have some real, live people around that was interested in me,” and later, “Oh, for a real, live Barbie!”) Viewers may find it hard not to psychoanalyze the man through his art, but Workman does not do so in his narration or visuals.
Psychotherapists, body-language interpreters, art historians and specialists in all things Barbie could have a field day analyzing the widower Carbee’s lifestyle and artistic creations, which filled his big, ramshackle house and attached barn, as well as a mysterious basement (to say more about that part of his abode would spoil one of the film’s strangest revelations). Carbee’s pantheon of muses included Sports Car Barbie, Outer Space Barbie (she wore an astronaut’s suit and roamed a dinosaur-filled planet), Hippie Barbie, Beach Barbie, Parisian Barbie, Los Angeles Airport Barbie and many others. He constructed colorful sets for them, in which they sat together and chatted, sometimes discussing a planet called “Epicuma,” whose inhabitants “think positive thoughts.” Of his dolls, Carbee said, “I think of these as being real people. Live people.”
He also remarked, “I keep taking pictures night and day for my own satisfaction. I don’t show them to anybody. […] She’s the perfect model. Barbie never complains. […] I’m photographing them like they were real people.”
In the late 1990s, Jeremy and Astrid were traveling in Maine. A friend of theirs had heard about a man who made “art” using photographs and “other stuff,” including dolls, and recommended that the couple look him up. Carbee, a reclusive loner and former studio photographer, portrait painter and commercial artist, was stunned to receive visitors. He instantly offered them his friendship.
Workman shot rough video footage of that first encounter and turned it into a four-minute film, Carbee’s Barbies, which played at small venues, including a pizza shop. Meanwhile, Carbee began inundating Jeremy and Astrid with collage-filled letters containing photos of his Barbie dolls in assorted poses, headlines clipped from newspapers and his own incomprehensible jottings.
Workman sent Carbee his short videotape, a friendly gesture that inspired Carbee to buy his own second-hand video camera and, in a Warholian turn, start shooting just about everything in his home all the time — his Barbie dioramas, his cluttered rooms, his own mug talking to the camera and the perambulations of his fuzzy white cat, Ditto. Sometimes he spliced snippets of TV shows into his video collages. Imagine the visual jamboree of a Nam June Paik experimental videotape crossed with amateurish home movies crossed with rom-com teen scenes from the Disney Channel. In one tape, Carbee addresses his camera and says, “I’m a mystery […] to myself, a mystery to anybody that knows me. An interesting mystery.”
“I’m a creative person,” he tells Workman more than once. In his New England accent, which flattens words containing the “ar” phoneme, so that “Barbie” sounds like “Baaaahbie,” he says, emphatically, “A creative person has to be creative.” At one point Workman joins Carbee in an upstairs room of the old man’s house, where cardboard boxes hold thousands of photomat-processed snapshots of his Barbie set-ups. The artist also shows his visitor the innumerable volumes of writing-, photo- and collage-filled scrapbooks he has produced, in which he has elaborated on the mysteries of the planet Epicuma, the wonders of Barbie and other unfathomable topics.
Jeremy and Astrid both sensed something irregular about the emotional temperature of Carbee’s affection, not to mention his obsessive fixation on Barbie dolls. (When they meet for the first time, in a moment Workman captures on video, Carbee glances at the blonde Astrid and enthusiastically notes that she resembles “a real live Barbie.” Later he sends snapshots that Jeremy and Astrid have sent him back to them, now incorporated into his hand-made collages, which include his Barbie photos. Alas, life is not a cabaret, old chum. In these post-postmodernist times, even in the most tucked-away outposts of privacy-loving Maine, life is a pastiche, an anything-goes, everything’s-up-for-grabs, meaning-subverting collage.)
Some viewers might cringe at Carbee’s conflation of Workman’s human girlfriend and his “friends” made of flexible plastic, but Magical Universe charges on, irresistibly exploring, as its director pointed out in our interview, the nature of the trio’s evolving friendship.
Then, in a moment of meta-narrative, in which we watch Astrid, at home, watching a videotape of a scene we, the Magical Universe audience, have just viewed ourselves, in which Carbee comes across as cloying and the character of the trio’s friendship feels unhealthily claustrophobic, she looks directly into Jeremy’s camera and advises him to focus more on the old man’s art and less on the personal aspects of his life. “I think the final cut of the film does this,” Workman told me, “but the fact is that, over the period of time it covers, Al’s life and his art-making and our lives, too — they were all inextricably intertwined.”
Something big and unexpected occurs during the last 20 minutes of the film, but it would be ungracious to give away its multiple endings. For now, let a few snippets of dialog suffice to offer a measure of the surprise, sadness, coincidence and fatefulness that mark its concluding episodes.
There is the moment, for example, when Carbee tells Workman, “This is the first time I’ve entered into the real world.” Later he tells his younger friend, “I watch people but I don’t get in contact with them.” At an event they attend together, Workman asks the shy artist if being there makes him feel happy. Carbee replies, “It frees me. I’m now part of the world of reality.” A rare family member who appears to have had some contact with the artist, his adult nephew, recalls that his uncle’s late wife had always been “ashamed of his Barbies and his photographs.” Then, somewhat philosophically, he adds, “Craziness is only what people perceive it to be.”
There are some aspects of Magical Universe that are too cute or perturbing, but as a subjective documentary with an unabashedly humanistic point of view (“Al is someone you like; he’s an underdog,” Workman told me), it is neither cynical nor patronizing (it would be very easy to laugh at various aspects of Carbee’s life and activities) nor is it exploitative. Instead, it dares to be open-hearted and nonjudgmental. Its story of a man who found solace and friendship in plastic toys and, one day, remarkably, with real-life humans, is simple and moving. Its real theme is emotional vulnerability — Carbee’s, Workman’s, that of anyone who has ever ached from loneliness — and maybe that is a subject that is best examined like this, when it appears in its raw, most potent form — not scripted, stylized, romanticized or all dolled up.