At the 90th Academy Awards ceremony last night, the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) went to Frank Stiefel’s Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, a moving film about the Los Angeles-based artist Mindy Alper. Alper has struggled with mental illness her whole life, and uses drawing and papier-mâché sculpture as a means of both therapy and communication. The film’s title comes from one of Alper’s many simple, yet strangely philosophical, musings about life. “I love being inside of the 4-circle-5 freeway in my car during traffic, as long as I’m not late or have to pee,” she says at the start of the film. She enjoys sitting and watching people in the other cars, or just having some time to think.
The 40-minute documentary consists largely of Alper talking about her life. Her speech is sometimes abrupt and her grammar disjointed; she lost her ability to use words for 10 years when she was younger, and has brain damage from electro-shock therapy. Perhaps because drawing was her primary means of communication for so many years, Alper’s wording is strangely visual — “circle” instead of “zero,” “two, seven” instead of “27.” When Alper talks about her childhood, she says she remembers her mother in black-and-white, “partially from the smoke of her cigarette,” while her often angry, sometimes abusive father is pink or red.
While Alper describes her unhappy childhood (she was kicked out of the house at 16) and the many pills she takes each day (Prozac, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, cholesterol pills), her surreal drawings — along with animations of her works — fill the screen. In one drawing, the trunk of an elephant morphs into a hand, covering the mouth of a limbless yellow person. In another, Alper hangs herself up to dry on a clothesline by her hair. She says she’s been “drawing since I could hold a pen,” using art to relieve her anxiety. At the same time, she was making something to give people so she could “get love from them,” she says matter-of-factly. “I couldn’t impress people any other way.”
Alper is clearly a talented artist, yet she’s often unsure of herself: she sees herself as undeserving, and worries that passersby will see her works as they’re being unpacked outside of her solo exhibition. Although Alper’s self-confidence deserves a boost, her modesty, self-awareness, and total lack of pretension are refreshing. When, in the lead-up to the Oscars, Boston’s WBUR asked Alper who could play her in a movie, she answered: “I would hope Danny DeVito would play me. And if he wasn’t available, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis.”