Review: ‘Born Dead, Still Weird’ a jaunty portrait of Gahan Wilson
Steven-Charles Jaffe’s first-rate documentary “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird” appears right on the heels of “Dear Mr. Watterson,” another enjoyable cinematic profile of a famed cartoonist (“Calvin and Hobbes’” Bill Watterson). But Jaffe’s film has a distinct advantage: Wilson, unlike the reclusive Watterson, happily and thoroughly participates in this highly dimensional recap of his life and career, to compelling effect.
The jaunty, eccentric Wilson, 83, has been generating his unique brand of humorously macabre cartoons for more than 50 years. His vivid, influential drawings, filled with lovingly illustrated monsters and quirkily rendered humans and pets, have most notably appeared inside and/or on the covers of such magazines as Playboy and the New Yorker in addition to National Lampoon, where Wilson’s anti-"Peanuts” series “Nuts” was a popular fixture during the 1970s.
Jaffe deftly captures his subject’s creative process, helpfully illuminating the method to Wilson’s comic madness. The director, who has also been an active film producer (“Ghost,” “Strange Days”), effectively integrates in slowly widening reveals many shots of Wilson’s work, which in approach has been described as Charles Addams-meets-Gary Larson (Jaffe aptly calls it “eye candy for the demented”).
Along with entertaining testimony from a starry array of Wilson fans — comedians Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Lewis Black, writer-filmmakers Guillermo del Toro, Nicholas Meyer and Neil Gaiman, plus Hugh Hefner, Randy Newman and comic book magnate Stan Lee — the movie also includes candid interviews with Wilson’s wife and son as well as with various other cartoonists.
But it’s Wilson himself who provides the most vital insight into his idiosyncratic output as he discusses the effects of his Evanston, Ill., youth, growing up as the imaginative child of alcoholics (his father invented the steel venetian blind). That Wilson was, in fact, literally “born dead” (hence the film’s title) but quickly revived by a doctor seems to speak volumes.
Also enlightening is a behind-the-scenes look at the open-call selection process at the venerable New Yorker, where Wilson and many other cartoonists — from well known to newer — regularly present their wares to the magazine’s frank cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff.
The lesson to working artists: Take heart; even an old pro like Wilson faces his share of professional rejection.
‘Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird’
MPAA rating: No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills