Movies: Dear Mr. Watterson
TV: Community [season one, rewatch]
Dear Mr. Watterson
This is a documentary about Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes.
This film was a kickstarter project, and it has that "by fans, for fans" vibe that kickstarter projects often have. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good, because it allowed this movie to exist, and it's great to have a film that takes a close look at Mr. Watterson's work. He was the best comic-strip cartoonist since Charles Schulz, and he deserves our attention. But it's bad, in that a lot of the film is just rah-rah "Yay Calvin & Hobbes!" -- fans expressing their fannishness for the things they're fans of, with as many superlatives as they can excitedly stammer.
It's kind of a shame, because once the documentary backs off from that and catches its breath, it has interesting things to say. The footage of Watterson's hometown of Chagrin Falls does indeed look like a Calvin and Hobbes strip brought to life. Stephen Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, had fascinating things to say about Watterson's decision never to merchandise the property -- he's clearly given the topic a lot of thought, and his ambivalence is far more perceptive than the usual "yay! artistic independence!"/"boo! I want my Hobbes plushie!" flamewar.
I was also fascinated by the interview segments with Berkeley Breathed. Back in the eighties, I was a massive fan of Bloom County, a strip that was in many ways the exact opposite of Calvin and Hobbes. Where Calvin and Hobbes was innocent, Bloom County was worldly. Where Calvin and Hobbes was timeless, Bloom County was hyperfocussed on its time. Calvin and Hobbes aimed for a youthful exuberance, but often fell into melancholy; Bloom County aimed for excoriating commentary, but naturally fell into youthful exuberance. Watterson never signed a licensing deal; Breathed invented a repulsive, un-licenseable character as a joke, and his merchandise empire even licensed the hell out of *that*.
Of course, now kids have no idea what Bloom County is, and they'd need a historical concordance to make sense of it anyway, but that's neither here nor there.
The interesting thing is, the whole time these two strips were running, the two cartoonists were friends. They kept up a steady, illustrated correspondence. And it wasn't just "oh, we'll disagree" -- Watterson railed hilariously against the way Breathed had (in his eyes) sold out, and Breathed shot back with equally sharp wit. The interview segments with Breathed are fascinating -- he seems to look back with melancholy, wondering if Watterson was right all along.
Mainly, this documentary made me very curious about Stripped, another kickstarter documentary. Stripped is about the phase long after the end of Calvin and Hobbes, when the collapse of newspapers started forcing comics art onto the web. It features a poster by none other than Bill Watterson.
Community [season one, rewatch]
I've introduced Lindsey to Community over the last couple of months. It holds up well to a second viewing. This time around, I especially loved how it would go somewhere a normal sitcom would, showing that it ably knew its way around the sitcom rhythms and structures, and then breeze right past that to something exciting and new.
This tag is one of my favorite examples of this. Any sitcom could give you two guys wackily attempting "krumping". And absolutely, the next beat of that is a third guy walking in on them, and the first two characters being all embarrassed. Most shows black out or fade out on that joke, and that's it. Community just whizzes right past that. The real joke, a far funnier joke with a lot more heart, is when Jeff nonchalantly, dorkily joins in.
The genre parodies impressed me more this time. This time around, I could see a sort of arc to them -- tentative efforts earlier in the season, then a nice Goodfellas riff with "Contemporary American Poultry", and then the stunning home run of "Modern Warfare". The genre parodies raise their game throughout the season, and they go out on a high note.
Would that I could say this for the season finale. I thought that "Pascal's Triangle Revisited" was iffy when I first saw it; now it comes across as just bafflingly, out-of-nowhere bad. I hadn't known at the time what a vicious slur the word "tranny" is, and *sigh* there it is emblazoned all over the episode. And somehow, the finale decided that this was a show all about the love triangle between Jeff, Britta, and Professor Slater. That was just bizarre. No, this was a show that got bored with the Jeff/Britt will-they-or-won't-they about six episodes in, and was infinitely better for it. This was a show where Slater and Jeff had already broken up, for that matter. And yet, here's the finale, awkwardly marionetting all the characters against their natures to do the sort of cliché sitcom plotting that Community spent a whole season gleefully satirizing.
The nice thing, though, is that the finale doesn't ruin the season for me. I suppose that's one advantage of an only-partly-serialized comedy series -- the finale is less "the resolution of the season-long plot" or (worse) "the answer to the show mythos's underlying mystery", and more "another twenty minutes of sitcom funtimes." If anything, the cruddy finale highlights just what a high caliber the rest of the season holds to. The Community season one finale is far worse than the rest of the season, but far better than many, many sitcoms.
For next week: I've started watching True Detective. Meanwhile, Lindsey and I are watching Cosmos -- on my own, I'm also watching a Neal DeGrasse Tyson series with the Teaching Company on netflix.
 ... which featured Watterson as a guest artist a few weeks ago.
 Also, I will never look at how they draw Snoopy in the MetLife ads the same way ever again.
 I'm almost certainly projecting ideas that weren't there. Odds are, Mr. Breathed was just annoyed that this Calvin and Hobbes fan boy had come by to bother him.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none