Film on the Fringe: 10 Intriguing Outsider Art Documentaries

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Jon Foy’s fascinating and unexpectedly personal documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles hits DVD today. The film explores the strange urban mystery surrounding hundreds of tiles adorned with cryptic, metaphysical messages found across the U.S. and South America, which have perplexed people since the 1980s.

Other films have examined the unexpected and unrecognized genius, strange pathology, and obsessively creative works of outsider artists in similarly intriguing ways. Many of the documentaries themselves have taken a low-fi approach to their portrayal, creating a similar mood to the works being investigated. Others come from a straight documentary angle, but all are compelling portraits. Head past the break to check out other outsider documentaries that introduce some of art and music’s most expressive creatives on the fringe.

Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972

Folk artist and ventriloquist Calvin Black created a makeshift tourist attraction in California’s Mojave Desert in 1954 known as Possum Trot. Black created more than 80 life-size female dolls, which he used to perform with during shows set inside his Bird Cage Theater ¬— each one with their own personality and voice. You can see the strangely grotesque figures in action in Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972. Their odd, misshapen forms combined with Black’s quavering impersonation and the desert landscape is a truly surreal experience.

Marwencol

Jeff Malmberg’s documentary chronicles the life and photography of Mark Hogancamp, a man who fell victim to a vicious attack that robbed him of his memory. In order to cope with the strange, new world Mark woke up to after a nine-day coma, he created a 1/6th-scale World War II-era town named Marwencol in his backyard. There, he takes photographs of an army of dolls that resembled the fragments of his broken, former life. The earnest, fairly obsessive, and sometimes highly emotional photos of Marwencol’s characters living out the dramas of Mark’s intricate storylines — some directly related to his relationships with others, including his five attackers — eventually become the subject of a New York City exhibition, which the former hard-drinking, hard-living Navy man struggles with as the anxiety of the real world starts to creep into his make-believe universe.

Jandek on Corwood

Texas enigma and outsider musician Jandek has self-released dozens of albums on his record label Corwood Industries. Most people’s interactions with the singer have been through mail order, but the artist did start performing live in the early 2000s. Still, little is known about him beyond his somber, atonal efforts — but the impressive documentary Jandek on Corwood does its best to explore the mysterious musician’s world regardless. The movie perhaps raises more questions about the cryptic creative than it provides revelations, but the filmmakers knew that going into the project when they were sent a note from Corwood Industries that simply read: “You may not get all the answers you want. It’s better that way.”

In the Realms of the Unreal

The prepubescent, hermaphrodite warriors and lost little girls of Henry Darger’s world come to life in the 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, where director Jessica Yu animates the reclusive artist’s works. The title gets its name from the 15,143-page epic saga that Darger wrote and illustrated, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The exhaustive fantasy tale and Darger’s surreally bizarre images of his young heroines were discovered posthumously. Yu’s documentary does a nice job of exploring his spellbinding universe, creating an equally unreal viewing experience.

Thoth

S.K. Thoth’s street “prayformances” are a blend of spiritual chanting, ambient noise, and mythical fantasy. He sings his tribal, baroque operas in a self-created language, performing with a violin and tells his own stories through dance — all of which is documented in Thoth . The Academy Award-winning documentary takes viewers onto the streets with the artist as he shared his urban incantations with the curious and confused.

Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott

Artist Judith Scott had Down syndrome and was unable to hear or speak, but that didn’t stop her from becoming one of the most celebrated outsider artists of our time. Her complex, intricately woven creations — and her daunting background, which includes a 35-year-long stay at an Ohio institution — are examined in Betsy Bayha’s Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott. Check out a trailer for the film over here.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Sundance winner The Devil and Daniel Johnston brought together four years of inexhaustible footage of the titular outsider musician (including the curious movies that Johnston has created of himself). The manic-depression, schizophrenic singer-songwriter has tragically been in and out of institutions for years, but as the documentary exhibits, his beautifully raw and painfully sincere odes to love and life created a career that most of us can only dream about. A strange juxtaposition, indeed.

The Highwaymen: Florida’s Outsider Artists

A group of self-taught African-American painters from Jim Crow-era Florida sold their colorful landscape paintings from their cars, traveling the highways armed with works of art (sometimes before they even finished drying). They were created from basic construction materials, and the prolific group sometimes painted over 30 pictures per day. The Highwaymen: Florida’s Outsider Artists shares the group’s successes and struggles against the racial barriers of the ’50s and ’60s.

Monster Road

Underground clay animator Bruce Bickford’s darkly humorous, disfigured, and sometimes disturbing creations are the subject of Brett Ingram’s Monster Road . The self-taught Bickford conjures fantastical worlds in his basement studio, where his surreal visions come to life with meticulous detail. Disconnected from the world and disassociated from his father’s advancing Alzheimer’s, Monster Road brings new meaning to the artist’s otherworldly imagery as he battles his own demons.

Wesley Willis: The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Haven’t discovered Wesley Willis yet? There are two things you should become familiar with: Daniel Bitton’s 2003 moving and sometimes hilarious documentary The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Jello Biafra’s obituary for the outsider musician.

“It will be hard now that he’s gone, but I’m not going to let myself stop enjoying the funny stuff, or the look on people’s faces when they first hear “Rock n Roll McDonalds,” or the memories of the good times and Wesley’s many adventures. He wouldn’t want it any other way. There are many down times when all I have to do is think of one of Wes’s songs, something he said or simply marvel at his Wesley-isms, and the clouds part and a smile comes to my face. I think he does that for a lot of people. He always will.”