When choosing films to see in my limited time at the Cinetopia Film Festival, I had to decide what to see. That may seem like a simple task, but when there are four films of different genres with different themes all of which sound great in different ways playing at the same time, it can be difficult to decide.
The other three films I saw, 5-25-77, Big Sur, and The Spectacular Now, I had heard of before. They had reputations and sounded like films that would interest me. Dear Mr. Watterson? Before seeing its listing on the Cinetopia schedule, I had no idea what it was. The name “Watterson” sounded familiar to me, but I could not place it. I had not read my Calvin and Hobbes comics in years.
I watched its trailer.
I instantly felt what I consider to be the strongest and most unique emotion in existence: nostalgia. Nostalgia for the days when I read C&H, nostalgia for when I too wished to be Calvin; hell, nostalgia for the days I wished to be Hobbes. I missed those days. The film, which followed those who followed the footsteps of comic author Bill Watterson, perfectly captured that nostalgia. Everyone in the film captured it, in fact.
The opening of the film shows the effect the comics had on everyday people, from a foreigner who learned English so he could read the comics to a teenager who claimed that her first and only crime was stealing a Calvin and Hobbes book from a library. That section, and the twenty minutes after detailing how Bill Watterson affected the director, feature film newcomer Joel Allen Schroeder, had me smiling nonstop. I only became aware that I was smiling when the next section, the effect of Watterson’s disinterest in merchandising the comics, occurred. That is not to say that section is dull. Actually, it is pretty great, like the film is. It’s just not quite as much fun.
The running theme of the film is, as one can probably already tell, the effect Watterson had on every aspect of the comics, from the industry, to the critics, to who he influenced, to everyday people, and even to himself. Every section works. Every section is beautifully shot. Every section is accompanied by a few strips of the best of the comics. Every section is enhanced by the music of We Were Pirates.
In fact, I want to single out We Were Pirates for a minute. Here is a band I have never heard of, creating some of the most memorable music I have heard in a documentary. ANY documentary. This score sticks in your mind, makes you nostalgic (the running theme of my review) for all of the same things the film does, and it just makes you happy. I dare you, reader, to find a score to a documentary that does ANY of those things better.
Something some documentary directors do nowadays is forget style. For me, when I watch a film, I love style. Obviously substance comes first, but I feel that style is a necessity. That lack of style is one of the few problems with last year’s excellent documentary on film vs. video Side by Side. This film does not suffer that problem. Sometimes strips of the comics are shown to the viewer in black and white, and then color drips into them. After doing this a few times, when it is done in opposite fashion to explain the way newspapers are ruining the daily comics, its force is felt.
Twice by my count, Watterson’s books of his comics are shown flipping through each page. This is an excellent directorial flourish by Schroeder to show how much work he has, making it seem like there are infinite numbers of pages, going, going, going, going going… until it closes. The books close. The viewers know that the comics ended. They is a finite supply of them. This is part of the nostalgia we as an audience feel progressively as the film continues; we do not only remember the great joy of the comics, but the disappointment of knowing it ends. We are not left with this feeling. The film goes great lengths explaining that the ending of the strip was the best possible ending. That it was the ending everyone deserved to receive. The ending Calvin and Hobbes deserved. “Let’s go exploring!” it says as it ends.
The style of Dear Mr. Watterson makes the emotional moments resonate best. The music brings a feeling of happiness. The enthusiasm of each person interviewed for the film shows Watterson’s lasting effect on the world around him. Every singular part of the film wants to praise him, to thank him for what he has done. That is what Dear Mr. Watterson is about. It is a love letter to Mr. Watterson, and written at the bottom are the signatures of the universe he touched.
This is a review for a film at the 2013 Cinetopia Film Festival in Ann Arbor Michigan, which took place between June 6 and June 9.