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July 30, 2013

Robert Williams: Mr. Bitchin'

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Mary C. Reese - 2010
Cinema Libre Studios All Region DVD

When the opportunity presents itself to see or write about a documentary, my choice usually involves art of some kind. Maybe not the biggest stretch personally as I've always had some kind of connection with art for most of my life. I also feel you have no business writing about film if you known nothing about any of the other arts.

As for the subject of this film, I was vaguely familiar with Robert Williams from his work in the mid to late Sixties. Initially this was from some of his posters for the "psychedelic ballrooms" of San Francisco, followed a couple of years later by my introduction to Zap Comix. I may have been exposed to Williams' work a bit earlier without knowing it, through the models of customized hot rods of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. (And all this time, I thought that Roth did his own artwork.)

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Williams' own story is about a young man, interested in art, who moves to California at about the same time that Californian youth culture started rumbling across the rest of the U.S. It's also about how a perpetual outsider to the art world eventually gained serious recognition for his work. I'm not an expert on these kinds of things, but in Williams' paintings there is a connection to be found, I think, with Hieronymus Bosch, with both the narrative subject matter and the presentation with the many tiny details that add to the story. The main difference is that Williams uses vernacular iconography and and visual style usually associated with popular culture.

Williams' story is also a narrative about the conflict between the art found in museums and the elite galleries, and art as expressed in comics, on customized cars and even tattoos. Near the end of the film, Williams is described as being to the art world what The Beatles were for music and popular culture. In a way this is appropriate as, just as several artists gained recognition for their work seen on Beatles' albums, Williams' most widely seen painting is the one done for the Guns N' Roses album, "Appetite for Destruction".

Members of Guns N' Roses speak about Williams, as does Debby Harry, Ed Roth and others. What's more interesting is seeing Williams talk about his work as well as showing some of it in progress. Williams' wife and occasional muse, Suzanne, also an artist, appears, discussing their life together based on shared passions for art and hot rods, as well as playing around with unicycles and and sting ray bicycles. There is also the artwork, some seen in a too short gallery. To enjoy some of Williams' art, keep a finger near the freeze frame button.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 30, 2013 07:40 AM