By Robert K. Stephen
(WINDSOR, ON) – The Norwegian documentary, “Pushwagner” will be offered at the Toronto Hot Docs 2012 Festival as a world premiere on 3 and 4 May 12. Hariton Pushwagner is a brilliant cartoonist being somewhat of a cross between Keith Harrington and H.R. Crumb. Brilliance is shown in his urban alienation themed Soft City drawings replete with armies of urban masses in a faceless industrial society. However brilliant Pushwagner is there can be no doubt of his prodigious and self-destructive consumption of alcohol and drugs throughout his surprising long life. We have seen this so many times with those in the entertainment industry and in the artistic community that Pushwagner’s excesses are nothing novel. What is novel and worth closer inspection is the notion of control and who controls the controller.
The film begins with a man in a control room editing the Pushwagner documentary. We only see the back of his head. He may be Pushwagner or he may not be. Although we see him controlling the documentary from a technical perspective several times throughout the film we never see his face. Pushwagner appears in front of the camera wielded by the camera crew and desperately tries to control the filming. He explains his past and how he ended up homeless consuming vast amounts of alcohol and amphetamines but then is rescued by “Stefan” who resurrects Pushwagner into somewhat of a pop hero all quite reminiscent of Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood’s “creation” of the Sex Pistols. As Pushwagner has been recreated by Stefan he appears to have lost control. What credibility can we give Pushwagner when he says, “Art is fiction. It’s about telling a good lie.” Sounding like some Sex Pistol’s lyrics? Speaking of art we see precious little of it and since most of the film is in black and white we lose the intricacies of his art when we do see it.
Pushwagner has lost so much control of himself that he adopts the name Pushwagner instead of using his real name Terje Brofos. His lack of control is emphasized with the revelation he is suing a former assistant, Morton Dreyer, to overturn a contract wherein Pushwagner signed over 2,000 pieces of his art to Dreyer. The courtroom scenes vividly show Pushwagner sketching the actors in the litigation and only highlight his tremendous interpretative talent. Pushwagner wins his case and off he goes to open a show of his works at a major gallery where the film fades with Pushwagner lost in a crowd of patrons almost like the anonymous mass of humanity he draws in Soft City. The film is an excellent portrayal of a self-destructive artist who has failed to control the controllers. Make your mind up if he is a brilliant artist, a pathetic vagrant, a wounded personality, mentally disturbed or an eccentric. Truth told he is a bit of everything. The last shot of the control room shows no one in the chair controlling the film. Is the controller being controlled? This is the sheer joy of the documentary. An unforgettable 68 minutes. You’ll spend another 68 minutes after the movie trying to figure out this film. As Pushwagner says, “Art comes at a price. You hurt yourself. You cry.”
(Pushwagner, Norway, 68 minutes, Director August Hanssen and Even Benestad, Rating 14A, International Premiere 3 May/4 May 12, Toronto 2012 Hot Docs Festival).