Docurama // 2004 // 27 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // May 31st, 2005
No, not that John Bolton. The other John Bolton. Well, kind of...
There are some movies you can't discuss without giving bits away. Spoilers they call 'em. The problem with spoiling A Short Film About John Bolton is worse than the usual; even if you don't give anything away, being secretive becomes a spoiler itself. Everyone you tell about the movie will just be sitting there, waiting for the big cake-popper. So I'm going to do the review backwards; we'll start off with non-spoiler comments and deal with the disc, and then move on to the actual film short. (Well, video short, but nowadays that's in the ballpark.) So, here's the non-spoiler version:
This short film consists of interviews with renowned painter John Bolton which focus on a series of his portraits of female vampires. The segment also features commentators and his agent, and includes a rare journey into Bolton's private studio. If you're a fan of Neil Gaiman (creator of fine comics material such as Sandman and Signal to Noise and author of such bestsellers as American Gods and Neverwhere), then this film should be on your menu somewhere. But this DVD costs too much, so rent it if you can. If you're a fan of John Bolton...yeah, go ahead and see it.
The video, sourced from TV-style video cameras in an effort to resemble certain BBC programs, is spotty from the start but presumably well-represented on the disc. Towards the end, Gaiman limits the camera to a single home-movie camera and these parts are not visually thrilling. The whole movie isn't visually thrilling, actually, but it serves its own needs. Audio on this short is about 95% dialogue, and all of it is crisp and clear.
As befits a package with a 27-minute lead feature, there's an extensive array of bonus material. The audio commentary from Gaiman and the film's narrator/interviewer, Marcus Brigstocke is interesting but uncompelling. An interview with Gaiman, which is really a conversation between him and Brigstocke, spends as much time on Gaiman's director beard as it does on the movie itself. There's an audio-only track of Gaiman reading his short story Drawn in Darkness, which served as the film's launchpad. The truly hefty portion on this DVD is not meat, but potatoes: a live reading by Gaiman at the Alladin in Portland which lasts nearly two hours. He reads poetry about old friends and several short stories, including "Chivalry," a mythological comedy which demonstrates Gaiman's acknowledged debt to Roger Zelazny.
The reading is done as a benefit for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) (which defends against attacks on our freedoms that are aimed at comics because they usually don't have money to pay for good lawyers). This segment is introduced by Dark Horse Comics president Mike Richardson, and for those who enjoy readings it's a treat. The video portion is boring -- but hey, it's a podium reading, and we're not talking about Henry Rollins or Hitler or someone, you know, particularly effusive. Gaiman's a staid, quiet reader with just a touch of storyteller's cutesiness, but he holds the mostly young audience's attention without trouble. This reading has been previously available on VHS; this is its first disc release. One might even argue that John Bolton is the bonus feature here. One "bonus" which is of mild interest is the inclusion of a DVD menu version of Docurama's complete catalog, including several trailers. This is an excellent idea for smaller labels.
Okay, everyone who wants to see it blind (what a strange phrase) should leave now. Come back and read the rest when you've seen it, if you like. Or if you don't care, read on. You, over there, what's with the shifting back and forth, make up your mind! You want spoil? You're sure? Spoil? No spoil? Well what exactly is it that you want? Oh. Um, down the hall and to the left. Don't forget to jiggle the handle or it'll run all day.
Okay. Well, this film fooled me at first. I thought it was about the real John Bolton. No no, not the guy charged with angering other Western nations, we've already established that. But I did think it was the real artist John Bolton, at the very first. Well, it ain't. For starters, the real Bolton paints a great deal more than "naked lady vampires," as Gaiman calls them. Probably his easiest-referenced incursion into American pop culture is the comic book adaptation of Army of Darkness (unless there's an album cover I don't know about, although his actual career has ranged far and wide). And nope, this isn't him, although he does appear in the film as a gallery guest, and the paintings in the film are his. What I thought when I saw the title was, "Hey neat, Neil Gaiman is making a series of documentaries about comic artists." Completely wrong. This is what they call a "mockumentary," which is a rather silly word, but whatever. It's also a pastiche, hopefully on purpose, of an H.P. Lovecraft story I shall not name, but the title's an anagram of "scammed ink lop."
The performances in the "documentary" are quite good. Marcus Brigstocke nails his impression of a certain BBC interviewer quite well, although he seems a bit young. He's not up to carrying this much material, which primarily consists of waiting for Bolton. Bolton is portrayed, er, created, by the dry John O'Mahony. His general reticence is the basis for the humor of the whole piece, but the short film is actually ruled by Carolyn Backhouse as Bolton's cynical, shallow agent. She forms the real biting wit of the piece, and when we get to the "plot" in the studio visit, this satirical edge is mostly lost in her absence. Backhouse delivers the perfect performance for satire: a cad in earnest. When Bolton, pre-opening, delivers a set of utterances which may or may not be the titles of the paintings, she effortlessly shifts gears and refuses to acknowledge having been made a fool of, or maybe just doesn't notice. It's the best part of the movie.
Neil Gaiman has essentially made a clever student film here; one which is worthy of a small commercial release on the name recognition value of the student. The commentary acknowledges this; Gaiman refers to it as a training piece for his self-directed Death: The High Cost of Living, which may or may not materialize. Gaiman is currently working on several film projects; here's hoping that John Bolton got him the experience he wanted and that everything goes well, because we need people this full of ideas in the cinema landscape.
The upshot? Same as the non-spoiler above. It's a cute little ditty, by no means vintage Gaiman or vintage filmmaking, but worth one look. Bearing in mind that John Bolton is more or less a student film will help. And the bonus materials should be of interest to anyone interested in archival recordings of author readings. That's a whole realm at the public library, so procurers should take note of this release. It costs too much at $24.95; it's possible that some funds from this release go to the CBLDF and that would be a good excuse for the high price tag, but there's no indication of this. There is, however, a text message from Gaiman about the CBLDF, and I'll close this review by echoing his sentiment that everyone who cares about First Amendment rights should offer the fund at least some support. It's the little people, in those court cases nobody much hears about, that wind up bearing the brunt to set major legal precedent that can affect us all.
A Short Film About John Bolton is released on its own recognizance pending further evidence.
Review content copyright © 2005 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 27 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The Making of John Bolton
* Footage of a reading by Gaiman in Portland, OR
* Audio commentary by Gaiman and Marcus Brigstocke
* John Bolton image gallery
* Cast/crew biographies