We're all living in Judge Gordon Sullivan's imaginary nation.
Each person is a nation unto themselves.
Outsider art emerged as a critical category in the early 1970s to describe work by artists working entirely outside the mainstream of art culture (or even mainstream culture in general), and generally applied to those artists working at some disadvantage (usually mental or economic). Although critical categories are shaky at best, something like the Watts Towers would be the instance of outsider art familiar to most people. Generally, true outside art is unknown during the creator's lifetime—only after the artist has died do confused relatives discover the fruit of all that labor.
In some cases, though, an outsider artist is discovered before their demise. Such is the case with Renaldo Kuhler, the subject of Rocaterrania (which sounds like Rocky Terrain-ee-ah). This film documents Kuhler's seventy-six years and his creation of an alternate country (called, appropriately enough Rocaterrania), which has mutated over the last sixty years through revolutions and cultural change. Rocaterrania is an important document of the life of an outsider artist, but watching it can be a chore, both for the tragedy of its subject and the occasional lapses in storytelling.
Renaldo Kuhler (born Ronald Kuhler) was a shy child sent away to boarding school by his parents, where he was mercilessly teased. He inherited from his father—a designer of trains—an artistic talent. To escape the lackluster world around him Kuhler developed an alternate nation, Rocaterrania, to hold his hopes and fears. The film follows Renaldo (now a scientific illustrator in North Carolina) through his seventy-plus years, charting his emotional ups and downs as they affect the politics and culture of Rocaterrania.
Rocaterrania deserves some credit for bringing the garrulous persona as well as the shy, creative sides of Renaldo Kuhler to life, without sugarcoating his introversion or unhappy youth. The structural conceit that organizes most of the film includes some insight from Kuhler about a period in his life, followed by how that insight shaped Rocaterrania. In that respect it's a bold, sensitive portrait of a wounded man. We get a surprisingly balanced view of a man who cuts a dashing figure in tight shorts and a military jacket (of his own design), harboring a secret world behind his efficient illustrator facade.
As much as I admire the purpose (and even the achievement of Rocaterrania), it's a hard film to recommend. Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive, but Kuhler's story (despite his outwardly extroverted demeanor) is essentially tragic. For every twist and turn in the beautiful story of Rocaterrania, there's a corresponding difficulty in Kuhler's life, from his early ranch days to his several failures to meet women. While the connection between art and artist is always lurking in the background of any story, it's front and center with Rocaterrania. It's also hard to avoid feeling somewhat voyeuristic as we're privy to a secret world known only to Kuhler himself (and a scene with Kuhler being filmed in a bathtub does little to dispel the feeling of voyeurism). I think the film does a fine job of not feeling exploitative, but there's the shadow of a possible mental illness in Kuhler's behavior. This makes the intimacy that filmmaker Brett Ingram achieves a double-edged sword. We want to see more of Kuhler's world, but the fact that all the artistic genius was won with emotional pain makes it harder to appreciate.
Renaldo Kuhler makes for an interesting documentary subject, but Rocaterrania makes a couple of early missteps in bringing his story to film. The big one is not introducing us to Rocaterrania until almost 15 minutes into the film. Instead, those first 15 minutes are spent on footage of Kuhler in his environment, doing things like going to the tailor's or yelling about litter in a public park. I imagine these first 15 minutes are designed to make us curious about this garrulous old man. Although they certainly did, they also don't give enough information about Kuhler to give the audience something to hold on to. Audiences unfamiliar with the premise of Rocaterrania are likely to be bored by these moments, while the familiar will be bored waiting for Rocaterrania to show up.
Rocaterrania is released on DVD from Bright Eye Pictures, a company founded by filmmaker Brett Ingram. The transfer does a good job honoring the mix of video and film sources Ingram used to create his portrait. The whole production has a low-fi feel to it, but no serious compression or authoring problems get in the way of the image. The stereo audio does a fine job balancing the film's garrulous subject with the score from North Carolina's Merge Records artists Shark Quest. Kuhler can sometimes be difficult to understand due to his accent and the catch-as-catch-can recording techniques, so subtitles are missed. Sadly, there are no extras on the disc. Outtakes of Kuhler, as well as a featurette or commentary from Ingram talking about the history of the project would have been nice.
Rocaterrania is an interesting documentary about a fascinating subject. Fans of outsider art and the documentary form should find something to appreciate, even if the sadness surrounding Renaldo Kuhler can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. The DVD itself looks and sounds fine, but fans of Kuhler or the film will be disappointed by the total lack of extras.
Although it's a bit rocky in places, Rocaterrania is not guilty.
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