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Hats off to DOXA for showing Seth’s Dominion, a short documentary about the brilliant, prolific Canadian artist, sculptor, designer and graphic novelist Seth, directed by Luc Chamberland (National Film Board). Seth’s drawn people tend to be muted and sober; he renders them and their surroundings with black brush pen and cool, greyish washes (the documentary itself is gently but firmly sepia-toned). These folks are pensive and wistful, rarely laughing and often looking at the ground or into the great beyond, hunched against rain and sun alike. But their minds are full of memories and questions and what-ifs as they walk or rest or meet friends among the apparatus of a different era: factories, warehouses, trains, mid-century cars and trucks, lunchbox-shaped mailboxes on posts, motels along the two-lane highway—all pre-digital, all made and operated by humans. “The ’50s always seem very Canadian to me,” says Seth in the film, as he walks through an industrial area near his home in Guelph. He is dressed neatly to the point of severity in a suit, crisply pressed shirt and tie (words like bluing and starch fly out of my own past) and a fedora, which he wears even when toiling away at his drawing table. A gleaming leather pen holder in his breast pocket holds six pencils, erasers up, apparently unused. This is Seth’s dominion; his Dominion (capital D) is an exquisite cardboard model of a city that he has been building for years, modelled vaguely on Hamilton, Ontario, and containing Clyde Fans, the North Star restaurant and other Seth-created relics of the Sputnik years. Each building has an open front, like a dollhouse or a stage, with tiny movable humans and their possessions, shown in the film being manipulated gently by Seth’s hands. One hopes that these wonderful creations won’t end up like the models of Seth’s pre-adolescent years, thrown in a drawer as they “fell out of favour” and gradually reduced to rubble as more discarded models were tossed in on top. “All my work comes from the sense of loss,” he says into the camera. And if no loss is forthcoming, Seth will apparently bring one about: the day he initiated a “violent finish to childhood” by hanging his stuffed animals from a tree and shooting them to bits with a pellet gun, or the time he decided to stop kissing his mother goodnight (he felt he should have outgrown it), an act he regretted for years. Seth’s Dominion is already acquiring a certain air of yesteryear, for at the end of it Seth vows never to participate in another film.
A bonus came along with the Seth film: I Thought I Told You to Shut Up, written and directed by Charlie Tyrell (LaRue Entertainment). It’s a 13-minute documentary about David Boswell, an East Vancouver darkroom technician who in the 1970s developed photos of tires during the day and wrote and drew comics at night—most famously, the Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman series. In the 1980s, Reid Fleming got picked up by Ron Turner, proprietor of the underground distributor Last Gasp. Suddenly Boswell was enjoying sales figures in the thousands; a typeface—Milkman Sans—was inspired by his lettering; a mountain may have been named after Fleming (could not be confirmed by Geist fact checkers). And then the really big break—Hollywood came a-knockin’. With enthusiasm. A screenplay was written, revisions were made, calls were placed, papers were couriered about. Whee! And then, at the last minute, the grand fromage of the studio had a look and said, “I don’t get it.” And that was that. Because of the contract language, rights to the screenplay could not be sold or optioned to anyone else, so for thirty years it has lain in a vault somewhere in California. At this point Boswell and the others interviewed for the film can only shrug and tell their rollercoaster story with wry smiles: that film won’t happen. But this one did, and it is a very nicely built short documentary: modest, genuine, suspenseful and even funny.