Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin'

Robert Williams Mr. Bitchin'


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Since the mid 1960s, Californian artist Robert Williams has been shaking up American sensibilities with his deliberately provocative 'super cartoon' work. Politically edgy, sexually explicit and often intentionally ugly, his immaculately created oil on canvas works have won him a cult following. This documentary attempts to tell his story. He's a private man so most of the focus is on the art, but as he talks about it we get a lot closer to his personality than is the case with many more directly personal films.

Like many people who have found themselves at the centre of controversy, Williams comes across as likeable and almost lighthearted. though with intense intellectual processes always bubbling away beneath the surface. Between stories about his creations we see him riding a unicycle, falling off a pushbike, and laughing over repeat takes with his wife Suzanne. The affection between the two is palpable and contrasts intriguingly with the cynicism of some of his work. There's bleak satire in some of his pictures, humour verging on the vicious, but it's enmeshed in layers of symbolism and presented in bright colours full of queasy vitality. Gradually, we come to see how the man and the art connect.

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Williams' style will be less familiar to UK viewers and it is to the film's credit that it provides an effective introduction without slackening the pace of its stories. Anyone seriously prepared to engage with thee work will come out understanding it better, and this applies even when the artist doesn't seem to understand all the issues around it himself. Allegations of misogyny are raised in relation to his pictures of naked women on food and the famous Guns N' Roses album cover Appetite For Destruction, and he and his friends dismiss these based on his good intentions with no discussion of their possible effects. The "if you don't like it, don't look at it" chestnut is trotted out in place of any meaningful defence of artistic expression, which risks trivialising the film but at the same time provides an insight into character, a hint of underlying innocence that might be essential to this kind of carefree liberality. Beneath the monstrous anti-heroes and the knives is something rather sweet.

Also touching is Williams' take on the American Dream. Despite his avid following he still describes himself as unsatisfied, yearning for something closer to that cultural ideal of success. This has clearly been a driving factor in his work and fortunately it hasn't compromised his expression. One of the thins that stands out about him as a creative figure is just how early he found his voice and how much use he has made of it.

What stands out about this film is how deftly it explores character through anecdote, effectively locating deeper meanings in what initially seems like casual observational footage. There are some amazing stories here, not just from Williams himself but also from contributors like Deborah Harry and Artie Shaw. Such is the range of Williams' interests - from hot rods to psychedelia to unearthing people's inner demons - that most viewers will find something fascinating here. It's a film that does much more than hang on the coattails of an artist's work, and it's worth checking out whether you're a fan or not.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2013
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A documentary looking at the life and work of the celebrated US underground comic artist.

Director: Doug Blake, Nancye Ferguson

Starring: Robert Williams, Suzanne Williams, Robert Crumb, Axl Rose, Slash, Deborah Harry, Frank Kozik, Artie Shaw

Year: 2013

Runtime: 89 minutes

Country: US


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