Almost There Dir. Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden

[Kartemquin Films; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: Marwencol, In the Realms of the Unreal, The Turin Horse

Volumes of scrapbooks stuffed with photographs and drawings lay silently among paintings and discarded Pringles containers in the crumbling home of Peter Anton in East Chicago, Indiana until filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden encountered the artist at the Pierogi Festival in Whiting, Indiana. The documentary they created about the life and work of Anton, now in his eighties, shares the title of Peter’s scrapbook autobiography: Almost There. In Anton’s words, “Almost There means not quite making it. Not getting what you set out for.”

Indeed, no one would have set out to attain the life Anton led at the time the filmmakers met him. Living in a home with pipes freely gushing in, holes in the ceiling, mold growing rampantly on every surface, and cats inhabiting the spaces in between mountains of books and paint tubes, one wonders how one could go from the jolly showman reflected in his scrapbooks during his time as the leader of a talent club, to this decrepit living condition.

The footage of the unshaven artist painting in his winter clothes amidst decay and a lifetime of accumulated artwork provokes a spectrum of reactions in the viewer — fascination, shock, disgust, awe. Is this voyeurism? Exploitation? These questions often arise when “normal people” introduce an artist with an unbridled vision and uncensored voice to the public; the artwork is called Visionary, Outsider, Naive, or more recently, Intuitive. All of these adjectives point to the artist as Other, one that is not like us and therefore exotic.

However, this film resists simply showcasing Peter and his art as if in a freak show. Almost There sets itself apart from the familiar documentary format of interview and slide show by documenting the complex relationship between the filmmakers and their subject as co-directors Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden guide the viewer from Anton’s home to his own mother’s home. In doing so, Rybicky in particular peels back the layers of his own past, and illuminates why he relates to Peter and is drawn to his story.

Over the many years spent making the film, skeletons come out of the closet that haunt everyone involved, giving the viewer a new lens on the life and work of the artist. Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the effect of the real passage of time on people and events becomes starkly evident. With the revelation of Anton’s dirty secret, we are left to judge him amidst the list of other artists fallen by reports on their personal life. Yet Anton’s strange and meandering life history hints that there is always more to a story than meets the eye and that people are more than their darkest moment.

Almost There displays the vulnerability of both filmmaker and subject in such a way that process and product are woven together. As directors Rybicky and Wickendon unravel Peter Anton’s past, they allow themselves to become vulnerable to the audience as well, thus painting a complex portrait of the relationship between filmmaker and subject, art and life, and the joy of coming up from being down.

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