Actors: Al Carbee
Director: Jeremy Workman
Format: Multiple Formats, Color, Widescreen, NTSC
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: MPI Home Video
DVD Release Date: May 12, 2015
Run Time: 77 minutes
Artists tend to be inherently eccentric, which is why documentaries and biopics about their lives are often as engaging as the art itself. While this certainly holds true of Al Carbee, whose bizarre art involving a menagerie of discarded Barbie dolls is matched only by the quirky personality of the artist himself, filmmaker Jeremy Workman seems to be constructing a biography which is mostly rooted in his own personal relationships with the man. Though there is some value in Carbee’s friendship with Workman, specifically because he doesn’t appear to have many other loyal friends in his life, this alone is not quite enough content to fill up a feature film. Even within the first five minutes of the documentary, Workman (who edited Magical Universe, as well as producing and directing) re-uses the same footage twice, which is an instant red flag that the content has been stretched too thin.
The footage repeated at the beginning of the film comes from a short film that Workman made after his first encounter with the enigmatic artist. First we see clips from this roughly shot short, and then Workman present the five-minute film in its entirety. Regardless of how much I wanted this material to remain compelling enough for a feature film, by the end I was convinced that Magical Universe may have been better suited for the short subject medium. Otherwise the material may have benefited from a filmmaker with some distance from the subject, because Workman seems to be struggling between the urge to expose Carbee’s absurd oddities in behavior and a personal need to honorably immortalize the reclusive man who eventually became a friend.
The art itself is of questionable quality and worth, though I suppose that the entire point is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder when art is concerned. Even still, Carbee’s method of arranging and posing Barbie dolls around his house reminded me more of the imaginative playground of my childhood than it did art. I would arrange my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures in homemade dioramas, imagining that they were real characters who would live out the adventures of my imagination. Carbee essentially did the same with his Barbie dolls, additionally photographing the toys that he liked to imagine as real people. The difference is that I did this when I was 8-years-old; Carbee was immersed in this behavior at 88.
It may sound as though I am being somewhat judgmental of Carbee’s art, but even Workman seems to struggle with this in the presentation of facts within Magical Universe. In one of the film’s more interesting choices, he even steps back from the construction of the documentary to examine his own approach. After the first act of the documentary, Workman’s longtime girlfriend remarks that the documentary is presenting Carbee as something of an obsessive oddball. Any way that the facts are presented, this is likely to be an assumption, especially when Carbee becomes enamored with Workman’s girlfriend for the mere fact that he thinks she looks like a real-live Barbie doll. This combined with the odd letters and videos that Carbee would send to Workman made him seem to skew more towards creepy than quirky. I would never judge the validity of the friendship that these three had with each other, though it certainly does not come off accessibly within Workman’s documentary. Regardless of his re-adjusted approach after the first third of the film, Carbee continues to be presented as more of a lonely weirdo than an eccentric artist.
Even with a mere 77-minutes running-time, Magical Universe outweighs its welcome. There is simply not enough content or backstory for a man who rarely left his house. Some of the most engaging segments come from the discussion of a home that Carbee once lived in, renovated to include hidden rooms of Barbie displays. It sounds like something out a child’s fantasy mixed with a prime setting for a slasher film, but this is simply told to the audience rather than shown. The ending also leaves something to be desired, lacking the emotional impact that Workman may have hoped. The simple fact is that Carbee clearly meant a great deal to the filmmaker, but Workman is never quite able to transfer those feelings of adoration and friendship over the audience. The result is similar to watching home videos; one can imagine they mean something to the person who compiled the footage, but that doesn’t make it universally relevant or impactful. The special features include additional content through a series of featurettes. There is also a teaser and a trailer for the film.
Entertainment Value: 6/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 5.5/10
Historical Significance: 3/10