“They paved paradise.” The power of documentary film in pandemic: A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur and Marvel’s 616

They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot

– “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell

“Your imperfections make you special.” – Joey, student actor in “Spotlight,” the final episode of Marvel’s 616

Today, we brought in our deck furniture (from the summer!) to store in the basement, that is after decorating our house for Christmas. We bought the set what feels like yesterday (April), and we dutifully covered it to protect it from harsh sun and booming thunderstorms, pretty much never sitting on it, once wrapped in a cumbersome, billowing shroud of waxy canvas. So we paid for outdoor couches, negotiated their delivery in pandemic, never used them, and just huffed and puffed maneuvering them through endless doors and hallways into our basement, in another attempt to protect them.

Futility and comedy, thy name is home ownership. Everyone keeps blaming 2020 for everything, as if an arbitrarily determined twelve-month signifier of time’s passage is the cause of our collective woes. Yet, what has actually been laid bare in this dumpster fire period is, in fact, that we are all ourselves to blame with our materialistic, self-absorbed mania day after day, a long-standing debt that finally came due. How much have we taken for granted and what damage have we done to planet, culture, ecology, health, and mental well-being in the process? We’ve likely only seen the tip of that iceberg. Ahoy, me maties!

Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die
Driving in on this highway
All these cars and upon the sidewalk
People in every direction
No words exchanged
No time to exchange

When all the little ants are marching
Red and black antennas waving
They all do it the same
They all do it the same way

– “Ants Marching,” Dave Matthews Band

My last legit movie review was Birds of Prey. In February. Lord, I hope that’s not the last movie I ever get to see in an actual movie theatre. If I had only known, I’d have chosen … oh, who am I kidding? I still would have seen it. I miss the communal experience of movies, observing audience reaction and assessing the art as well as the commerce of cinema. Wild horses couldn’t get me to go now, if ever again, but I do miss it. Yet, between lone gunmen and rampant plague, performance venues are the new OK Corral.

Thanksgiving has always been a special movie time for my family. My parents and I, year after year, would see hundreds of films over the long holiday weekends, beguiled by Hollywood’s relentless marketing machine. We’d pronounce a film as “awful!” only to change our minds over breakfast, searching for connective tissue and insights into the human condition from such disparate selections as Life of Pi and Daddy’s Home 2. I miss that. I miss my parents.

My husband and I have had no end of entertainment – deck furniture notwithstanding. Showing my age, I do resent that finding new shows to binge is tantamount to a digital Easter egg hunt these days. Netflix? No. AmazonPrime? Maybe. Disney+? Possibly. Do we just have this on DVD somewhere?

We’ve enjoyed a lot of what we’ve seen, at times arguably more forgiving of relative quality for the escape that Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Ratched, Upload, All-American, Hollywood, The Order, The Boys, Emily in Paris, Mandalorian, The Umbrella Academy provided. I’m 99% certain we would have watched very few of these (let alone looked forward to each installment like Victorians eagerly awaiting the next Dickens chapter) had the world not been ending every five days. For this time with my husband, enjoying our home, staying at home, not chasing frenetically scheduled ACTIVITIES!, I am grateful. Pandemic has been a pleasant reprieve in that regard, and I may have been permanently transformed into Boo Radley as a result. Check our trees for handmade toys left for passers-by.

My dear friend Tyler Chase is a talented documentary filmmaker, and she gave me a sneak peek at her latest A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur. To say it was the right movie to see in my present mindset would be textbook understatement. I am haunted days after by her clear-eyed, unsentimental but utterly empathic filmic observations on the clash of creativity, capitalism, obsession, free thought, and community in postmodern America.

From the film’s website: “A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur with Golden Globe Award recipient, Brian Cox as the Narrator is an intimate and journalistic documentary by filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase. The intimate and journalistic documentary … filmed over a period of seven years, A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur, brings us through the doors of the iconic Broken Angel building and into the world of its creators, the visionary, Arthur Wood and his wife, Cynthia as they cling to their life’s work, the Broken Angel building, the last symbol of the bohemian artist culture that once permeated Brooklyn, NY.

“The Woods created the 108 foot Broken Angel objet trouvé building as a sculpture and landmark for the community located in a section of Clinton Hill bordering on Bed Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The Broken Angel building is the subject of local and international news specials; photographed by many. The Woods are loved by their neighbors who see the iconic structure as a beacon of freedom and the threat of its destruction as an omen of the disappearance of a way of life and community. To many it is a symbol of freedom – to others an opportunity for profit.

“Filmmaker, Tyler A. Chase renders the Woods’ story as one both magical and heart wrenching; following them through triumphs, judicial blunders, injustice, evictions, and comedic moments all the while inspired by the indomitable spirit of visionary artist and creator of the Broken Angel, Arthur Wood.”

Director Tyler Chase filming on location at Broken Angel (above) and with narrator Brian Cox (below)

The piece, which recently received the Audience Choice Award from YoFiFest 2020 and the Grand Jury Prize from the CARE Awards International Film Festival, is lyrical and poignant and heartbreaking. Chase captures the visceral nature of what it must have been like to live in that space. And the pain of being deeply misunderstood. Grey Gardens for the 21st century.

As far as narrative techniques, Chase employs interstitial chapter headings with ironic word choices/definitions, building the momentum inexorably. Like a slow-moving car crash, it’s clear things won’t end well for Arthur, Cynthia, or their beloved home. This chapter device – dare I invoke Dickensian tragicomedy again? – accentuates the tale’s inevitability. We all know how the relentless, monochromatic push of “economic development” can destroy the delicate work of sensitive souls creating art in the margins. America, ain’t it something to see? But the viewer mustn’t look away, and Chase’s gaze assures that you won’t.

The overall construction of the film mirrors the Broken Angel itself, layering upon itself in jagged turns, a documentary collage. Exquisite. The film FEELS artisanal – no doubt because of its lengthy gestation – which brings us that much closer to understanding Arthur’s quixotic DIY style. Hello, Oscar? Don’t overlook this essential, bespoke film.

Brian Cox’ regally dulcet tones as the film’s narrator are, yes, Arthurian, yet comforting with a wry edge. The use of music – folk, classical, even what seems like Gregorian chanting – is elegiac. And the moment Chase steps in front of her camera to advocate in real-time for Arthur (at The U.N. no less!), becoming a character in the story, is breathtaking. Just when the viewer is screaming, “Why can’t someone do something for these souls?!” … she does.

(Side note: for the inevitable scripted Hollywood remake, Willem DaFoe is Arthur Wood’s doppelgänger, and he could start preparing his Academy Award acceptance speech now. And then Stephen Schwartz could musicalize it for Broadway, dusting off some of the salvageable ideas from his work on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Broken Angel! The Musical! Arthur and Cynthia could live on forever!)

Chase tells the story of Broken Angel with an artist’s appreciation and identification sans any judgment. That’s all Arthur likely ever wanted, in his expression and in his life. Is that why some of us “live out loud,” making bold choices, seemingly incongruous with the workaday world? Semiotic code for the person to be seen and accepted as they are? More devastating than the demolition of Arthur’s life’s work is society’s sniffy rejection of his unique soul made manifest in the Broken Angel.

Surprisingly, this same theme carries through another documentary – or rather documentary series – of a more corporate variety: Marvel’s 616 on Disney+. Across eight episodes, helmed by a bevy of filmmakers, the series wisely eschews a linear recounting of Marvel Comics’ storied history, instead highlighting unsung corners of fandom and creative output.

The incisive episode depicting the rise and proliferation of women comic book writers and artists is as reflective of the fraught times in which we live as it is of Marvel’s fits and starts where inclusion is concerned. The episode about toy creation and collection is as frenetic and joy-filled as you might imagine. And the feature on Marvel’s growing community of international artists is quietly introspective and appropriately moving, if not quite compensating for Marvel’s poor track record with creators of color in the past.

Episodes, respectively, on the cosplay community and school-based theatre are almost tangentially Marvel, shining a much needed light on people left behind who found kinship, purpose, and family through the characters, stories, and mythology of Marvel. I dare you not to shed a few happy tears while viewing.

Much (digital) ink has been spilled on the episode highlighting the legendary “Marvel Method,” whereby an issue is created iteratively and collaboratively between writer and artist. Affable, jocular Dan Slott, the subject of the episode, spurred great ire from fanboys over what they perceived as his seeming disrespect for his fellow creators (and, ultimately, for the end user). Slott’s procrastination is played for comic effect in the episode, and his chronic inability to meet dreaded deadlines is excused under the guise of “Marvel Method.”

The angry binge-watching horde missed the point, however. This isn’t about their inconvenience over receiving the latest issue of Iron Man 2020 a few weeks later than expected. This is about, yet again, the thorny nexus of art and commerce. For Slott, like Arthur Wood, creative expression is a kind of one-sided communion with his fellow human beings. The procrastination prolongs the fun, the invention, the collaboration. Hitting deadline means the party’s over, only to begin again on a schedule set by management, not artists.

Dan Slott

The episode ends with Slott prowling his local comic shop – no doubt in avoidance of work awaiting him at home – joyously name-dropping his favorite writers and artists, as he thumbs through their latest issues. In that moment, he is a figure both inspiringly childlike and painfully alone. If anything, I am now more appreciative of Dan Slott as a singular voice than I am annoyed by delays in his output.

I’m just a face in the crowd
Nothing to worry about
Not even trying to stand out
I’m getting smaller and smaller and smaller
And I got nothing to say
It’s all been taken away
I just behave and obey
I’m afraid that I’m starting to fade away

Hey, and for what it was worth
I really used to believe
That maybe there’s some great thing
That we could achieve
And now I can’t tell the difference
Or know what to feel
Between what I’ve been trying so hard to see
And what appears to be real

– “Getting Smaller,” Nine Inch Nails

Images of Bill Schwarz and of my mom Susie Duncan Sexton during various special moments of creativity and community

We all just want to be seen, to be understood, to matter. While writing this, my mom Susie Duncan Sexton received a glorious email from her friend and fellow Columbia City, Indiana native Bill Schwarz. My mother wrote about Bill nearly a decade ago (here), and they recently reconnected. Both are accomplished talents in their own rights (check out Bill’s singing group “New Tradition Chorus” and upcoming concert), but their appreciation for one another is inspiring. Bill just finished reading one of my mother’s books, and here is an excerpt of what he wrote to her in response:

“After reading your book (on my Nook reader) it prompted me to write my opinion… I perceived a sensitive, creative intellect that deeply cared and loved unconditionally. Your pets have that quality as does your son Roy. I sensed in your writing the wholesome expression of joy, yet I saw you tempering feelings of dismay. You said, how does the song go: ‘looking for love in the most usual places…..’”

And isn’t that all any of us desire? A voice that is heard, appreciated, reciprocated. To all of the artists in this world … thank you.

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

– “Nature Boy,” Nat “King” Cole

Want to join me in supporting a good cause? Beginning this #GivingTuesday and on through my birthday on December 28, I’m raising money for Ronald McDonald House Charities Ann Arbor and your contribution will make an impact, whether you donate $5 or $500. I’m a proud board member and have seen firsthand how every little bit helps.

And on GivingTuesday Dec 1, Facebook will match $7 million in qualifying donations. Just click donate on this fundraising page: https://www.facebook.com/donate/3378588845591918/?fundraiser_source=external_url

Thank you for your support.

The mission of the Ann Arbor Ronald McDonald Houses is to provide families of children experiencing a serious illness or injury requiring hospitalization or treatment on an outpatient basis, a “home away from home” that assists in alleviating the families’ emotional and financial stress.

10 thoughts on ““They paved paradise.” The power of documentary film in pandemic: A Castle in Brooklyn, King Arthur and Marvel’s 616

  1. Dear Roy,

    I was just wondering whether I should walk off the roof of our building kind of like Arthur in the movie when he contemplated throwing himself down the elevator shaft because “well my problems will be solved immediately” LOL. My spirits were lifted when I got this amazing Email from you. Thank you so much for appreciating Arthur and me and talking about our movie so beautifully. I am truly very blessed to have such an eloquent and true artist gentleman as a friend. Needless to say I’m going to send it to the sales agent who is interested in my film right now and to my handsome friend Arthur. I’m sure he will be delighted after he reads it. Thank you again.

    • Well, I adore you, and I’m happy to help! You stay off those roofs! I’m sure this film will continue to expand its audience. It is essential viewing. And will profoundly impact all who view it. Thank you for sharing this gift with me. Proud of you ❤️

      >

  2. I’m very excited to see ‘castle,’ this is right up my alley. this looks amazing. as for the marvel pic, yes, but I’m truly more excited about castle. thanks for sharing this –

  3. just read this piece from my son, the genius! how magnificent. you are caught up to date now with this literate treasure! thanks, for including the amazing basketball singer and the cloistered small town nun and the loving pediatric nurse at the conclusion. i love you so and am so proud that you are YOU and such a one of a kind, though within the circle of literary geniuses gathered since the origin of time. wow, roy! i am impressed beyond measure! speechless at being included in this masterpiece!

    • I am proud of you! Thanks for being such an inclusive and celebratory human being. The world needs more people like you. They are far too many people whose anal retentiveness and misunderstanding of kindness when it stares them right in the face keeps them on the periphery. You are somebody who enjoys fun and enjoys championing all people and is always at the center of joy. That is a rare gift.

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