Magical Universe is one of a kind
Chances are, you’ve never heard of Al Carbee. But once you’ve seen Jeremy Workman’s award-winning documentary, Magical Universe, you’ll never forget him … and you’ll never look at a Barbie doll the same way again.
The film, available on Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and a special-edition DVD from IFC Films/Sun dance Selects (see review, Page 27), is an offbeat ode to the creative mindset, both of its subject and the filmmaker.
Hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “a tender portrait of the artist as a weirdly gifted, wildly prolific and strange man,” Magical Universe has reaped rave reviews and awards – and shown the spotlight on Albert Nickerson Carbee, undoubtedly one of the 20 th century’s most unique artists.
While vacationing with his girlfriend Astrid von Ussar in Maine in the late 1990s, young Workman showed up at Carbee’s home in the sleepy town of Saco, Maine, and was immediately shown his massive collection of photographs, collage work, and dioramas – most of them featuring Barbie dolls.
Workman had never seen anything like it before (nor, it could be argued, have most people) and was inspired to make his 2002 short documentary, titled Carbee’s Barbies.
This, however, wasn’t the end of the story – or Carbee and Workman’s relationship. In many ways, it was just the beginning. What started as a chance encounter wound up changing both of their lives in ways neither could have predicted, and the story would continue in Magical Universe, a project that took more than a decade to complete.
“For a long time, I had trouble moving forward because I was so reluctant to include myself in the film,” Workman admits, but. “it became impossible to tell the longer story of Al Carbee and his later years without including me and Astrid. Our friendship with Al very much ‘became’ what the story was about. All these amazing things started to happen to Al in his later years and they very much were because of our friendship, so it was impossible to separate ourselves from that story.
“As Al and I became closer as friends over the years, he began to stop seeing me as ‘a guy with a camera’ and more as his truly closest friend,” relates Workman. “As a result, so much of the footage features Al engaging and talking to me as a friend even though I’m trying to film him objectively. It became nearly impossible to find usable footage that didn’t have instances where Al was addressing me behind the camera. In the finished film, there are dozens of times where Al looks to the camera and begins talking ‘to Jeremy’ – not to the filmmaker Jeremy, but to his friend Jeremy. So I thought it became essential to include myself in the movie.”
This approach had its risks, as Workman was well aware. “There are a lot of pretty bad documentaries that feature the filmmaker as a part of the story,” he says, “but there’s a number of amazing documentaries, too, so I tried to use them as an inspiration – edgier documentaries like the films of Ross McElwee, Alan Berliner, Doug Block or Sue Friedrich. It’s not easy to make it work, but when it does, it can be really powerful.”
Over the years, Carbee engaged in ceaseless correspondence with Workman, sending him box upon box of his own films – taped at EP speed on VHS, no less! – and continuing his passion and penchant for the artistic interpretation of the Barbie doll. Carbee was nothing if not an eager participant in the project.
“Alas, Al passed away before he could see the completed feature” – he died in 2005 at age 91 – but Workman is certain how he would have reacted. “I think he would have spontaneously combusted with excitement! He would have just gone bananas.”
It could be said that Jeremy Workman was born into film. His father is noted filmmaker Chuck Workman, Oscar winner for the 1986 Live-Action Short Film Precious Images, which was produced to commemorate the 50 th anniversary of the DGA (Director’s Guild of America), and editor of many beloved montages from Oscar telecasts of years past. The senior Workman’s most recent documentary, Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, was screened in April at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem.
In addition to his own film career, which began with Who is Henry Jaglom? (1997), a memorable documentary about the independent filmmaker, Jeremy runs the New York-based trailer company Wheelhouse Creative, which creates trailers, primarily for independent and arthouse films.
“It’s a great job and I’m thankful to get to work on so many great films,” he says. “It also is a nice balance to my own filmmaking career. This summer has seen us doing a ton of work on such great films as The End of the Tour, Amy, Jimmy’s Hall, The Stanford Prison Experiment and Ex Machina. We also work on a lot of foreign films and are pretty adept at helping them find a larger American audience. I think I had last counted that I had edited the trailers to six films that went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film – including such recent ones as The Great Beauty, Amour and A Separation.”
He’s also in the midst of his next documentary, which follows Matt Green, a New Yorker who quit his job to walk every single street in every single borough of New York.
“It’s nearly 8,000 miles,” Workman marvels. “It’s his full-time job and he lives off donations, and couch-surfs at various apartments. I’ve been filming him for the past year and the footage is amazing. Matt is so interesting and can talk about New York City in a way that just connects you to the place.”
Al Carbee may be gone, but his adventure continues.
“Since the documentary, so many people have reached out to me about Al’s artwork, and there have been several venues showing his artwork,” Workman relates. “I think Al would have just flipped out at the sudden interest. Can you imagine? He spent 80 years of his life making art and nobody showed any interest. Now, all of a sudden, there’s a documentary on him! People are framing his art! Art magazines feature his collages! It’s an amazing story.”
The official Magical Universe website is: