Monster Road is the debut feature collaboration between director Brett Ingram, film studies professor at UNC-Greensboro, and co-producer Jim Haverkamp, a venerable presence in the Triangle film scene. Since winning the Jury Prize at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, the documentary has been riding a wave of indie and alternative interest.
Ostensibly a look inside the fantastic worlds (real and unreal) of legendary underground clay/line animator Bruce Bickford, this monster is really a two-headed Hydra--a character study of both Bruce and his aging father George, a Cold War-era civil engineer burdened by an array of peculiarities and demons, including early-onset Alzheimer's.
Seeking to divine the root and reason behind Bruce's self-taught manic creations, Ingram creates a collage of old home videos, Bruce's animation and cinema verite filmed in Bruce's and George's secluded Washington state homes against the fitting backdrop of New Year's Day Y2K. The result is subdued and sublime, accented by a score from Chapel Hill band Shark Quest that oscillates between hard rock to background accompaniment reminiscent of a 1920s silent film.
While Ingram alludes to the past familial strife lying at the heart of George's hazy regret and Bruce's mad genius, the director's respectful, even reverential, treatment purposefully prevents the narrative from straying into Capturing the Friedmans or Stevie territory. This focus on message over exploitation is laudable, but when an integral part of that message is the degree to which Bruce's work is influenced by his relationship with his father, details that may otherwise seem salacious become necessary and illuminating.
Indeed, Ingram's restraint is reflected in the fact that Bruce's touchstone and acrimonious collaborations with Frank Zappa in the 1970s comprise approximately five seconds of the film. For his part, Ingram counters that Monster Road is about Bruce and the creative origins of his animation, not his work history. However, constructing a complete character arc, as well as educating those generally unfamiliar with "why Bruce matters," would necessarily encompass the most renowned and professionally tragic episode of his life.
Notwithstanding, Monster Road is an engrossing documentary that mirrors the ethereal spirit of its gifted, eccentric subject.
There is a special, one night only screening of Monster Road on Thursday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Carolina Theatre in Durham. Haverkamp will be on hand to discuss the film.