How to Draw a Bunny (2004) - PopMatters Film Review )

Tim O'Neil

We feel a dogged incompletion, as if Ray Johnson's career was a massive joke awaiting one final punch line.

How to Draw a Bunny

Director: John W. Walter
Studio: Palm Pictures
US DVD Release Date: 2004-09-21
First date: 2004

Ray Johnson is an enigma. And How to Draw a Bunny, a documentary recounting the events of his life and career up to his death, provides no clarification. Like a graph that uses hundreds of discrete incidents to illustrate a general trend, the film assembles a nearly endless stream of anecdotes and observations to outline its subject, without ever managing to pierce the veil of obfuscation that surrounds Johnson's life. There is no profound understanding of Ray Johnson to be found outside of his enduringly odd artwork, at least according to this film.

Johnson is one of the great unheralded artists of the 20th century, an "artist's artist" who managed to sit at the periphery of the New York art world for almost half a century without ever crossing over into the realm of celebrity. Perhaps, as the film implies, he lacked the courage to risk the exertion (which carried with it the possibility of failure and rejection) that would have been necessary for him to build the personality cult that peers and friends such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Christo enjoy. Perhaps, as others believe, he was merely too solitary, too involved in his own activities and too enamored with his isolation to be bothered with the rather tedious political machinations required to build a career.

The film, now out on DVD from Palm, begins at the scene of his death, a lonely rural bridge in Sag Harbor on Friday, 13 January 1995. Throughout, your attention is drawn to numerous small but telling details -- and the significance of the spooky date of death becomes a major element in Johnson's mythology. The police officer who led the investigation reports that Johnson was found floating in the frigid water, apparently a suicide. An address book was subsequently found in his abandoned car, filled with names and numbers for hundreds of his friends and acquaintances, a virtual "who's who" of the modern art world. As the film tracks them down, trying to learn something about this strange man's life and uncommon death, we begin to comprehend the scope of Johnson's existential camouflage: all of his friends and colleagues eventually profess puzzlement over the inner workings of his mind.

It's hard to fault How to Draw a Bunny in terms of the loving eye for detail with which it pores over the pieces of Johnson's life. Even if the film leaves you baffled in regards to his motivations, you will walk away with a keen appreciation for his career, and the seemingly effortless mix of painting, collage, illustration, and conceptual art which comprised his medium. (The DVD also features a number of extra features which allow for greater focus on Johnson's work, including an extensive image gallery of signature pieces.) The film elaborates the similarities between his life and his art, even suggesting that Johnson's life was his art. Whether considering the repetitious ink-drawn bunny caricatures which give the film its name, or the massively complex painted collages that offer unnerving vantage into his perceptions, we feel a dogged incompletion, as if his career was a massive joke awaiting one final punch line. And the only one who understood that joke, if we can believe the film, is Johnson himself.

The question to be asked is whether the filmmakers have accurately portrayed the man's life in its entirety, or merely those pieces that perpetuate his romantic mystery. There are few references to any close relationships, and although there are a few nagging implications as to his sexuality, the question of whether he was gay, straight or neither is never directly approached. Accordingly, the film doesn't mention whether or not he had lovers, and Johnson's close friends offer no explanations as to this most inscrutable feature of an inscrutable man. It was possible to be Johnson's friend and companion, but apparently he allowed no confidantes.

As the film shows, when Johnson's house was opened following his death, it was filled to the rafters with boxes and boxes of stored artwork. Everything had been organized and placed into storage, presumably in anticipation of his death. Most tellingly, every piece of unstored art had been placed face down or flat against the wall, save for a single large photo of himself propped up to face an upstairs doorway. There, surrounded by a lifetime's worth of ascetic labor, was one final anomaly for the coroner's report. It's one thing to maintain that we start to die as soon as we're born, but another thing to turn a lifetime's work into a suicide note.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.