There’s a brief close-up that occurs early on in Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden’s documentary, “Almost There,” of hands covered in glitter, those infuriating particles so often caked onto supposedly celebratory cards. The hands belong to the filmmakers, and the card was sent by their subject, Peter Anton, a man who—like the glitter—cannot be easily brushed off. Rybicky and Wickenden discovered Anton at Indiana’s Pierogi Fest in 2006, where he had some paintings on display. It’s easy to see why the pair were so taken with his work—the artistic vision it conveys is both utterly original and painstakingly personal. These opening moments suggest what sort of film “Finding Vivian Maier” would’ve been like had Maier been found and befriended by the documentarians eager to share her genius with the public.
Back in 2012, I recorded a podcast interview with Rybicky, who was one of my favorite film professors at Columbia College in Chicago. He embodied the spirit of the cinematic titans whose work he loved, encouraging the class to engage in the overlapping dialogue that characterized Altman and the raw candidness apparent in every frame lensed by Cassavetes. He never hesitated in telling you exactly what he thought about your ideas, and expected you to dissect his own theories with the same frankness. This approach may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it liberating. These memories came flooding back during the scene in “Almost There” where Rybicky rejects some of Anton’s less ambitious paintings, claiming that they “look like something you’d purchase at a thrift store.” Rybicky isn’t being mean here, he’s simply unable to feign interest in something that he doesn’t fully believe in, and when he does, he invests himself in it with ferocious passion.
The camera is every bit as interested in the atmosphere of Anton’s life as it is with the brushstrokes occupying his canvas. Echoes of “Grey Gardens” occur in the sequences set in the basement of a house where Anton has lived for decades. To call it a health risk would be putting it lightly. The house used to be owned by Anton’s late mother, whose repressive beliefs injected her son with feelings of shame, ultimately causing him to move below ground, where he developed a paranoia of the outside world. When Anton starts voicing regret about saying negative things about his mother oncamera and asks the filmmakers to take them out, Rybicky argues that the most honorable representation would be the most truthful. “My idea of love is honesty,” Rybicky says, which may have served as his mantra during the entire production. Just as he held himself to the same standards as his students in the classroom, Rybicky turns the camera on himself, exploring his own personal life in a subplot that initially seems like a detour, but ends up tying thematically to the central narrative in ways that are surprising, provocative and extraordinarily poignant.
“As artists, we create situations in the present that allow us to work through our past,” Rybicky said during the post-screening Q&A at the film’s Windy City premiere last month. Drawing parallels between Anton and Rybicky’s brother, who has also spent his adult life living with his mother, was not a conscious decision at the outset, but the connecting threads materialized as the footage was captured. One of the film’s biggest laughs occurs when Rybicky visits his mother and points out the creeping mold forming on her ceiling. Turns out she had chosen to overlook it, opting to focus on less stressful matters. Rybicky then draws our attention to a frame on his mother’s wall, containing an inspirational quote about the past and future that, in his words, “obliterates any importance of the present.” Such a mindset is not all that far removed from Anton’s, who has chosen to overlook a chapter from his own life that would almost assuredly undo all the good fortune that has come his way.
The acclaimed exhibition of Anton’s work that takes place at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art could’ve easily served as the film’s uplifting finale, affirming the elderly man’s talent as he savors his long-overdue moment in the limelight. Yet Anton’s dream of being discovered masks a deeper one—of being forgiven. No sooner does his name appear in the headlines than a profoundly upsetting charge from his past resurfaces, accompanied by phone calls expressing outrage and anger. This is the sort of unexpected turn that could’ve caused the entire film to implode on itself, or worse, remain unfinished and unseen in the musty shadows of Anton’s basement. Instead, this is where “Almost There” blossoms into one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. Many filmmakers would’ve been scared off from the project after such a revelation, but not Rybicky and Wickenden. They admit that they failed to press Anton on answering questions regarding his background, and when they confront him on how his evasiveness has upended their years of efforts, he responds, “I am not just a project.” He felt the filmmakers had put him on a pedestal and he didn’t want to disappoint them. Suddenly, the reasons behind Anton’s self-imposed isolation and string of codependent relationships are no longer inexplicable.
In an era rife with high profile celebrity scandals, “Almost There” challenges us to reevaluate how we perceive artists: as role models whose abilities must be married with impeccable life decisions or as flawed human beings worthy of empathy. When Anton is first offered words of forgiveness, his face crumbles into a tearful avalanche of remorse and relief. Equally wrenching is the scene where Anton cradles one of his cats—finally caged after a prolonged attempt to retrieve it from his now-condemned house—as if it was his only friend in the world. Thankfully, the premiere proved that Anton was far from friendless, as various members of his choir, for which he serves as director at the Victory Centre senior living facility, sat next to me, making infectiously entertaining commentary worthy of an alternate audio track on the DVD. Their delight was especially apparent during a scene where Anton’s latest caretaker finally loses her temper, exclaiming that the man needs to take responsibility for himself. When Anton appeared alongside the filmmakers at the Q&A, it was clear he had taken responsibility not only for himself but for every wrong he had committed. The catharsis evident in his glistening eyes made me realize that what I had just seen was much more than a movie, it was a second chance.
“Almost There” screens at 7pm Friday, February 13 at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana. For more info on the film, visit its official page on the Kartemquin site.