The reclusive Al Carbee, subject of Jeremy Workman’s Magical Universe, took a much more literal approach to depicting Barbies in his art than Todd Haynes did in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Rather condescendingly considered an “outsider artist,” the WWII vet spent most of his adult life prolifically toying away at his art within the dusty rooms of his home in rural Saco, Maine. His works primarily consist of photographs depicting varied dioramas that he intricately constructed for an ever-growing collection of Mattel’s plastic princesses he purchased at local goodwill stores. His developed images reveal Barbies, captured as if they’re real people, within surreal, distinctly American environs; it’s a postmodern take on Norman Rockwell, except there’s nary a modicum of cynicism to Carbee’s earnest and obsessively rendered portraits. Nestled in his own sprawling, dilapidated Grey Gardens-esque estate, Carbee explains to the camera: “I’m a creative person. And a creative person has to be creative—what can you do? There’s no way of getting away from it.”
While on vacation in Maine in the early aughts, Workman was implored by a friend to visit and record Carbee. The NYC-based documentarian edited down the footage on his camcorder into a four-minute short, Carbee’s Barbies, and kept in touch with the widower, who, upon his disapproving wife’s death, was driven by the urge to show his work to the world. Thus began a deluge of bizarre correspondences with the filmmaker as Carbee sent him novel-sized letters filled with rambling, mythic pontifications, as well as drawings, collages, and homemade videotapes. Carbee’s art brings to mind that of Mark Hogancamp, who was profiled in Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, but in contrast to Malmberg’s invisible hand as a filmmaker, Workman off-puttingly inserts himself into his portraiture, beginning with a nasally, onerous voiceover. Roughly 30 minutes into Magical Universe, the director cuts to his girlfriend, who watches a rough cut of the documentary and notes the potential exploitation: “You are making a strong statement that he is weird. You can cut that down and make it a story about him.”
This savvy piece of advice signals a compassionate formal shift that silences Workman’s narration and turns the focus to Carbee’s artistic process and backstory. Carbee’s work itself is fruitfully curious enough to be worth its own documentary. Does his work play into the fetishization of Barbie dolls, or serve as a commentary on Mattel’s mass-marketed and rigid standards of female beauty? Carbee’s mesmerized soliloquies to the beauty of the buxom plastic figurines would suggest the former. Workman remains more interested in Carbee the man than Carbee the artist though. To varying degrees of success, the filmmaker attempts to prominently display Carbee’s creations, yet keeps undermining his art in favor of investigating his skewed relationship to everyday realities. But as Magical Universe reaches its conclusion, Workman validates his true intentions to archive and inspire, as Carbee’s bizarre legacy gains immortality as it reaches yet another audience.