For those who lived through the 1950s and 1960s, you might remember how important the Sunday funnies were, but not all of the comic strips were meant to be funny. Some were inspirational and one of them was drawn by a man who once was a top illustrator for the American auto industry in Detroit. When the switch from illustrators to photographers came, he began drawing a comic strip that imagined the future: “Closer Than We Think.” Sunday, at San Diego Comic-Con, director Brett Ryan Bonowicz’s film on futurist artist Arthur Radebaugh won best documentary at the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival.
The award was accepted by producer/cinematographer Reid Nicewonder and was screened with all of the winners Sunday afternoon. Bonowicz raised some of his funding through an Indiegogo campaign in 2017.
In a phone interview, Bonowicz noted that he only found out about Radebaugh by happenstance. “I had been working on my last film and I was looking for art work to put up in the office” of the main character. On Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog, he found Radebaugh, and while he ultimately didn’t use any of his Radebaugh’s art in the character’s office, he was intrigued. “I wanted to find out more about the artist. You want to know more about the man who made that and that started this long odyssey.”
Bonowicz ended up speaking with people like Matt Novak, editor of Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, whose “favorite comic strip of all time” was “Closer Thank You Think.” Novak made a plug for financial support for the documentary where he noted, “The strip is largely forgotten today, but it featured the very best of flying cars and jetpacks from the Golden Age of futurism. The pulpy time capsule ran in over 200 newspapers from 1958 until 1963, and ever since I first discovered it roughly a decade ago I’ve been obsessively collecting copies.” Novak had previously written about the strip for Smithsonian.com, about how “for five years, a popular comic strip gave us a preview of life in Surburbatopia.”
From beginning point of the research, the film took a little over a year and Bonowicz originally planned to make this a short film, but he was able to find “the people who had some connection with him in the past” and that lead to other connections, with people insisting that he should talk to another person. Finding people who actually knew Radebaugh first hand gave Bonowicz an “emotional bond.” Yet for all that research he did Radebaugh remains something of a mystery.
The 85-minute documentary at times seems repetitive, but there’s also a sense of poignant earnestness and an air of mystery. “Syd (Mead) and I talked about futurism and how people got lost,” Bonowicz said. In the end, as a cartoonist, Radebaugh was an independent artist. He added, “It’s sad. I work as an independent artist and he did as well. to see where his life ended up–not being in a great financial place and dying relatively unknown and not acknowledged.” In the documentary, Bonowicz said their intent was not to “play up the tragedy in a melodramatic way, but in an honest way.” Through this one individual Bonowicz meant “to explore mid-century futurism through one individual.”
Two things surprised Bonowicz. “I didn’t know much about Detroit and advertising.” At one time, the auto industry advertising firms would have “a team of people just doing lettering for advertising.” Eventually “technology just takes those jobs away.” When the change came, these people had to “evolve or die.” Mead went from an industrial designer to the movie industry where he ended up as a neofuturistic concept artist for science fiction films (“Blade Runner,” “Aliens” and “Tron”).
The other big surprise is that his team was unable to find any audio or film of Radebaugh. “The best case scenario would have been we find two to three minutes of 8 millimeter of him walking around doing something silly.” That never happened, but Bonowicz hasn’t quite given up hope.
The mysteries yet to be solved are just how Radebaugh used the custom-made fan that he eventually gave away. The van was sold, painted brown–losting its futurism detailing–and eventually scraped. The other was the fire. Radebaugh’s wife, who outlived him burned his work. That seems to point to a “fraught relationship” and yet Radebaugh asked his last employer to take care of her. There were also tantalizing dead ends. Supposedly Radebaugh had an offer from Disney, but Bonowicz was unable to confirm that information.
The documentary inspired his current project–short videos on NASA artists (“Artist Depiction”). “Now we have so many films being made, but they certainly can disappear. If people aren’t archiving them properly that work will disappear, an individual will disappear.” He noted that when Filmstruck, which had a huge archive of older films shut down, it was “heartbreaking.” He explained, “Everything is everywhere, but nothing is permanent.”
There will be a special screening of “Closer Than We Think” in September in Philadelphia. For more information visit Bonowicz’s website: Clindar.net.