A Short Film About John Bolton
directed by Neil Gaiman
(Docurama, 2003)

When Neil Gaiman decided to try his hand at writing and directing a short film, he decided to take a real artist's name and work and create a completely fictional persona for him.

A Short Film About John Bolton is filmed like a documentary, and at first you'll believe it really is. Interviewer Marcus Brigstocke talks with an avid fan of Bolton's work and a gallery owner about to exhibit it before Bolton (deliciously played by John O'Mahoney) makes an appearance. And this Bolton is awkward and reserved, peculiar and particular, absent-minded and downright eccentric. But, while he is obviously uncomfortable in the spotlight, gallery owner Carolyn Dalgleish (Carolyn Backhouse) is lavish in her praise of Bolton and his art. Her effusive manner is that of a cunning marketeer and PR bamboozler. Marcus, meanwhile, grows increasingly bewildered by his subject

Bolton's paintings are equally important to the film; they are somewhat disturbing, a combination of lithe female forms, often nude, who also are vampires. The combination of beauty and horror, grace and ferocity makes for some unsettling scenes. But the patrons of the gallery opening are enthusiastic about the work, despite Bolton's social discomfiture. (The actual John Bolton is among the guests, and can be heard loudly praising his work.)

After an uncomfortable interview in Bolton's home, the film takes on a certain Blair Witch quality as Marcus leaves his film crew behind and, armed with a handheld camera, follows the artist into his gothic studio to watch him at work. The film here is artfully blurry, an effect that is sometimes dizzying as candlelights streak across the screen, and Bolton's eccentricities take on an eerie cast as we learn the root of his inspiration.

It's also at this point that anyone unaware that they're watching a fictional piece will begin to catch on.

After watching the stylish, 30-minute film, it's useful to watch it again, this time with the commentary feature on. Gaiman and Brigstocke provide a fun and fact-filled account of the ingenius, yet diabolical project and, in a separate interview of Gaiman by Brigstocke, we learn about his artful use of red and his reasons for having a beard during filming.

"You don't have to like it," Gaiman tells viewers, "but everything in it is exactly like I meant it to be."

If the half-hour film isn't sufficient inducement to pick up the DVD, Gaiman fans will be pleased with the inclusion of Neil Gaiman: Live at the Aladdin among the DVD's special features. The 100-minute reading and Q&A session was recorded at the Aladdin Theatre in Portland, Oregon, during Gaiman's Last Angel Tour in 2000. The event, which supported the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, includes readings of "Chivalry," a delightful poem for writer Martha Soukup, "Locks," the hilarious "Being an Experiment Upon Strictly Scientific Lines Assisted by Unwins Ltd, Wine Merchants (Uckfield)," "The Price" and "Babycakes."

Gaiman reads the tales with a rich and friendly voice, and in a constant attitude of bemusement. Some writers, used to working with a pen or behind a computer screen, might feel awkward reading aloud in front of a crowd, but Gaiman is obviously relaxed at the podium, and his narration is warm and expressive.

I've read his work. I've heard him on audio recordings. But the experience of seeing and hearing him tell his own stories the way he meant them to be is an unparalleled treat.

by Tom Knapp
7 January 2006

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