Getting HAPPY at The Pfister: A Story of Loss and Recovery
Suggestion: Turn up the volume on your device, click play, and prepare to get happy!
One of the many privileges of being human is that we experience emotions. While some might argue that other creatures express emotions, too, or that it’s not much of a privilege that we have to experience the painful ones, no one can argue with the fact that we are indeed “moved out of ourselves” (Latin emovere – “move out, agitate”) by a myriad of complex feelings stemming from the four basic emotions of happiness, sadness, fear/surprise, and anger/disgust. These emotions, each registered by different combinations of our 42 facial muscles, can cause us to love, cry, scream, or punch. Sometimes we bottle them up or keep them hidden; sometimes we let loose and express them with reckless abandon. And in our digital world, we don’t just register emotions with our faces: think of the billions of emoticons and gifs and memes that we use now to express our feelings. Emotions are the stuff of our lives–and the building blocks of the stories we write about ourselves. One such story—the directorial debut of Michael Patrick McKinley–hit the screens during the recent Milwaukee Film Festival.
While the festival is over, if you missed the Milwaukee premiere of McKinley’s delightful documentary Happy, don’t fret. Just put on a happy face and head over to The Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery for a glimpse into the sketchbooks of the subject of the film, Leonard Zimmerman. Curated by Steven Uhles and hosted by Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson, “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” features numerous prints from Leonard’s sketchbooks, an enormous collage of 32 photographs with Happy stickers in them, and an extended trailer of the film created just for this exhibit.
Uhles describes Leonard’s art, with its whimsical robots and recognizable motifs, as “art as memoir.” Even though this exhibit can only offer visitors a miniscule, microscopic fraction of his sketches, one can find even in it Leonard’s story of love and loss, depression and recovery–a story of falling in love and creating a life with Brian Malone, then losing him to cryptococcal meningitis. The sketches depict Leonard’s subsequent depression and how his art became therapy, how it helped him hold on to his love for and memories of Brian and recover his capacity for boundless happiness. Additionally, as with all good memoir, one can find in the sketches echoes of one’s own life events.
The collage of Happy stickers–created by the Coalition of Photographic Arts–speaks to the participatory nature of Zimmerman’s art: the ubiquitous stickers of his Happy campaign, with the endearing smile and flashing bulb that people all over the world have attached to parts of their cities then shared with Leonard through social media. While the yellow smiley that appeared in 1963 stares blankly ahead, this smiley tilts its head, its eyes have life, its bulb flashes a message of happiness. Anyone can get free stickers by sending Leonard a self-addressed stamped envelope.
One of the first things we hear about Leonard in the film comes from Alex Wier of Wier/Stewart, the branding, advertising, and graphic design company where Leonard is a designer. Alex says, “Leonard comes from a different planet.” Yes, Leonard’s infinite number of smiles and laughs are contagious, and yes, he can bring “childlike enthusiasm” to seemingly bland ad campaigns like ones for banks. Yes, Leonard loved Christmas so much as a child that his tinsel and light displays rivaled, surely, Clark Griswold’s, and his parents even wondered, “Where does this child get all these things?” But I have an inkling that Leonard is not really an alien from outer space, that his story is the story of being human on this planet. One of wonder and delight, and one where there’s room for pain and suffering.
We embrace our pains in different ways. Leonard seems to have embraced it in every way possible. In the film, we hear him embrace it with raw honesty, as when he describes for the camera the spinal fluid from Brian’s first spinal tap. He describes how he embraced it with confusion and disorientation after Brian died, as when he would walk into the grocery store only to abandon it in tears because Brian usually did the shopping–he didn’t know what to buy. He embraced it with self-medication, too, (“I didn’t think I would hurt”) and eventually had to move back home to Augusta after he lost his job and the house that Brian and he had bought together in Savannah.
“My best friend was my notebook,” Leonard says in the film. His sketches, some of which can be seen in the Pop-Up Gallery, allowed him to express his early love, the loss of his love, and the love that remained after his loss. What emerged were lovable robots, some distinctly Leonard and Brian, others distinctly masculine or feminine, but more often than not, his robots eschew gender or race or sexuality. Which brings us back to memoir as art: he has interpreted his life for himself, then shared it with us so that we can interpret it and interpret ourselves into it. As one guest at the gallery’s opening night says, “His art is refreshing. It makes you think about your own emotions, where you go through break-ups, life, death. This one is about holding in that bad and not wanting to release the negative energy. And in this one he has an indifferent face–but he has a bag puppet which suggests that he still has emotions.”
When people like his sister and old art teacher got him canvas, encouraging him to take his sketches one step further, he started painting again and Leonard was born again. His paintings became a timeline of his emotions and experiences, his process one that echoes his own life: “I always paint messy, then clean it up along the way.”
One of the best sequences in the film, for me, is one in which we watch Leonard painting in his studio, a soft spotlight on him and his easel in the middle of the room, the background darker. With headphones jamming–probably to Sam Smith or Telepathic Teddy Bear, both featured heavily on the film’s soundtrack—and red Chuck Taylors on his feet, he swoops around his painting with gusto and giddiness, with bright, broad brushstrokes and thick black outlines. We see his messiness and what he does to “clean it up.” Ane we can only imagine what he’s thinking as he paints. Probably something like the quotation from Mother Theresa that he used during a TEDX Talk in 2014: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
Seeing the TEDX Talk for the first time brought director Michael McKinley to tears. He says that something stuck with him, until six months later, while he was in Las Vegas and had his “epiphany”: to make a documentary about Leonard’s story. An audience member at the film’s showing that I attended asked Michael why directors don’t make more inspirational movies instead of ones that leave viewers feeling ambiguous about their feelings or just plain empty. He replied, “There need to be more movies that do the opposite of movies that make you feel sad and crummy. Now I’ve got the bug.”
Another audience member wanted to know when she could see the film again so she could share it with her family and friends, but Michael reminded her that releasing a film to DVD or streaming while it’s still going through the film festivals gets tricky. It could be another year, he said, to which she replied, with an apocalyptic tone, “The world doesn’t have twelve months.”
Well, you’re going to have to wait awhile before you can see the entire documentary, though, because Happy is indeed enjoying the film festival circuit. It premiered at the Historic Imperial Theater in Augusta, Georgia, delighted viewers at Milwaukee’s festival, and will soon show at New York City’s Chelsea Film Festival as one of only 24 North American films selected. It will also appear, so far, at the Savannah Film Festival later this month, and the Southern City Film Festival in Aiken, South Carolina, in November. Its likely that Happy will make it into other festivals as well. So you could hit the road and head east or south–or be satisfied for now with the “Don’t Erase Your Crooked Lines” teaser, which will remain popped-up in the gallery through October 23.
And in the meantime, do as Leonard does: “You can make the choice to be happy, because happiness matters.” And visit Leonard’s website and Facebook page to follow his adventures. And don’t forget: self-addressed stamped envelope sent to him will get you four Happy stickers all your own!