How do you make a movie about an artist whose craft traverses cartooning, graphic design, puppetry, comic books, model-building, and interior design? Here’s a better question, how do you make a film about this person and condense it down into 42 minutes? Seth’s Dominion is not an exhaustive documentary about the work of the Canadian cartoonist, but it’s almost exhausting as you bounce around the various thoughts, works, and biographical details from Seth’s life as covered by director Luc Chamberland. Seth’s Dominion is a 42 minute whirlwind that really neither asks nor answers anything of its subject matter and may be best viewed as kind of a film sketchbook, a rare look inside the thought process of an artistic renaissance man.
For the record, like Seth, I live in Guelph, Ontario, a city that lies about an hour’s drive west of Toronto. I walk past his wife’s barbershop on my way home from work at the plaza on the corner of Silvercreek and Speedvale. I’ve even interviewed the man himself, as I was the arts editor at the University of Guelph student paper when Seth was having an exhibit of his work at the MacDonald-Stewart Art Centre on campus. I won’t say that I know everything about Seth – who does? – but as much as Seth can be known by the average Guelphite, I know enough. Or at least, I thought I did.
Seth’s Dominion does not take a straightforward approach to making a film about Seth, whose birth name is Gregory Gallant. The autobiographical portions are told through animation in Seth’s own distinctive style, the segments where Seth reads from his work are done through puppet shows, and the artist’s work ethic and philosophy are discussed in black-and-white home movie style that’s evocative of Guy Maddin’s sorta-but-not-really documentary, My Winnipeg. For the average viewer it may be infuriating that the film never leers for long on any one aspect of Seth’s busy life, but that’s very reflective of the man that the film’s about.
Seth’s Dominion was made over an eight year period from 2005 to 2013, and while a lot of that time had to be set aside for the animation, there had to be a lot of conversations in those eight years, too. In fact, one wonders if Chamberland, who’s worked as an animator on big Hollywood films like Space Jam and Quest for Camelot, kept making direct reference to Seth’s incredible artistic output as a hint that there was a lot for him here to work with. Although we occasionally see Seth hunched over his drawing board working, the only light in his basement studio comes from his desk lamp. Was that purposeful? Surrounded by darkness, are we meant to wonder what creative concoctions will next be unleashed from the head and hands of Seth next? Or maybe it’s just a basement.
Of course, Seth himself is an interesting character, too. His words often carry deep philosophical meaning or are about melancholy remembrances of times past and never to come again. But those words are often punctuated with humor, a punchline from Seth or a gag in the animation that suggests a “Que sera sera” attitude about even the most serious parts of life. The artist himself always appears like a man out of time, like a skinny noir detective in an outfit a size-too-big. He’s a man seemingly desperate to hold on to the past, but also seems as if he would be out of place there.
As for the narrative, Seth never goes though his life story point-by-point, but he’s more than willing to undress the unpleasant on film on the basis that, in the end, it wasn’t all so bad. He’s incredibly appreciative of his parents for their influence and encouragement in one moment, but in the next he recalls his father’s temper and nights spent listening to his transistor radio to dull the sound of his dad’s fury in the next room. Much of the film’s theme is about the futility of holding on to the past and the inevitability of trying. It always seems as if Seth, and by extension of the viewer, are going no where fast in terms of their personal development. But maybe in Seth’s unique way, he’s trying to reinforce the Ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself”
It’s hard to say where the appeal of Seth’s Dominion comes from. Is it my own fascination with the comic book art form? Is it that fact that Seth and I walk the same streets everyday? Perhaps it’s the sense of shared experiences, as his story about someone picking a trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario for which it’s an illegal act to pluck, reminded me of a similar story from my own childhood. What I hope though is that the movie appeals because of the shared desire and respect for creative output. Whether you make a living from your art, or you do it purely for yourself, creation is its own reward. Seth’s Dominion, meanwhile, should be rewarding in some way for everyone who watches it.
Seth's Dominion offers a fun, zany, and sometimes insightful trip into the mind of renowned cartoonist Seth. It's about as far as you get get from the normal bio-pic documentary, and that's a good thing.