Cribbing from public access classics (Bob Ross particularly in this case) Jack Henry Robbins hijacks our collective nostalgia and bends it to absurdist comedy. Funny, and deeply weird, the filmmaker’s second VHS spoof in a row to play Sundance was a fan favorite at this year’s festival and received a Vimeo release this week to promote the filmmaker’s new Kickstarter project, VHYes!, which seeks to take this aesthetic approach to a feature length.
The setup is simple, Joan (Kerry Kenney) is the host of a how-to-paint TV show, but as her lesson unfolds, telling aspects of her personality and her deeply private predilections pop out in unexpected and disturbing ways to our collective surprise and delight.
Comedy is ruined when you explain the joke, so I won’t attempt to do that, but the film’s humor is undeniably well-crafted. Kenney gives a great performance, and the direction is exquisitely modulated to wring maximum effect from its awkward pauses, and linger on far-off glances. Joan is one weird lady, and the revelations that arise within the film’s short 4min runtime are greatly timed to continually reset audience expectation.
That said, I remember being a bit underwhelmed when seeing the film at Sundance this year despite the riotous audience reaction. I might have ignored featuring the film if not for members of my S/W team singing its praise. After multiple rewatches, I now agree that they were correct to push back against my snobby reaction, but an interesting question lingers in my mind still—what differentiates Painting With Joan from innumerable genre spoofs and weird skits that litter the YouTube landscape? Sundance has an adventurous programming spirit, which I admire, but what is that dividing line that separates high culture from low? Is it the pitch-perfect aesthetic execution, or the strain of comedy itself?
I do think that Painting With Joan is in keeping with a dominant mode of modern comedy, influenced by Adult Swim and particularly Tim and Eric (themselves Sundance short film alums with The Terrys). This kind of almost anti-comedy is obsessed with absurdity and stilted communication, and loves repressed psycho-sexuality and non-sequiturs that challenge audience expectation. Its influences are felt as far afield as the “nice” humor of Joe Pera to the bizarro animations of Julian Glander or Jack Wedge. JASH, the portal founded by Tim and Eric, Sarah Silverman, Reggie Watts and Michael Cera, is home to a lot of this on the web, including many of the Sundance-selected shorts of Janizca Bravo (whom we shamefully have yet to feature here) so I wasn’t surprised at all to see their involvement with Painting With Joan. It’s an interesting question to think about and not one I have any answers to, so maybe you can chime in via the comments with your thoughts.