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Reviewing Rocaterrania

March 19, 2010

Our geographic area is chock-full of filmmakers – some extraordinarily talented, some who are up-and-coming.  Claude and I were lucky to see a film by one of the filmmakers in the first class last evening.  The film was called Rocaterrania, by Brett Ingram.  I had read briefly about it in our local arts magazine, but didn’t know much about the subject matter.  It profiles Renaldo Kuhler, the former science illustrator for the North Carolina Museum of Natural History.  Brett filmed Mr. Kuhler over a period of ten years to make this film.  To say that Mr. Kuhler is wildly eccentric is quite the understatement, but to say that he is artistically gifted is even more of an understatement.

Kuhler’s father, Otto Kuhler, was a famous train designer during the time when trains were competing against airlines for customers, and train companies wanted a more streamlined, modern look.  In the elder Kuhler’s design, a great deal of Art Deco influence shows through.  Renaldo Kuhler revealed that his father was away from home for long periods of time, and when he was at home, had great disdain for his son.  He never mentions that his father sat down with him and taught him his artistic techniques, so I deduced that clearly genetics were at play.

To escape what Kuhler perceived as a very negative young life (his mother was mean, kids teased him incessantly), he invented an entirely new country, in his mind, called Rocaterrania.  Everything I will tell you about Rocaterrania exists solely in Kuhler’s own mind and in his staggering body of artwork.  Rocaterrania is said to be located on the New York/Canadian border, a separate country from the United States, and Rocaterrania bears strong similarities to Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution.  Kuhler has drawn citizen after citizen of this country; developed a language, an alphabet and a font, (which was used in the title sequence of Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man); developed a history, a governmental structure, and has developed and depicted all of this through his artwork.  His art ranges from landscapes to incredibly ornate architecture to his most prolific subject, people and costuming.  Even though the film clocks in at just under 80 minutes, the sheer volume of art, letters, alphabet, history, all written, drawn and painted by Kuhler is mind-boggling.  I felt as though he must have a form of graphomania, a condition I have never seen except in Crumb, where underground comic artist Robert Crumb’s brother Charles displays this in a tragic downward spiral.

The film opens with Kuhler showing the viewer a tiny female shrew’s skull, which he must draw for the Museum.  He looks through a microscope and draws, with exact precision.  Kuhler relates that the NC Museum of Natural History hired him without an interview based solely on his artwork.

Rocaterrania is available through Brett Ingram’s website, www.brettingram.org, and is truly a feast for the senses.  Anyone who thinks themselves an artist should definitely procure a copy post haste.  You will not believe your eyes.  I would say Rocaterrania is one of the most interesting documentaries I’ve ever seen.  Absolutely recommended and will become an oft-watched fixture on our DVD shelf.

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