Dan Stafford's low-fi, slightly ramshackle documentary, Root Hog Or Die, is entirely fitting with regard to its subject minicomics/zine-making legend, John Porcellino. The film follows a roughly chronological look at his life and career as a musician and cartoonist with extensive interviews from a number of friends and peers from all walks of his life. The film's rough, DIY feel makes sense given Porcellino's background as a cartoonist who uses an exceedingly spare line to relate anecdotes and poetic observations about his life and environment. It was interesting to see various places around Illinois and Denver concretized on the screen, but it was more interesting to hear Porcellino's own feelings about each of these places. There are also a number of readings of his comics by a variety of people.
The film is neatly divided into title-card sections, from his early life to college years to his early years in bands. From there, Porcellino's descent into years of poor health are described in some detail, and his account of battling OCD and depression are particularly harrowing. What is delightful is seeing the frequently solitary Porcellino hanging out with various of his friends from over the year. He's not by nature a solitary person, but circumstances and mental illness often drove him into that direction. Seeing him just cut up with friends like Noah Van Sciver was one of the real joys of this DVD, especially in the extended deleted scenes section. In some ways, I enjoyed the deleted scenes as much or more as the film itself, because they were every bit as revealing as the film's narrative but were more relaxed and more fun. Watching them felt more like reading an issue of King-Cat than watching the straight narrative. The "Extra P" section, devoted to John P talking about the "filler" cartoons from King-Cat as well as talking about how they bombed at one presentation, was excellent for the same reason.
A couple of quotes stood out in the film as especially illustrative of why John P is so good at what he does. Long-time admirer Ivan Brunetti notes that the specific nature of Porcellino's observations about life actually give them a universal appeal. We may not share Porcellino's precise situation or even aesthetic understanding of the world, but his passion for understanding and his attempt to create meaning is easily understood. Porcellino's interest in Zen Buddhism became crystal clear when he referred to it as the "DIY religion", where it's all up to your own effort to make it work and no one else can make it work for you. How fitting is that thought, given his own relentless and independent work ethic over the years?
Where the documentary is at its best is when it manages to capture the thoughtful, poetic and philosophical side of Porcellino alongside his more playful and silly side. Seeing live footage of various bands he was in was a great deal of fun, as well as hearing anecdotes about some of his wackier on-stage antics. Porcellino is a skilled raconteur, even if that's a skill that took him years to develop. He's someone who's now used to talking about his life as a narrative and parceling it out as a series of anecdotes. At the same time, the best John P comics are those that float apart from specific timelines, those that are about Porcellino as phenomenologist. He observes the world, apart from its utility and our everyday understanding of it, and deftly records his sense of awe. There is a famous Zen koan: "First there is a mountain/Then there is no mountain/Then there is." This is a way of describing the Zen approach to living in the material world. We acknowledge the world as it seems to everyone, as the manifestation of the evidence of our senses and all of the assumptions that flow out of that. Then we acknowledge the illusory nature of these constructions. Then we once again acknowledge the temporal and physical existence of the world once again and our role in it. Porcellino's exquisite awareness and willingness to feel his emotions as connected to time and place are the essence of what makes his poetic work so powerful. It is simple and direct, where small details matter most of all. The words are basic and unadorned, the images stripped down to their simplest configurations.
That's especially true with regard to his relationship with animals, and his beloved, deceased cat Maisie Kukoc most of all. There's one strip about traveling across the country on a move where he sits in the cab of a truck, eating with his cat. There's a sense of perfect contentment on both their parts, of total understanding and acceptance of each other.
The timing of this documentary was interesting, because it came at a time when Porcellino was just starting to heal from years of mental illness that wound up wrecking two marriages. Both of his ex-wives are in the film, and he and his first wife Kera actually share a great deal of time together on the screen. The obvious affection both women still feel for him is obvious, given their tones of voice, body language and the ways they exchange words together. There's a sense in which being mentally ill is an aberration of who we are, a warped mutation of our true selves. Porcellino's OCD was certainly in that category, made all the more painful because he could understand rationally that what he was doing and thinking was not credible but couldn't help feeling and thinking that way. When someone is depressed and isolated but is then able to make a reconnection with an old friend, that experience can be a powerful tonic. It's rebuilding synapses that had been long abandoned and creating a flow of creative energy that had been dammed away. Seeing this happen onscreen, even if it's not discussed as such, is quite interesting and even inspiring. The film can also be seen as a companion piece to Porcellino's new book The Hospital Suite, which goes into greater detail regarding a number of autobiographical details from the film. Viewers should be warned that the DIY nature of the film extends to things like frequently poor lighting, a shaky camera, weird angles, etc. None of that seems to matter much given the subject, as the film shares in and celebrates Porcellino's own rough edges.