Note: When speaking about transgender people, the issue of pronouns is considered a sensitive one. Within the documentary, Jones personally expresses his comfort with whatever people are inclined to use. Most of Jones' friends continue to use masculine pronouns, which dictated my decision to do the same for the purposes of the review.
The art of painter Jeffrey Catherine Jones has graced the cover of many fantasy novels, comic books, and albums over the years. His softly detailed figures (often women) have an incredible character and life, despite Jones' bold strokes. He and his contemporaries helped transform the idea of sci-fi and fantasy artwork as a lesser or commercial endeavor, creating pieces that are recognized as fine art. Better Things: The Life and Choices of Jeffrey Catherine Jones was shot shortly before Jones' death in 2011, chronicles his extraordinary career, including his time spent at "The Studio", which spawned a seminal art book, and his transformation as a human being, from crossdresser to eventual decision to embrace life as a transgender person.
It's almost hard to know how to write about Better Things as a piece of filmmaking. Director Maria Paz Cabardo adopts a simple, straightforward (but not ineffective) structure, rarely (if ever) allowing herself much artistic manipulation or flair. The purpose of the piece is to tell Jones' story from beginning to end, and she does so chronologically, starting from Jones' discovery of art and his interest in it, progressing through to his first few uncomfortable commercial ventures, finding a voice, joining "The Studio", and eventually arriving at the present day, including his tough times battling alcoholism and his decision to start gender confirmation treatments. Interview subjects include artists ranging from the late Moebius to Mike Mignola, as well as Jones' daughter Julianna, and of course, plenty of time with Jones himself.
For the uninitiated (like myself), the main thing viewers will want a look at is Jones' artwork, and there is plenty of it. Whenever possible, Cabardo cuts to Jones' library of beautiful pieces. She also spotlights the art of people who drew inspiration from Jones, allowing for the occasional shot of a piece by another professional. At times, one wishes that Cabardo had made a coffee table book (or, at least, wishes that the DVD were packaged with one), but she does get up close, studying the details that make each piece, scrap to mural, special and unique. Additionally, Cabardo has an extensive library of vintage photographs to pull from, locating Jones in groups with many artists who continue to work professionally on books at Marvel and DC. Occasionally, these stills are repeated, but it's a minor distraction.
Most of the documentary's warmth comes from Jones himself, who is entirely open to discussing his life. At the time filming took place, he expresses a certain serenity with his place in the world, and his interview segments are relaxed and candid. He talks about the accidental death of a close friend, clearly overwhelmed by the memory but still willing to discuss it for the film. Some will find his transition to be the most "salacious" element of his life, but the film actually hardly covers it, with Jones' nonchalance and near disinterest in a choice that means everything to him but little to anyone else leading Cabardo's editing choices. The other participants have an occasional moment of equal candidness; ex-wife Weezie Simonson can seem casually cruel at times when discussing his decision to transition, although I suspect it's unintentional.
The longest passage in the documentary concerns "The Studio", which formed when Jones, Berni Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Mike Kaluta began splitting the rent for a New York City loft where all four took a corner for personal studio space. The creative energy of this collective eventually inspired a book, also titled The Studio, which most of the film's interview subjects cite as one of the defining factors in their decision to become artists. Although Cabardo shies away from directorial flourish, she does capture the exciting, creative spirit of all four members, all of whom reflect on their time spent in that loft with great fondness and affection. Better Things sticks to the facts, like a visual encyclopedia entry, but at its best, it captures a spirit or vibe, one which defined Jones as an artist.
A grid of boxes for this doc, which depicts its subject both young and told, surrounded by pieces of Jones' art. The same goes for the back (boxes inside boxes!), with a plain font laying out the film's overwritten box copy. The disc comes in a standard eco-friendly DVD case, and there is no insert. A little odd that the box copy makes no use of a logo designed specifically for the movie.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, Better Things is perfectly average on DVD. When the interviews are shot in close-up, the PQ is generally quite strong, offering lots of detail and nicely saturated color. In some wider shots, it loses a step or two, occasionally exhibiting compression haloes and other minor anomalies. The occasional bit of artifacting can be spotted, but I didn't notice any banding. The 2.0 audio has no trouble rendering the dialogue and music nicely, with little fanfare. Subtitles would have been appreciated just the same, but none are included on the disc.
For fantasy and sci-fi art lovers, this is an engaging little documentary that charts the history of one of the world's most influential -- yet somewhat obscure -- popular artists. Recommended.
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