January 10, 2019 Meow Wolf: Origin Story (Documentary Review)
Based on the title alone, Meow Wolf: Origin Story sounds like it could be some ironic werewolf flick. Every night on a full moon, some unfortunate soul transforms into a werewolf with an identity complex, an alternate fursona, or an interest in Japanese anime. The film has received awards and nominations at the Denver Film Festival and SXSW 2018, amongst others, so either it is a really good, ironic Horror film or it is something completely different.
It is the latter in this case. Meow Wolf is actually an art collective based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Origin Story does what it says on the tin: it describes how founders Emily Montoya, Vince Kadlubek, Sean Di Ianni, Matt King, Megan Maher, Caity Kennedy, Benji Geary and Corvas K. Brinkerhof II founded the group after having trouble breaking into the local art scene. This all comes along with how they took off through their House of Eternal Return, and some keen interest from George R. R. Martin.
Directed by Morgan Capps and Jilann Spitzmiller (Shakespeare Behind Bars 2005), the film cropped up on December 1, 2018, and is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. But how enlightening is it? Will it interest people beyond those into art? And does it explain why they called themselves ‘Meow Wolf’?
For starters, it is quite a familiar story at face value: radical art group at odds with the taste of the populous finally becomes de rigueur through talent, big ideas and chutzpah. It is just that people would expect that tale to come out of 17th century Amsterdam, 19th century Paris, or even early 20th century New York. Intriguing, if well-worn biographies on Rembrandt, Monet, Manet and Picasso tread this ground. It is another thing for the tale to be set in 21st century New Mexico, and going beyond paint.
The Impressionists never dressed up in costumes and danced down the Paris boulevards. Then again, those art movements existed before the kitsch Meow Wolf favors, not that they have any strict guidelines. Any interested artist could come along to their warehouse and do whatever: everyone is welcome, especially those frozen out by the staid New Mexican market. According to Montoya, their motto would be “We don’t know what were doing and we don’t care.”
That said, what comes out tends to be a mishmash of cheesy Sci-Fi, ’60s camp, ’70s Disco, ’80s aesthetics and ’90s Punk Rock. In other words, if one is in their twenties and thirties, enjoyed the Mystery Science Theater 3000 series, and prefers something a step beyond Green Day in music, then they may get where Meow Wolf is coming from. Some may say they are typical art students, but they do not have an attitude about it. Their credo is to be open and inclusive, which has led the group to expand beyond its founders and cater to all sorts. One of them even referred to their group as “a Punk Rock nursery school.” They may be surreal, yet they are not intimidating or threatening either.
They do not operate randomly either. The artists can do their own thing, but they have a structure when it comes to collective projects. The film details the organisation, debates and clashes over their biggest pieces through a combo of talking heads, behind the scenes footage, and even bits of animation. Sometimes they can be minimalist black and white line animations detailing an anecdote, while other times they can be ’80s-esque, Daft Punk-like sequences detailing, well, something.
That is not to say it is all joy and Whale Song deodorant adverts. The film does not shy away from the group’s late member David Loughridge, who documented his struggle with bipolar disorder through his photography. It adds a sobering shot to the otherwise anarchic atmosphere of the film, as it covers how important he was to the group, and what led to his untimely passing without being gratuitous. The interviews and montage of his work make for a nice tribute.
Despite the ups and downs, the documentary provides clear answers. Like how they decided on their name, how they make their work, and how George R. R. Martin got involved, complete with an interview with the man himself. Though it does not dwell on its answers if they are straightforward. R. R. Martin explains his involvement, the artists reveal why they appealed to him, then it is on to the next topic. The film does not meander or make it about the big name: Meow Wolf and their work are the number one priority.
Meow Wolf: Origin Story does not go through the meaning behind each exhibit one by one, but shows how things were put together. The artsy crowd have the pieces revealed as they are for them to examine, while art skeptics get the facts and figures. Despite the kitschy nature of the group’s work, there is a solid, serious story about the business and the people behind it.
Fans will get the most out of it, as the first half of the documentary may convince the skeptics that the group are avant-garde for avant-garde’s sake. However, if they stick through it to the end, they may think otherwise. For being a fascinating, well put-together film, Cryptic Rock gives Meow Wolf: Origin Story 4 out of 5 stars.