Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Secrets and Happy Trees Abound in ‘Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, & Greed’

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Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, & Greed is a documentary that tries to be an expose and a memorial and finds itself hamstrung by the former. Granted, its runtime of 90 min makes the documentary much more enjoyable than it would be. But even then, it feels as if the people behind the camera are trying to pad it out.

Joshua Rofe is no stranger to exploring cultural moments within the culture that birthed them. His docuseries Lorena about Lorena Bobbit case examined both the case itself and how the media impacted it, as well as the people involved. Bob Ross is not nearly the sprawling drama that Lorena was, but it is an attempt to try and figure out who Bob Ross was.

Rofe’s problem is that Bob Ross is a nice guy who loved nature, painting, and women. At least what we see of him. The majority of Bob Ross is given to Bob’s son, Steve. If you will forgive the pun, Steve paints a very rose-colored picture of his late father.

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Steve and Bob Ross

Having the central figure of your documentary being a decent human being is not a bad thing nor a boring one. The problem becomes when they try to lead up to the betrayal and greed part of the title. Rofe holds back a lot of the backstabbing and corporate espionage stuff until the last leg of the movie. 

We, as the audience, are watching these people like Steve, Bob’s good friend and business partner Dana Jester, talk about what happened to him in vague terms. It lends an air of sinister foreboding, but it doesn’t jive with the happy-go-lucky portrait of Bob Ross.

The “betrayal & greed” aspects of Bob Ross are Annette and Walt Kowalski. The Kowalskis are old friends of Bob and his wife, Jane. They are the ones who funded Bob and his painting classes and helped set up his business.

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Bob Ross with Annette and Walt Kowalski

However, as the documentary wears on, we begin to see cracks between the couple. At one point, Steve confesses Bob and Annette had an affair that ended before Annette wanted it to. Then Jane dies from cancer, and it is revealed the business set up between the couples was democratic, and now Bob is outnumbered.

Little things like this irked me about Bob Ross. Holding back a fact like how the business was set up until the last half of the film makes sense dramatically, to a degree, but it also leaves much of the earlier parts of the documentary needlessly vague. All because they want to save the information for a dramatic moment towards the end.

 It doesn’t help that several people declined to be interviewed because they were afraid of what the Kowalskis might do. The couple has developed a reputation for being litigation-happy, and many are scared to speak their minds. As a result, Bob Ross comes off as a documentary that knows there is a story there but cannot figure out how to get to it.

They wait until the very end to tackle the Kowalski treachery because Bob Ross has little to say about them aside from bad people who did terrible things. Still, Rofe and others try their best to give us a clearer picture of the betrayal. They even go so far as to include video footage of a deposition Steve and others participated in regarding a lawsuit with the Kowalskis. 

Steve had discovered a document from his father leaving him and Bob’s brother, the rights to his name and likeness, something the Kowalskis were profiting from Bob’s death. The footage includes when Steve Ross discovers his uncle had sold those rights to the Kowalskis without ever telling him. 

All of this is interesting to a degree, and if what the documentary alleges is true, then the Kowalskis are, without a doubt, bad people. But again, they have so few interviewees and such an incomplete picture, Bob Ross often finds itself repeating itself over and over.

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Bob Ross

Visually, however, Rofe keeps the documentary fascinating. Bob Ross can sometimes turn into the dreaded “talking heads,” a series of people talking at the camera, and soon they all tend to blur together. But Rofe employs some interesting visuals, such as impressionist paintings that depict the events being talked about. In lieu of flashbacks or re-enactments, these moments give the documentary its emotional heft.

Shot by Ronan Killen and edited by Allan Dusso, along with Rofe, keep the documentary from being mired in the pitfalls of most documentaries. Take the way Dusso cuts between the subjects Gary and Cathwren Jenkins, contemporaries of Bob’s, and their paintings and old footage. Dusso and Killen do an excellent job of establishing a visual rhythm, so the documentary never gets too static; combined with the paintings, it all comes together and helps Bob Ross overcome its lack of substance.

On the one hand, the last half of Bob Ross seems repetitive; it is also the most engaging. Documentaries are not, as some believe, objective, cold, emotionless tomes. They are films and, as such, should express something spiritual, intellectual, or existential about its subject or its maker. 

The last half of Bob Ross drops the biography of Bob Ross, PBS superstar and master painter. However, once it begins to get at the tragedy of a man unable to outsmart the people he thought were his friends, the documentary begins to take its true shape. In many ways, an artist, who finds his art in danger of being turned into crass commercialism because of a couple of rich old white people, is the distillation of the movie industry since time immemorial. 

Even more, telling is that as popular as Bob Ross was, it is impossible to discern his work from someone else. Inspiring as his ethos that great art can come from anywhere might be, more than one person admits there’s no style or recognizable personality to a Ross painting. They may look beautiful, but you can’t tell a Ross landscape from a landscape painting from anyone else.

Watching Bob Ross, I couldn’t help but think of Orson Welles’s F for Fake. I couldn’t help but be reminded of how the famed art forger, Elmyr de Hory, forged a slew of masterworks and did so perfectly that experts couldn’t discern between what was a Picasso and what was an Elmyr. I mention this because, at one point, we discover that Annette Kowalski is the only qualified expert on what is a Bob Ross painting. We see footage of someone asking Walt Kowalski how he knows the artwork on the wall is a legitimate Bob Ross painting. Walt replies, “Because someone said so.”

Amidst all the skullduggery, Bob Ross skips over some exciting questions. Bob Ross was a lovable and inspirational man. But what does it say that his work is indistinguishable from his students or his son’s? Who says what is art and who says what is a Bob Ross painting? 

These are not the questions Bob Ross ponders. But they are the questions I was left with after the film ended. Still, it’s hard not to feel admiration for a man who taught people that self-expression is not something that has to be commodified; and that if it only helps you, then it has done its purpose.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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