At one point in filmmaker Jeremy Workman’s optimistic documentary Magical Universe, artist Al Carbee hovers with his camera over a semicircle of nine Barbie dolls. Barbies have been Carbee’s main portrait subject for decades; these particular few, he explains, are in an intergalactic-council meeting to discuss the direction of a new shared society.
A film editor whose bread and butter is movie trailers (and whose father, Chuck, creates those misty-eyed movie-magic montages at the Academy Awards), Workman has an especial talent for crafting compact emotional arcs, and he captures the poignancy of Carbee’s drive to create ideal images. Carbee’s obsession with Barbie — that totem of outrageous American female beauty standards — not to mention his references to a mysterious planet called Epicuma, might sound warning bells to anyone who’s seen a true-crime show.
But as Workman delves into Carbee’s life and art, it becomes clear that Carbee is less interested in the dolls’ bodies than in creating a social utopia for his “Bahbees,” whom he photographs as astronauts, movie stars, and, tellingly, photographers. Workman’s self-aware narrative sometimes borders on noxious sentimentality, and an on-camera appraisal of Carbee’s collages by a New Museum curator scans as unneeded justification. But as Workman seems to intuit, no filmgoing audience is likely to be floored by footage of doll portraiture alone.
This story is about tenderness and empathy, including Carbee’s for his plastic proxies. Strolling through his first museum exhibition, the artist turns and responds warmly to a wall tiled with photos of Barbie faces: “Oh, here they are.” What we see is a reproduction of a reproduction, but what Carbee sees is undoubtedly real.