American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
When filmmakers Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden first enter the East Chicago home of Peter Anton, they are so overwhelmed by its rundown condition that they must return later with masks. Anton’s childhood home is a rapidly deteriorating domicile whose utilities have long since been shut off. Mold is a prevalent cohabitant, and a sign on the door warns visitors that the house is occupied and not condemned. The filmmakers are so concerned about the house collapsing that they insist Anton should seek shelter elsewhere. He refuses for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because decades of his artwork exist inside.
In surveying this setting, one might think “Almost There” is a documentary about impoverished, elderly folks who have sadly fallen through the cracks in the system. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable journey through the later life of an artist, a warts-and-all look at the filmmakers’ process that fails to get past its most troublesome wart. Herein lies the problem for me as your humble reviewer, for the filmmakers have asked that we not discuss the major revelation in “Almost There," a revelation that colored my viewing experience to an irreconcilable degree. So I'll have to tap-dance around the elephant in the room. To be safe, I’ll issue a spoiler warning in case I’m not cryptic enough to keep viewers in the dark.
In 2006, Rybicky and Wickenden met Anton at a pierogi festival. His sketched portraits of festival attendees attracted the duo’s attention, but a scrapbook of Anton’s work pulled them into his orbit. Entitled “Almost There,” the scrapbook is part of a 12-book autobiography and is filled with sketches, sayings and other minutiae that Anton sought to include. On page 657 of the “Almost There” series, Anton wrote “one of the final goals of my life is to tell my story. It may be left to others to do so.” In 2008, Rybicky and Wickenden became Anton’s co-conspirators in relaying his story to the general public.
Rybicky and Wickenden travel to Anton’s home in East Chicago, Indiana to see more of his work. “East Chicago is the type of place you’d drive pass, but never into,” we’re told. Images of East Chicago’s poverty accompany this narration, but fail to prepare us for the state of Anton’s house. Anton’s rationale for staying is understandable despite the filmmakers’ concern for his safety: he is very big on the notion of “home”, and this building has defined it for over 50 years. Additionally, he has a small group of friends who look in on him, and they've remained with him through extremely tough times. We meet some of these people as “Almost There” progresses, and we also learn why they stay by Anton’s side despite his irascible, sometimes confrontational personality. We also gradually start to see parallels between the lives of the filmmakers and Anton.