The first time I noticed Bob was on Saint Patrick’s Day weekend, a year ago. Standing outside Premiere Video, he was an offbeat leprechaun with shaggy silver hair protruding from a green plastic fedora, sporting around his squatty neck a hundred strands of bright acrylic beads — which I assumed he garnered at the nearby Greenville Avenue parade.
He stopped playing his hand-held piano keyboard as I approached.
“Hi. My name is Bob,” he said.
I smiled — maybe laughed — a greeting, and then hurried inside the movie-rental shop.
I saw him again on the Fourth of July, parading alone along Mockingbird Avenue carrying dozens of miniature American flags. I run into Bob all the time now, it seems. He talks to anyone who will listen, telling jokes (“Why did Jesus wear sandals? Because he wanted to save soles.”) and begging rides, or spinning outlandish and confusing tales — like the one about how he became a millionaire. Or the one about his career as a church preacher. And then there’s the claim that some producer is making a movie about him.
But here’s the thing: Bob tells the truth.
At the very least, everything he says is rooted in his own truth, even if it’s a little distorted.
Bob inherited, and was likely swindled out of, a significant amount of money. His unkempt style, grimy fingernails and ratty one-room apartment betray his current financial status. And he was, in fact, an evangelist and organist at the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Massachusetts during the early 1980s, which probably explains his frequent references to Scripture. And the part about the movie is true too — 100 percent.
When Lisa Johnson met Bob in 2003, she had a moment of inspiration. “It was a gut feeling. He had this polarizing personality.”
Bob’s persona is the stuff of movie characters we love and loathe in tandem — the gregarious mobster, or the brilliant cannibal who eats only mean people. Bob has been called everything from “a foul-smelling troll” to “God incarnate”.
Johnson, along with her friends Sebastian and Heather Lee — who were equally intrigued by Bob — mused over documenting his curious existence. “If you’ve ever been in an environment that he’s in, you know why,” Sebastian Lee says.
The trio, all of whom have backgrounds in journalism or communications, began investigating some of Bob’s wild claims. They located people who had known Bob, and dug up documents, learning that his real name is Robert Thomas Crawford, and that he is mildly retarded due to a head trauma incurred as a child. They learned that he doesn’t lie about things, he just gets the details jumbled, and that he has a knack for remembering details such as phone numbers from the past.
Following a year of deliberation, they decided to move forward with a documentary, despite the fact that they didn’t even own the essential equipment.
“We did the first test shoot with a borrowed camera,” Sebastian Lee says.
Caught on camera, a road trip to New Hampshire — where Bob spent his earlier years — opened doors to his life before he became a Dallas drifter. Bob’s father had been killed when Bob was 3. His mother beat him severely before permanently abandoning him at Laconia State School for the Feeble-Minded when he was 8. There, he was hit, humiliated and heavily medicated until he was discharged at age 25.
Most telling from the New Hampshire trip is that Bob’s story isn’t nice.
“I was dumped there because my mother didn’t want anything to do with me,” says Bob of Laconia. “I didn’t want their help … there was plenty of abuse … no one in their right mind would want to live that way,” Bob says.
When the moviemakers led Bob into the long-uninhabited Laconia facility, he refused to go upstairs and became agitated when pressed by the crew, “You’re not an attorney,” he says into the camera, “I don’t have to answer your questions.” But there are moments of joy mingled with the nightmarish memories — a janitor at Laconia, for example, taught Bob to play the piano.
This theme of ambivalence, of first impressions versus reality, is central to the documentary titled, “His Name is Bob”, now four years in the making.
“We want to introduce Bob in the way a lot of people first see him … irritating, filthy, repulsive … and then let them get to know him as this talented, interesting survivor that we have come to know,” Sebastian Lee says.
Today the filming is finished. Heather Lee — who says she became committed to telling Bob’s story after accompanying him on that revealing road trip — has completed most of the editing. The Lees even have a real production studio these days, located in an upstairs room of their Lakewood home. Cameras and editing equipment were purchased, in part, with funds raised through the “His Name is Bob” website that offers incentives to contribute including, “for $10 Bob will hold your hand for one minute”, or “for $1,000 Bob will give up root beer and hamburgers for a week.”
Everyone involved has evolved during this journey, Johnson says. “There seems to have been some sort of divine force working behind the scenes.” Sebastian adds, “There was a strange synchronicity that caused people to call us from out of the blue at the exact time we needed them, for example … things have just fallen into place at exactly the right time.”
And Bob? “Bob has been a star in his own mind for a long time,” Sebastian says. “He’s just wondering why it took so long.”
Bob says the movie is coming out this month. He has been saying that every month for nearly a year now.
Based on all the tales told by and about Bob, it’s evident that “His Name is Bob”, which the producers hope to enter in the 2010 AFI Film Festival, will be funny, inspiring, heartbreaking and probably deeply disturbing. The movie makers won’t spill all their secrets just yet — Heather’s editing computer shows segments entitled “Bob and Sex”, “Alcoholism” and “Why Bob is Dirty”; and Johnson tells me that the documentary’s final climax “crosses the line”, that the documentarians had to think extensively about “whether or not to end it this way,” though she won’t elaborate further on the film’s controversial finale.
I only got a peek at the nearly complete movie, which begins with people who know Bob talking about his unpleasant odors and his knack for clearing out a crowded room. There are close-up shots of Bob’s dirt-filled toenails; and of Bob wandering around his soda-can, potato chip bag infested bedroom in his dingy underwear — Bob at his grossest, showing no shame. It’s a set up for an emotional tour de force, for sure.
As audience members, we will want to leave the theater because we are so repulsed. Then, we will be struck repentant when we learn about Bob’s background, and amazed when we understand his hidden nuances and talents. We will see, like the filmmakers, that Bob is not talking nonsense, but rather poetry, and that he is not a nuisance, but a necessity. And, chances are, we will not easily forget what we see.
But that’s just an estimate. Like Bob, I will have to wait impatiently to see the final product.
For regular updates on the Bob movie, visit hisnameisbob.com.
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