John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: Film explores life of reclusive outsider artist

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'MOLE MAN' (AMAZON, SUNDANCE)

Focusing on autistic 66-year-old Ron Heist, "Mole Man" presents a manifestation of compulsive creativity on a grand scale seldom witnessed. Heist qualifies as an outsider artist for sure, but he could also alternately be proclaimed an outsider architect with the huge structures he has crafted at his parents' home in Pennsylvania, ramshackle sprawls in outward appearance, but intricate, meticulously-crafted dwellings from the inside.

Heist's parents realized how different he was at an early age, and he didn't show any connection to the world until, at age 10, he began to show an interest in building things. Indulged by his father, Heist eventually began his masterwork in the wooded property behind his parents' house, a project that had two side effects. One is that he became focused on reusing material from the wealth of abandoned properties in his region of the state, and in amassing material for his structures, he became an expert on the hidden remnants of former Pennsylvania settlements. The other is that an enmity resulted on the part of his siblings, who began to view Heist as a black hole for their parents' love, as well as an unwanted responsibility that has been passed onto them.

The film moves between these family conflicts and Heist's only two loves, his creations and his travels. Settling well as a tribute these two aspects of his otherwise cloistered life also opens the film up to meeting his close friends, enthusiastic people who love his work and also time spent with him, to the degree that they go on long, perilous adventures with him as he reveals his hidden discoveries to them. And fittingly, they attempt to use this aspect of their relationship with him in order to save him from spending old age removed from his life's work.

As artwork, Heist's creation exists as a sprawling outdoor installation, a masterwork of assemblage from found material, with aspects of appropriation and collage. All the houses are created from the debris he finds on his backwoods journeys, but there is at least one case of Heist taking an entire structure back to his place and attaching it somehow to what he has already built. The buildings he creates don't use nails, he says, but rather gravity to keep them together, a method he uses to build a labyrinthine museum of found objects. If you marvel at the items Trenton Doyle Hancock has amassed in his mound at MASS MoCA, then you're probably going to respond to what Heist has placed in the winding tunnels of his creation.

"Mole Man" is certainly a portrait of the human need to create, but it's also about the conundrum helping the creativity sustain itself, and what it all means when measured against personal family issues, as well as stark economic realities. Heist is a character with a sly sense of humor, and the devotion of his friends is touching, but you can't help but think that there must be versions of him scattered around the country and through its history, presenting the same conundrum endlessly, without ever being satisfactorily solved. In a capitalist society, our worth is measured by the work we do and its dollar value, but labor like Heist's 50 years of house building and exploration guarantee nothing.

Heist's work is the focus of a GoFundMe campaign launched by the film's director, Guy Fiorita, that should be your next destination online after watching the film. Find it at www.gofundme.com/f/save-ron-quotmole-manquot-heist039s-home.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me.

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