Raymond Thunder-Sky and supporters of Thunder-Sky, Inc.
CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY
Raymond Thunder-Sky is an icon but, in all likelihood, never realized as much in his lifetime. A Cincinnati artist and pop culture icon until his death in 2004 at the age of 54, Raymond Thunder-Sky traveled Cincinnati's city streets day after day often clad in what would become his trademark clown suit and hardhat, both symbols of his unusually free spirit yet passion for all things construction.
Thunder, diagnosed with Autism, had extraordinary genetic roots being the son of former Mohawk Chief Richard Thunder-Sky and a mother who descended from an Austrian nobleman. You may never have guessed these things simply by meeting Raymond, a man whose primary methods of communication seemed to come through his almost non-verbal grunting noises but, perhaps most of all, through the extraordinary way in which he authentically lived his life.
Maybe he didn't know any better. Who knows? Maybe it wasn't so much an intentional choice or a courageous act, but there was something about the way Raymond showed up "as is" and envisioned a world far better than the current one that inspired nearly everyone around him including those who were assigned to be his caregivers.
Thunder-Sky is a documentary feature from Indianapolis-based filmmaker Alfred Eaker, an equally perplexing chap whose works run the gamut from starkly political to darkly comical to intimately vulnerable to, now, refreshingly honest and even joy-filled. Eaker creates an unconventional documentary with Thunder-Sky, a film that celebrates an unconventional artist whose legacy lives on through Cincinnati's Thunder-Sky, Inc., an art gallery and archival center created in Raymond's memory that offers support and encouragement to a new breed of unconventional artists both trained and untrained.
The recently completed documentary, I love it when I'm one of the first to see a terrific new film, isn't so much a masterpiece in the traditional sense as it is a perfectly wonderful tribute to the unconventional nature of Raymond Thunder-Sky and the world in which he lived. Eaker has always had a knack for transcending cinematic norms, finding creative and inspired ways to communicate his unique vision. Thunder-Sky is the perfect project for him, because it allows an unconventional filmmaker to affectionately and joyously pay tribute to an unconventional man. So many filmmakers would have either been far too reverent or, even worse, far too condescending towards Raymond. Eaker finds just the perfect balance.
As both a writer and District Manager for a state agency working with individuals who have developmental challenges, I found myself completely enthralled by Thunder-Sky, in which Raymond's disabilities are viewed not as making him less but as part of what made him who he was and for how they contributed to the ways he lived his life. Eaker doesn't minimize the challenges in Raymond's life, but neither does he bow down to them.
Eaker incorporates an abundance of archival footage and photographs involving Raymond supplemented by Raymond's artworks and several interviews with those who knew Raymond best ranging from former caregivers to those who to this day continue working with Thunder-Sky, Inc. Eaker divides the film into several sections separated by beautifully realized animated sequences that capture both the playfulness and the seriousness of Raymond's works.
Raymond's drawings are, in fact, rather simply drawn yet complex in their details. Raymond would also often incorporate narratives into the fabric of his drawings. Most often, these narratives would announce the destruction of a building to be replaced, "Coming Soon," by something magical or magnificent like a multi-colored clown suit factory.
You know you have a terrific documentary when you find yourself really wishing you'd met the subject of the film by the time the closing credits have rolled.
What really makes Thunder-Sky such a satisfying film is that Eaker really seems to "get" Raymond Thunder-Sky. Eaker "gets" Thunder-Sky's unconventional artistry. Eaker "gets" his disability. Eaker "gets" the passion for clowning that grew out of Raymond's first visit to a circus and led to his being embraced by the clown community.
Eaker simply "gets it" and he brings Raymond Thunder-Sky's uniquely wonderful life fully alive on the big screen.
The only aspect of Thunder-Sky that didn't quite resonate was the decision to follow up an emotionally satisfying section on Raymond's death with an extended section regarding Thunder-Sky, Inc. While this is likely an effort to expand upon Raymond's legacy, it's a tad long and a less emotionally satisfying way to end an otherwise intellectually stimulating and heartfelt documentary.
One can only hope that film festivals will discover Thunder-Sky, a documentary feature celebrating an unconventional man whose unconventional artistry created an extraordinary world. The film will unquestionably be popular with indie film fests and among disability advocates and activists. In fact, I chuckled as this thought came to mind, this may very well be the first time that Eaker has created a film that truly deserves to be a Heartland Truly Moving Picture.
That would be incredibly appropriate, actually. Because, to this day, Raymond Thunder-Sky continues to truly move those who had the privilege of crossing his path.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic