"Shades of Gray" a new WV masterpiece

Shades of Gray - a new WV masterpiece
By Steve Fesenmaier

Bob Wilkinson and Robert Tinnell, two of West Virginia's most creative filmmakers have combined forces to make "Shades of Gray," a masterpiece film about one of the state's most interesting personalities since WWII, Gray Barker (1925-84).

Wilkinson is a WVPBS filmmaker who previously had directed a great film about Harpers Ferry called "John Brown's Body." Tinnell is a well-known graphic novelist and filmmaker, best known for his hit graphic novel, "The Feast of Seven Fishes," and a long previous career making films in Hollywood. The film is called "Shades of Gray," a new 55 minute biography that is full of insight and dark humor. Congrats to both for making an accessible and intense film about a man who helped create the contemporary obsession with UFOs and local monsters.

The film includes fascinating interviews with Barker's family and friends, revealing that Barker never really believed in all the amazing things that he wrote about including UFOs, the Flatwoods Monster, Mothman, "Men in Black" (MIB) but apparently enjoyed the invention. He was just a small town man with a very great imagination, and the intelligence and energy to invent worlds that only he could really imagine.

This biography includes clips from two of the Hollywood films that have been made based on Barker's inventions - "The Mothman Prophecy" and "MIB." Both films starred the biggest actors in Hollywood, and the second became such a hit that a sequel was made.

I particularly enjoyed the recreation of Barker writing at his typewriter, showing a lonely character who almost single-handedly invented the world that super-star directors like Spielberg and thousands of others were able to mine for their own creations. Could there have been a hit TV series like "The X-Files" without the work of Barker? Could Spielberg have invented E.T. and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" without "Saucerian" magazine? I doubt it.

There is an earlier film, "Whispers from Space," by Ralph Coon that also profiles Barker. Coon came from L.A. back in the 1980s to explore the life and times of Barker, interviewing some of the same people shown in this film including Merle Moore, the Clarksburg-Harrison County library director who purchased the Barker Collection for her library. (She once called me on a Saturday, asking me to come to town to evaluate the collection. At that time I had no idea who Barker was and declined the invitation. I did work with Coon then, programming the world premiere of the film at the Spring WV International Film Festival, and put Wilkinson and Tinnell together since they both expressed great interest in Barker to me.) This film, unlike Coon's, explores the very dark side of Barker's life including his homosexuality and his possible death from AIDS. Barker was arrested for illegal sexual activities, and as Moore says, being gay in a small town can be dangerous.

This film is for adults, and probably will not be shown in West Virginia grade schools. However, I think that it would be great to show in West Virginia high schools and colleges, studying the vast UFO universe that came from Barker's typewriter.

The film has been shown at the 2008 Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, West Virginia and will be shown in Sutton, Braxton County in early October. Hopefully Barker's family, some of whom still live in Braxton County, will attend the premiere. I hope that there is a Clarksburg showing of the film since David Houchon, the curator of the Barker Collection, is one of the main experts interviewed. Hopefully, the will be shown all over the U.S. and world. The people of West Virginia can be proud of this honest and artistic film about a man who made our universe a whole lot bigger despite having little to work with except his own intelligence and flare for the amazing.

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