Police in Los Angeles had a problem. Over the span of five months in late 1987, more than 40 vehicles had seen their windows smashed in. When officers arrived on the scene to take reports, they were surprised to find stereos, purses, and other valuables had been left behind.
In most cases, the only thing missing was a plush Garfield that was last seen hanging from one of the car windows.
The cheap toy, which was about six-and-a-half inches tall and used suction cups on the paws to adhere to the glass, retailed for roughly $20. A new side window might set the owner back $140.
"They’d be better off," detective Ken DeBie told the Associated Press, "if they stuck the cat on the outside of the car."
Debuting in 1978, Garfield’s destiny as a merchandising phenomenon was no accident. Creator Jim Davis was a former advertising agency employee who had very specific notions about what kind of comic strip character would be appealing to the same licensees who had made Charles Schulz a very rich man by marketing his Peanuts cast at retail.
Davis knew items bearing the likeness of Charlie Brown were outsold by Snoopy, who made bestsellers out of everything from sno-cone machines to telephones: Garfield was a direct response to cat owners who might have felt slighted by the lack of a feline hero on the comics page.
By 1981, Garfield’s lasagna-smeared face was a big enough licensing success for Davis to start Paws, Inc., a business devoted exclusively to sifting through the merchandising opportunities available. Although the syndicate owned those rights, Davis profited handsomely from them—and eventually had the capital to buy them outright in 1994 for an estimated $15 to $20 million.
In between, Davis had been struck with an idea for a product that promised to be significantly different than the T-shirts, posters, and calendars that were in wide circulation: the artist toldmental_floss in 2014 that he took a plush Garfield and attached Velcro to his paws with the expectation people would be amused enough to hang him on their curtains.
When he got the prototype back, the factory had made an error and placed suction cups on instead. Davis wasn't too bothered; since they adhered well to glass, he assumed people might want to apply it to residential windows.
"It came back as a mistake with suction cups," Davis said. "They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars."
Davis assigned the license to Dakin, a veteran manufacturer of plush toys that once employed future Beanie Baby ringleader Ty Warner. When the toy—which was marketed as Garfield Stuck on You—debuted in mid-1987, consumers were in the middle of a car decorating frenzy, having scooped up everything from Baby on Board signs to fuzzy dice to opinionated bumper stickers. It was a practice that had started with hanging fake beaver tails from Model Ts in the 1920s.
Garfield was already a proven commodity, and the marriage of cat to car decoration was a gold mine. Dakin sold two million in the first year alone, making it the biggest success in the company's 30-year history. In a rare move for the plush industry, the company even produced a television commercial. For a time, it seemed like every other car on the road bore the character’s smirking expression.
Acknowledging a phenomenon, the media tried to identify what made the toy so pervasive. Speaking with The Santa Fe New Mexican, pop culture analyst Michael Marsden said that cars had become a mobile living room, with drivers wanting to express their identities with stickers and window decals. With his caustic sense of humor, Garfield could broadcast his owner’s sense of irreverence.
Naturally, copycats followed. Pee-wee Herman, ALF, and other '80s pop culture icons had suction cups glued to their hands. In one instance, a company marketing a line called Krushed Kats that appeared to be felines abandoned and mangled in trunks came under fire from humane societies for making a joke of cruelty to animals.
Dakin itself wasn’t immune to the hysteria, selling smaller Garfields for $7.97, marketing Odie, and trying to create their own proprietary passenger with Goro the Gorilla. None sold as well as the orange pioneer.
It wouldn’t last. With $50 million in sales, Garfield Stuck on You squeezed in just as the plush industry was about to go into hibernation before the Beanie Baby revival of the mid-1990s. In 1988, the category was down 44 percent at the wholesale level.
Dakin eventually merged with onetime rival Applause in 1991 and began to look for a licensed hit that could recapture Garfield’s success, but it would prove to be a hard act to follow. In 2004, Davis’s Paws, Inc. reported over $750 million in annual revenue. No other cartoon cat was going to move product like his.
1988 also marked the end of the crime spree that had confounded Southern California law enforcement. Arrested on an unrelated charge, a burglary suspect told police that some of his adolescent friends had taken to stealing the plush toys from cars in order to give them to their girlfriends as gifts. Dakin promised to send replacements to anyone who mailed in their copy of the burglary report.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen working out in RBG (2018).
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The late, great filmmaker Albert Maysles once explained the power of nonfiction moviemaking by saying, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences, so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”
A privilege, yes, and a privilege that’s outsized for us today. We now have access to thousands of documentaries online, allowing us all kinds of shapes and sizes of shoes to step into. To extend our personal knowledge of human experience. Thousands of little empathy machines. Small windows into lives that aren’t our own.
Here are 25 of the best documentaries that you can stream right now.
1. 13th (2016)
Following the breakout prestige of Selma, Ava DuVernay constructed an exploration of the criminalization of black individuals in the United States, crafting a throughline from slavery to the modern private prison boom. Eschewing an overdramatized style, DuVernay calmly, patiently lays out facts and figures that will drop your jaw only until you start clenching it.
2. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)
For those only familiar with Aileen Wuornos through Charlize Theron’s portrayal in Monster, Nick Broomfield’s documentary offers a considered portrait of the human being behind the infamous serial killer. In his first film about Wuornos, The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield considered her as a victim of abuse and betrayal, with her image commodified. In this follow-up, he takes us all the way to the day of her execution, wondering how anyone would think she was of sound mind.
Werner Herzog directs this arresting portrait of wildlife preservationist Timothy Treadwell, who spent years in the company of bears and finding himself accepted in the wild before one night changed everything. The outcome is predictably tragic, but Herzog uses it to examine how formidable nature can be—and why respecting its dangers is not quite the same as fearing them.
Constructed using real audio and found footage of the 2008 hostage negotiation aboard a Danish shipping vessel, filmmaker Thymaya Payne’s film isn’t content to simply shine a light on the horrific reality of a Somali pirate attack; it strikes to build a contextual understanding of what these attacks mean for the rest of the world and for all of us.
Both quaint and prescient, the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention show us a midpoint between idealized civic discussion and the worst instincts of modern punditry. This sly documentary explains the force of this rivalry, its ironic popularity as televised circus, and the aftermath of all the clever insults.
You don't need to be a racing fan to appreciate the fast times of Ayrton Senna, a legend on the Formula One circuit whose pursuit of excellence consumed his life and made him a national hero in his native Brazil. Spectacular race footage abounds.
Raw and fearsome, Matthew Heineman’s documentary puts you in the boots on the ground of the Mexican Drug War. This gripping look at Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas of Michoacán shows what happens when governments fail citizens who are in the line of fire.
This isn’t the documentary you’d expect it to be. Kitty Green took an experimental approach that’s less about rehashing the true crime sensationalism of the headline-owning murder of a child beauty queen and more about how many stories can be contained within a single story. Green auditioned actors from JonBenét Ramsey’s hometown and, in the process of making several dramatizations, interviewed them about what it was like living in the area during the 1996 investigations (and what they think really happened).
While artist Bob Kane often took credit for creating Batman, it was collaborator Bill Finger who introduced many of the Dark Knight's most enduring details. The film details the efforts of comics historian Marc Tyler Nobleman to finally get Finger the credit he deserves.
Another brutal hit from Matthew Heineman, this documentary carries the audience into the Syrian conflict through the eyes of citizen journalist collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which both reports on war news and acts as a counter to propaganda efforts from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some documentaries are interesting, but this one is also necessary.
Before Humans of New York there was Dark Days. This delicate, funny, mournful project is a true blend of reality and art. Marc Singer made it after befriending and living among the squatter community living in the Freedom Tunnel section of the New York City subway. Despite never making a movie before, he decided that shining a light on these homeless neighbors would be the best way to help them.
The life and career of influential film critic Roger Ebert is examined in this touching feature by director Steve James (Hoop Dreams). Through his carefully-crafted essays on the art of film and the fun of moviegoing, Ebert helped generations of viewers appreciate the medium. As his health fails and his voice disappears, Ebert is forced to find new ways to continue broadcasting his love of movies.
It’s incredibly honest. At least, as much as an inside look into the life of a global pop superstar can be. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) spends a healthy amount of the movie standing around without makeup, waxing wise and humorously before jumping face-first into her work. The film focuses on her time crafting her Joanne album and her Super Bowl halftime show, but they could make one of these every few years without it getting stale: Gaga is a tower of magnetism.
The life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has seen her involved in seminal decisions on everything from abortion to equal rights. The film details her journey from law school to setting precedent on some of the nation's most pressing issues—and becoming a role model in the process.
Let’s hope that this meditative, sumptuous documentary never leaves Netflix’s shores. The portrait of then-85-year-old Sukiyabashi Jiro’s quest for unattainable perfection is both food porn and a somber-sweet consideration of the satisfaction and disquiet of becoming the best in the world at something and, somehow, striving for better.
When someone tells you it can’t be done, show them this documentary. The simple title both celebrates and belies the smallness of one person fighting a system. Joe Piscatella’s doc follows the explosive growth of the Hong Kong protest movement engaged by teen activist Joshua Wong when the Chinese government refused to act on its promise of granting autonomy to the region. It's a dose of pure inspiration.
Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s sequel to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing features an Indonesian man whose brother was murdered during the 1965 purge of Communists talking to his brother’s killers while literally checking their vision. His bravery and composure are astonishing, as is the insight into the many rationalities unrepentant men use to shield their psyches from their own heinous acts. A peerless piece of investigative art.
An absurdist rabbit chase and a deliberate provocation, writer/star Louis Theroux’s punk documentary poked the bear of the infamous religion in order to get access to it. They auditioned young actors to recreate real-life events described by ex-members, got denounced by the church, and even got into a “Who’s On First”-style argument with a member (“You tell him to turn the camera off then I’ll tell him to turn the camera off!”). Serious subject matter by way of Borat.
Free-climber Alex Honnold has only one goal in mind: To reach the summit of El Capitan 3200 feet in the air, and to do it without the use of cables or safety equipment. One of the most physically and mentally demanding tasks is captured in this fascinating—and unnerving—documentary that will have you feeling as though you're dangling right next to him.
A landmark docudrama about the Mr. Olympia competition, this is the film that launched a wannabe actor from Austria into the public conscious. Arnold Schwarzenegger is brash and beautiful in this celebration of body perfection which finds a balance between joy and the teeth-gritting agony of endurance. Great back then, it’s now a fascinating artifact of the soon-to-be action star and politician.
Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, puppeteer Kevin Clash shares his childhood growing up in Baltimore and the road to a career as a furry red monster on Sesame Street. It’s a delightful peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made, featuring interviews with legends like Frank Oz and Kermit Love. It also pairs well with I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which is available to rent on Amazon.
Separated at birth, three identical triplets are well into adulthood before discovering they each have one—make that two—doppelgangers in the world. Their joy soon turns to confusion as they search for answers about why they were split apart in a story so unbelievable it probably wouldn't work as fiction.
Beleaguered Indianapolis citizen Tony Kiritsis takes the law into his own hands when he decides to abduct a financier who he believed cheated him out of land. Wired to the man with a dead man's trigger on a shotgun, Kiritsis slowly becomes unraveled. This documentary feels like a real-time chronicle of the drama, which gripped the town in 1977.
When you get diagnosed with cancer, the natural thing is to perform a stand-up act about it the same day, right? Comedian Tig Notaro became famous overnight when her set confronting her diagnosis went viral, and this documentary from Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York focuses on the year that followed—one that deals with death, a new career chapter, a new relationship, and possibly a new child. It’s ok to laugh through the tears.
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The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes is a sprightly, riveting exploration of Sherlock Holmes—and the character’s thriving, eccentric subculture. Zach Dundas, the book’s author, reveals that the frenzy surrounding Sherlock isn’t strictly a Benedict Cumberbatch-related phenomenon. The master of Baker Street, who was born on January 6, 1854, has always inspired fanatical devotion and feverish anticipation. Here are 15 details about literature's greatest detective, as revealed in The Great Detective.
1. There is a Sherlock Holmes equivalent of Trekkies.
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There are as many as 300 societies dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. Devotees of the detective call themselves Sherlockians or Holmesians. There is some division in their ranks as to how the terms should be applied, though generally speaking, American fans are Sherlockians and British fans are Holmesians.
2. Sherlock Holmes societies are a kind of literary United Nations.
Perhaps the most prestigious Sherlock Holmes society is the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only organization that was originally named for Holmes’s intelligence network of homeless children. Other clubs include the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, the Bootmakers of Toronto, the Great Herd Bisons of the Fertile Plains, and the Seventeen Steppes of Kyrgyzstan. There are also trade-specific Sherlock societies for such groups as poets, psychologists, and mathematicians (“the last named for Moriarty, of course,” Zach Dundas writes).
3. Sherlock Holmes’s influence was vast among elite writers.
T.S. Eliot said, “Every writer owes something to Holmes.” John Le Carre described the short stories as “a kind of narrative perfection.” Dorothy Sayers even wrote a treatise on Watson’s name, attempting to work out how it changed from John H. Watson to James in a later story. She eventually speculated that the middle initial H is short for Hamish, the Scottish form of James. (This is the convention used in the television series Sherlock.)
Detective fiction was still in its infancy when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his stories. Edgar Allan Poe introduced to the genre the concept of a single detective whose cases span several stories. Later, Wilkie Collins elevated the genre with his serials. Conan Doyle brought together the forms of the genre, elevated it with his prose and pacing, and modernized it by having his protagonist use science as part of his investigation. The first character in fiction to use a magnifying glass to help solve a case? You guessed it.
5. The proto-Sherlock Holmes was a doctor ...
When Conan Doyle began sketching out the character, he thought back to his medical school days and recalled a professor with an astonishing eye for detail. Dr. Joseph Bell was known to make accurate diagnoses of his patients from such details as patterns of wear on trousers, bearing, and general disposition. “All careful teachers have first to show the student how to recognize accurately the case,” Bell explained. How stunning was the Bell-Holmes resemblance? Upon reading a Sherlock Holmes story, Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow student of University of Edinburgh, wrote Conan Doyle a letter complimenting the character and his adventures, and asking in closing, “Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?"
6. ... Or maybe Sherlock Holmes wasn't a doctor.
The “St. Luke Mystery,” a sensational, real-life case in 1881 in which a London baker disappeared, might have in some way inspired Conan Doyle. A German named Walter Scherer was brought on to help investigate the incident. He described himself as a professional “consulting detective”—hardly a commonplace professional description, and the same one that would eventually describe the man working from 221B Baker Street. Some, most notably author Michael Harrison, argue that Scherer, not Bell, was the model for Sherlock Holmes.
7. Arthur Conan Doyle popularized a new storytelling format.
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When Conan Doyle wrote his short stories, he recognized that serial narratives were falling out of favor with readers—it was too easy to miss one issue and thus lose one’s place in a continuing story. For his Sherlock Holmes stories, he developed a format in which the characters and general circumstances would remain the same, but each story would be standalone and able to be read in any order.
8. Sherlock Holmes was the original success kid.
Long before we took to Twitter to write, “I believe in Sherlock Holmes,” the detective was a viral sensation. One year after publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first Holmes short story, some magazines were already parodying the character, some were publishing thinly-disguised rip-offs, and theatrical companies were performing the character in unauthorized stage productions.
9. The hunt for 221B Baker Street is ongoing.
Part of the allure and longevity of the Sherlock Holmes short stories are their settings. Holmes’s London is real and thriving, and the places in which he has his adventures are real places. His apartment, 221B Baker Street, however, is fogged in mystery. When the stories were written, Baker Street addresses did not go as high as 221, and Conan Doyle refused to divulge the building’s inspiration. For nearly a century, scholars have worked hard to uncover it, going so far as to subject the numbers mentioned in the Holmes texts to Voynich-Manuscript-level scrutiny, and even mapping the backyards of Baker Street, comparing them to details mentioned in the text.
10. Sherlock Holmes's cases are not true crime stories.
Conan Doyle’s historical novels were meticulously researched. As The Great Detective notes, to get the details correct, the author might read “hundreds of volumes on, say, English archery, or Napoleon.” The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, were dashed out as quickly as four in two weeks. In “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for example, Holmes determines that the murderer controls a snake with a whistle and a bowl of milk. As Zach Dundas writes, “snakes can’t hear and don’t drink milk. Does anyone care?”
11. Arthur Conan Doyle was on a nature hike when he decided how Sherlock Holmes would die.
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The fabulous success of Sherlock Holmes might eventually have become a bit too much for Conan Doyle, and to get on with his life he eventually resolved to kill off the detective. Just about everyone begged him not to, from his mother to his publisher, but his mind was set on it. He only needed a death suitable for his icon. While vacationing in Switzerland, he and a group of friends went hiking. When they came upon Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle decided that it was a fitting grave for Sherlock Holmes.
12. But the great detective wasn’t done yet.
At the time of Holmes’s untimely death, Conan Doyle was a wealthy man and a fixture of society. Years later, his spending began outpacing the growth of his income, and returning to Sherlock Holmes became an appealing option. Rather than raise the detective from the dead, he authorized a stage production based on Holmes. In 1901, Strand magazine began serializing The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes novel written by Conan Doyle. (To get around the thorny problem of Holmes having plummeted down Reichenbach Falls, the novel was set in a time previous to that story.) In 1903, Collier’s Weekly made Conan Doyle an offer: $1.3 million (in 2015 money) for a new series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle’s response, by postcard: “Very well.”
13. Arthur Conan Doyle: father to Sherlock Holmes—and peer?
During his lifetime, Arthur Conan Doyle did a little bit of everything, from transforming literature to running for Parliament to playing competitive sports. But Conan Doyle has had a post-death nearly as active as his life. Sherlock Holmes lives on, of course, but Conan Doyle has also become a compelling character in fiction. On the page, stage, and screen, the author can be found solving crimes that no one else can.
14. Arthur Conan Doyle's sanity was questioned.
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Toward the end of his life, Conan Doyle embraced spiritualism and invested considerable capital, both personal and financial, in spreading the message. He frequented psychics and mediums, held séances, and argued the existence of fairies, defending even the worst photographic forgeries of the winged sprites. One headline at the time summed up the situation, asking if the author was “hopelessly crazy.”
15. Sherlock Holmes was first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
Though Conan Doyle couldn’t conceive of Sherlock Holmes in a world post-World-War-I, the great detective saw quite a bit of action during World War II. As noted in The Great Detective, Holmes appeared in British propaganda videos; one of his stories was required reading for soldiers in the Soviet army; Britain’s wartime spy agency set up shop on Baker Street and called themselves the “Baker Street Irregulars”; and one of the two films found in Hitler’s bunker was The Hound of the Baskervilles.