Category: indie

L to R: Sam Davol, Stephin Merrit , John Woo, Claudia Gonson

[October 2nd, 2010 – Vancouver International Film Festival – Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada]

For some The Magnetic Fields are icons, for most, they remain unknown. Strange Powers, the documentary about The Magnetic Fields directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara provides an unprecedented, intimate look at the band’s difficult-to-interview, enigmatic and brilliant leader Stephin Merritt.

“Stephen does not suffer fools,” says Daniel Handler a friend of Merritt’s and author of the Lemony Snicket series of books.

Indeed until the arrival of Strange Powers, virtually any interview conducted with Merritt since the band’s beginnings over two decades ago, has afforded little more than wry quips and deflections. Seen in the context of Merritt’s surprisingly candid participation with these filmmakers however, the reputation for being difficult or impenetrable dissolves quickly and in fact reveals itself to be nothing more than an extension of his pop-cultural wariness, razor sharp wit and erudition.

Back in the early ’90’s, whilst night club staff blasted Nirvana’s Nevermind whilst sweeping cigarette butts and beer bottle caps off the floor from the night before, The Magnetic Fields would be loading their instruments, consisting primarily of a cello, an acoustic guitar, several ukuleles and perhaps a piano through the stage door.


Their show would consist of songs about love, sex, heartbreak, romance, college and plays on words delivered in an almost childlike, most certainly non-rock format, fronted by Merritt’s irreverent, baritone voice, occasionally singing in duet with pianist and band-manager Claudia Gonson. Sam Davol would meticulously execute Merritt’s cello arrangements and John Woo would add air and rhythm to Gonson’s piano lines on acoustic guitar. Between songs Gonson and Merritt would carry on the banter they forgot to leave at the car in which they traveled from city to city, betraying the unique nature of their maternal, fraternal, incestuous, Platonic relationship much to the delight of the crowds.

“[There were definitely shows] where the band felt bigger than the room,” recalls cellist Davol: “It felt like something momentous was happening – or maybe the audience was just drunk…”

With archival footage dating all the way back to their teen years, growing up in the punk scene in the 80’s, to interviews with Merritt’s former employers as a copy editor and later writer for SPIN and TimeOut, through Merritt’s recent migration from New York to Los Angeles and even interviews with his mother at his new Cali home as he sits writhing in embarrassment, Strange Powers legitimately affords an intimate walk through and alongside the history of its enigmatic subject – a brilliant lyricist, arrangist, composer and performer with all the class of Serge Gainsbourg, all the lyrical capabilities of Leonard Cohen, and all the humor of Lord Buckley.

Fortunately the film is not only engaging because of its subject, but also because it is well paced, sequenced and edited, with visual elements delicately smattered throughout, allowing the personas and songs within to be revealed without ever over-saturating with adulation.

If you are not yet hip to the Magnetic Field’s catalog, get there now. Once you do, see this film and let your love grow.

Despite the fact that band fills large venues and is a darling of the New York middle aged hipster crowd, mainstream attention continues to elude them. In fact for this Canadian premiere of the film, the theater was only a quarter filled. Outside, lines stretched out half a block in anticipation of Biutiful. So it is difficult to say what sort of distribution this may find, and when it does, whether you will know well enough to lend it your eyes and ears.

If you are in Vancouver, one screening remains:

Sun, Oct 10th 11:00am
Vancity Theatre
Tickets available through the official VIFF Website or at the door

69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields remains one of my favorite “albums” of all time (I use bunny ears only because it spans three discs. We discover, in the film that Merritt’s original intention was to create 100 love songs, each using a different set of instruments, drum sources whether acoustic or synthesized) and to this day, whenever I put this collection of songs on, I invariably want to run out onto a rooftop and proclaim how utterly overwhelmingly brilliant it all is. But instead, I typically end up keeping it to myself, like a small inexpressible wonder. After seeing footage from the recording of their eighth release, “Distortion,” I am not only ashamed of not yet having heard it, but more excited than ever to be exposed to their subsequent creative output.

Magnetic Fields Select Discography:
Distant Plastic Trees (1991)
The Wayward Bus (1992)
The House of Tomorrow (EP) (1992)
Holiday (1994)
The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994)
Get Lost (1995)
69 Love Songs (1999)
i (2004)
Distortion (2008)
Realism (2010)

march_of_the_penguins - Realtime webI remember reading the Premiere magazine article about Mark Gill buying March of the Penguins and wondering, marveling even, at the significance of taking a French documentary and repurposing it for an American audience. This was something of a revelation; understanding that the message, even of a universally adored nature film, isn’t necessarily universal but rather highly targeted; if Miramax’s iteration worked better on a global scale, it may be because an American perspective and sensibility has been so successfully exported internationally.

I recently wrote a paper for a marketing and distribution class at UCLA concerning the outlook shared by Gill and a year later James Stearn on the health of independent cinema and the movie industry as a whole.  Gill offered a sobering reality check having to do with the glut of films that flooded the increasingly frugal marketplace whereas Stearn saw opportunity for improving the quality of the films as the best would rise to the top.  What follows are my reaction to their positions.

While I appreciate Gill’s sober stance on the realities of the industry, one that became even more dire in the subsequent year when EndGame’s James Stearn took his place at the lectern, particularly due to the fact of the perfect storm that was the collapse of the global economy and the indie equivalent of the dot com bubble bursting, I feel Gill’s take on the music industry and why it collapsed is not only smug but fundamentally flawed and somewhat dangerous. It would behoove the movie industry to bear in mind that they had a ten-year grace period due to the fact that bandwidth for showing high quality video was ten times larger than that of music. The “Movie Industry” didn’t get things right where the “Music Industry” got it wrong – they just had more time to sit back and get a sense of what the massively disruptive technology that was the Internet was really going to mean to the bottom line.

Nonetheless, the music industry blew it in that they forgot that they were part of the Entertainment Industry and not singularly the Music Industry. The hubris and competition amongst these industries is often their Achilles heel. Rather than laud Sean Fanning, creator of Napster, as the solution to distribution in the new model, Fanning was sued right and left and ostracized like Alan Turing.

I found it astounding that Mark Gill points out the 5,000 entries to Sundance in 2007 versus the 500 it had fifteen years prior. Then only a year later, James Stearn submits that the number of entries in the subsequent year was closer to 9500. If this is correct, that means the number of entries to Sundance doubled in one year!

Not only are the good people of the world making more movies at home (and this during the economic meltdown) but they are becoming increasingly cognizant of marketing, distribution and monetization opportunities. Of course, this doesn’t mean there is more audience of more money, in fact it creates an even deeper glut of film, but it does mean that not only will quality matter in order to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, but so will how and where and why things are marketed and distributed as the competition in these areas becomes stiffer and more accessible.

James Stern is correct in highlighting the virtue of the short-form film and responding to the Millennial Boomers with the format. Attention Deficit Disorder is not a function of age but of the times. We are all real-time curators and tastemakers and should be targeted at the micro-niche level. A person I spoke with who works at Live Nation constantly expressed his chagrin at the fact that marketing to a general demographic (for example 18-24) is utterly myopic. Among those 18-24 year-olds are, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology, Tastemakers, Mavericks and Connectors. They need to be isolated and the systems to delineate them must be supported, not battled in court. In fact, doing so openly, like Netflix does, is a far more rewarding effort, than doing it covertly through cookies and trackers and 3rd party data collection apps.

That film, as Gill puts it, allows us to target highly specific demographics in one part. Delivering high quality, thoughtful, engaging and memorable content is second, but making it bite sized and a la carte is paramount. We are waiting for the Kubrick of YouTube to arrive. Where is the Spielberg of Vimeo?

The app store effect is not a function of Apple but rather an effect of the widget economy. We are all master chefs in Kitchen Stadium [a reference to popular Japanese cook show Iron Chef] selecting the finest ingredients to concoct our tasty masterpieces on the fly.

From Netflix and E-Bay account piping into a sandbox aggregator like Squidoo, alongside Facebook’s status updates and Twitterstreams, we are irrevocably moving into the era of the real-time web; it is not the tomato we care about but whom the person will be that uses it most creatively. It is no less a tomato as a result, but it is merely a color with which the master will paint and, we will mash-up, mod and repurpose the content to ultimately render the portrait of our essence, personality, our souls. A portrait, whose real meaning will emerge when we cross our tired eyes slightly and gaze upon it like a magic eye.

NOTE: I originally wrote this draft in October.  At that time, I read a Tweet from Mashable that Google Wave is going live to 100,000 pre-registered users. The realtime web is not a theory or conjecture, it has literally arrived and nothing will ever be the same.

UPDATE 12-07-2009 – It’s a little strange that I am publishing this article after the one I posted earlier this morning about Google’s announcement of Realtime search.  GoogleWave now seems like an ancillary to the central eye-raising explosion of technologies that Google has innovated in bring all content to our eyeballs at near light speed.