The Replacements – live at RiotFest Toronto – a review, of sorts

First time I ever saw/heard The Replacement was when they opened for R.E.M. at a club in New Haven, Connecticut called Toad’s Place.  It was July 17th, 1983.  I was 24-years-old, a few months away from directing my first feature film, a horror thing called “Disconnected.”  (Not a very good film.  But I learned a lot.)  My girlfriend at the time, Kathy, and I were leaning right up against the stage.  We had already seen R.E.M. once before when they came around in support of their debut EP.  Now they had an excellent first album.  We were pretty psyched.

The opening band came out finally.  And I so remember turning to Kathy as we both wondered “what the fuck is this?”  They were so drunk, so blatantly obnoxious.  And to top it off the guitar player was wearing a dress.  (Not that I had anything against rockers in drag.  David Bowie was very much responsible for my love of rock & roll.  But this guy wasn’t David Bowie.)  We turned our backs on the band and leaned back against the stage.

Needless to say, we made a mistake.

Needless to say, by the next year they were my favorite band.

The Replacements
The Replacements

I thank The Professor for that.  Walking into his sprawling Phoenix Record shop in Waterbury, he handed me my weekly collection of vinyl that I was going to love, but I didn’t quite know it yet.  And one week in that stack was the “I Will Dare” 12-inch.

It was hard to connect the band playing that song to the band I saw on stage.  But they were somehow one in the same.  And when “Let It Be” arrived shortly thereafter, well, pretty much everything changed.

Now we jump ahead thirty years.  During that time the majority of the people I work with on my films would be born.  I would have gotten married and stayed married for going on twenty-one years to a woman named Kristine who also called The Replacements her favorite band.  (And Kathy would go on to be Kristine’s Maid-Of-Honor at our wedding.)  The Replacements, of course would break up in 1991.  I’d fall in deeply love with a few other bands, namely Archers of Loaf and Wilco.  I write a bunch of books.  Make a boatload of movies, including documentaries on two of those favorite bands, The Mats and Archers.  Kristine and I would raise our family of dogs.  I’d even get my first tattoo at the age of 51 so I could always remember one of those dogs, Mr. Kilgore Trout.

And then the world turned slightly on its side.

Now, after making COLOR ME OBSESSED, A FILM ABOUT THE REPLACEMENTS, I had been often asked if they would ever reunite.  I always answered emphatically, “No.”  It was just never going to happen.

Needless to say, another mistake.

But I never believed in miracles.

And whether is was getting together to record the “Songs For Slim” EP, or Paul and Tommy finally realizing the love for the band never faded.  Or something else altogether, the time was right, the stars aligned, it didn’t matter.

Three RiotFest shows were announced.  Kris and I spent hours talking about it.  I already had a lot of traveling in my near future because of shooting for the A DOG NAMED GUCCI animal abuse film, and the premieres of both my drama BROKEN SIDE OF TIME and the Grant Hart documentary EVERY EVERYTHING.  Plus Kris would just be coming off a long vacation.  Would we?  Should we?

How the fuck could we not!

Like so many hundreds (thousands?) of Mats fans around the country (world?), we made the necessary arrangements.  Even stopping along the way for the night at Niagara Falls as a hoot.  (Quite amazing to see in person, if I do say so.)  Arriving in Toronto (one of my favorite cities in the world) the day before.  We went for a lovely vegetarian dinner with friends, then met up with even more friends for beers at the Elephant & Castle on Yonge Street.

One of those friends was Robert Voedisch, our bearded farm boy from CMO.  He shared an amazing story about having the worst week of his life, losing his passport, etc., and so on, only to make it to the airport and run into The Replacements, who were on the same flight to Toronto as he was.  His story was vivid and wonderful and Kris and I marveled as if we were watching some outtake from CMO that we had never seen.

Paul Westerberg and Robert Voedisch Photo by Voedisch
Paul Westerberg and Robert Voedisch
Photo by Voedisch

Conversation turned of course to what we all expected in terms of a set list for Sunday evening.  It’s a conversation that would be repeated the next day over lunch with yet more friends.  We all expected the “hits” for lack of a better word, but the big disagreement was over opening song.  Many thought “Talent Show,” others thought “I’ll Be You” because of its line about being from Canada, “Bastards of Young” turned up in the mix.  I was the only person who insisted it would be “Takin’ A Ride.”  Not because I had any inside information.  But because I truly felt the band would not only have to remind the crowd who they really once were, but they would also have to remind themselves.

And what better way?

We arrived at Fort York a little after six PM.  I really wasn’t interested in seeing any of the other bands.  Not that a few didn’t hold interest.  It was The Replacements day.  I was nervous for them.  I was nervous for us.  I was nervous for the thousands in attendance.  I was nervous for rock & roll.

(And yes, I was figuratively turning my back on those opening bands.  Some habits die hard, though I’d learned my lesson the hard way.)

Kris at one point asked if I were okay.  “Not really,” I replied.  “I’m more anxious than at one of the premieres for my own films.”  And Kris knows how I make myself sick at those.

So really by the time Iggy took the stage, I had no patience.  Not ever a fan, I just truly found him annoying, like the mosquito that won’t go away, and that for some reason you can’t fucking squash.  It could have been the performance of a lifetime.  He could have done an encore with the reunited Beatles including both Lennon and Harrison having risen from the dead.  I didn’t fucking care.

Get off the stage.  Get off the stage.  Please get off the fucking stage.

The Replacements were scheduled to start their set at 8:45 and play for 75 minutes.  The festival had a hard out, and the “noise” had to end at 10 PM.

Once Iggy’s set and the half hour in-between were quite possibly the longest moments of my life.  Like waiting for a doctor to tell you if you were going to live or die.  And all the time thinking, this doctor is always late.

But quite possibly for the first time in their lives The Replacements were right on time.

They took the stage.  (The Replacements were on stage in front of me.  I cannot write enough variations of that sentence.)  Paul Westerberg, as out-of-tune stylishly as ever, cracked wise, and then it started.  And four measures into the breakneck throb of an open to “Takin’ A Ride” every bit of anxiety I felt beforehand melted away.  Any worries that the audience felt, any doubts the band felt, had all been in vain.  Paul Westerberg stepped to the mic, as cock-eyed and crooked as I had remembered, sang “Stay right there/Go no further,” and Goddamn we were transported back in time.  Only this time I was not going to turn my back on the stage.  I would never make that mistake again.  And no worries, Paul.  No one was going anywhere.

And while cohort Tommy Stinson might not have been leaping six feet into the air, he was a punk rock whirling dervish around the stage.  Both he and Westerberg were having fun.  That might have been the biggest surprise of all.  The nicest surprise.  And I don’t think I could have been happier for anyone.  They were enjoying themselves.  Joking, whispering in each others’ ears, playing the songs that meant so much to so many.  When flubbing the lyrics of “I Will Dare,” Westerberg was as self-deprecating as ever.   Cockyand sarcastic, yet loveable in a way few could ever achieve.  He even came out in a Montreal Canadiens’ t-shirt (Toronto’s arch rivals) for the encore.  It was a Replacements move. I’m tempted to say “vintage.”  But it was happening in real time.  It happened just the other night.  It’s not vintage if it never went away.  And for so many of us, this band has never gone away.

And doubters be damned, Bob Stinson was just as much on that stage as was Chris Mars and Slim Dunlap.  They were channeling their energies into the replacement Replacements, guitarist David Minehan, who played all those blessed wrong notes the right way, and drummer Josh Freese who pounded like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot on speed.  They were tight.  And even all the right notes were perfectly out of place.

Set list photo by Jesse Malin
Set list photo by Jesse Malin

The set list itself was a thing of beauty.  Heavy on the early rockers: “I’m In Trouble,” “Favorite Thing,” “Color Me Impressed,” “Love You Till Friday” into a breakneck cover of “Mabeline.”  The boys weren’t taking this reunion thing in stride.  If they were going to do it, they were going to do it right.  And they weren’t going to give us the band circa 1991.  This was 1984/1985 vintage Replacements, firing on all cylinders.

In a word, they sounded great.  If you closed your eyes you could imagine you were at one of those shows way back when where they hadn’t gotten too drunk, but instead had decided they were in the mood to play the greatest rock show of all time.

Of course it ended much too soon.  “Bastards of Young” closing the set, as raindrops started to lightly fall.  Ilona, my fictional Daughter of God, whose favorite band was The Replacements, no longer able to hold back her tears of joy.  They came back for a two song encore, “Everything Is Coming Up Roses” an old Broadway standard that only The Replacements could rock, and “I.O.U.” from “Pleased to Meet Me.”  And the show was over.  The impossible really had happened.

And it happened oh, so fucking well.

Was it a miracle?  Well, in the 80s The Replacements took a few albums worth of songs and fed the rock-starved world.  Those same songs have taught the world not how to fish, but how to rock & roll.

And I’m pretty sure I saw them walking on water as they left the stage.

revised RiotFest poster
revised RiotFest poster
the original flyer
the original flyer

Superchunk – “I Hate Music”

If every band I’ve ever loved could have (or would in the future) follow Superchunk’s model of how to keep it going, goddamn I’d be a happy man.   Superchunk could literally write the book on how to grow old gracefully in rock & roll.

They began as every great band before them.  A kick-ass balls-to-the-wall record.  Theirs was self-titled, released in 1990, and just happen to contain one of the greatest rock anthems of all time in “Slack Motherfucker.”  It’s refrain of “I’m working/But I’m not working for you/Slack Motherfucker” still today rings loud and clear voicing the frustrations of the last two generations at least.  If the off-wall street folk had a slogan as concise as this they might have gotten somewhere.

Now granted, this first album came at a time when people were wrongly convinced that the genius embers that were burning out in Minneapolis had somehow moved west to Seattle.  Uh-uh.  Wrong!  They moved southeast to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  And Superchunk planted the seeds that over the next few years would give us the likes of Archers of Loaf and Polvo.  Rock & roll in the 90s was Chapel Hill.

For their second album the band had Steve Albini behind the boards and delivered a masterpiece.  “No Pocky for Kitty” stands for me as one of the classic indie rock albums of all time.  And they didn’t stop there, “On The Mouth,” “Foolish,” “Here’s Where The Strings Come In.”  Three abums in three years.  Then three more over the next six years.  And I’m not even counting the EPs and B-sides.  Never a miss.  Never an album that made you wonder what went wrong.  And though they certainly had a specific sound, so driven by Laura Ballance’s bass, Jim Wilbur’s guitar, Jon Wurster’s drums, and Mac McCaughan’s vocals – perhaps best described as part Replacements/part Rush – they kept changing it up just enough to keep it fresh and wonderful, but never so much as to turn away the die-hards.

And then they took a decade off.

I’m sure I was not alone in wondering if we’d ever see a new Superchunk album.  I’m sure I was not alone in mourning another great band from my younger days.  (A band as great on stage as in the studio.)

And then in 2010 they released a new album called “Majesty Shredding.”  Was it their best?  No.  But it didn’t have to be.  It was another fine addition to the canon, with one of their best songs ever in “Learned to Surf.”   And it was a wake up call that Superchunk was still around.  (Though by this point, we probably would have been happy with Mac reading the phone book while Laura played a walking bass line.)

Which bring us to the present day.  A new album.  “I Hate Music.”  A title ripped from a song on The Replacements first album.  (I know Mac loves the Mats, he said as much on camera in my film “Color Me Obsessed.”)  That, if nothing else, held promise.

But no where, no how, did it prepare me for what I was about to hear.

This is Superchunk’s masterpiece.  A finely honed collection of eleven songs about life, love, growing old, touring.  It’s a Wim Wenders road trip through a life in rock and roll.  (I played the album for the first time on a long non-Wim Wenders road trip, so I will talk about it in order of how the songs hit me.)

It begins almost liltingly.  The acoustic opening of “Overflows” when a seemingly mellowed Mac sings “Everything the dead don’t know/Piles up like magazines and overflows/And everything that you won’t see/Just swirls around/Comes down and buries me.”  Then the drums, the bass, a delightfully light electric guitar line kicks in, as do the goosebumps.  But I’m skeptical.  Bands always put their best track first.

We move on to “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” which starts with an almost Rick Springfield guitar riff, and the line from which the title was culled.  Springfield is quickly ditched for a sound that could have easily sounded at home on “No Pocky.”  It’s the sort of song which even if everything else sucked would make the album worth buying.  A fun summer driving song about hating the thing you probably love the most.

I mentioned Rush before, and I know that might sound like a strange band to mention in the same sentence as Superchunk.  But listen to “Void” with its arena rock aspirations and you’ll see where I’m coming from.  It’s sort of unlike anything Superchunk has done before, and was honestly the last song on the record I warmed up to.  But Goddamn if Jon isn’t channeling his best Neil Peart.

The next song on “I Hate Music” is probably, deep down, my favorite.  “Staying Home,” one minute, fifteen seconds of pure punk bliss that truly does sound as it if belongs on that first Replacements album from where this albums’ title came.  Right down to Jim doing his best Bob Stinson, and the fall-apart ending.  It’s noisy, it’s useless, it’s pure bliss.  I fucking love this song.

And as I’m driving to Rhode Island, shaking off the shivers as if Stinson’s ghost had just poked the side of my ear with the jagged end of his guitar string, the noise pop jangle of “Low F” comes on, and by this point I’m not as much reduced to tears as I am a vibrating gaggle of goosebumps.

“And you caught me singing/Said ‘Can you meet me down at low F?’”  A love song that only Superchunk could deliver, with the best guitar solo I’ve hear since Wilco’s “Impossible Germany.”  But is it a love song to their life in rock?  Is it a love song to a life partner?  Is it a love song to the other members in the band?  Does it make any difference?  As with any great work of art, it means something different to every one who listens.

Here the album just does not let up.  It’s like a futuristic collection of a band’s greatest hits, from a world where the majority of record buyers actually had taste.

“Trees of Barcelona” and “Breaking Down” and I begin to wonder if this record could really be as good as I’m thinking it is.  It’s not just a maturity in their sound, but a vibrancy.  They sound like the Superchunk of  1990, perhaps not singing about working for the worst boss of all time, but instead of the joy of a gig in a beautiful Spanish city, or of how we all begin to break down.  Yes, it’s called getting old.  But they don’t sound as if they’ve aged a day.

With “Out of the Sun” and “Your Theme” I’m hearing the Mats again in the guitars, and that’s such a beautiful thing.  The harmonies and throw-away chorus especially, and the soloing that ends the latter.  (Can I say thank you guys now for helping to keep guitars alive?)

At this point I’m thinking two tracks to go.  And I can almost feel the apprehension.  There is no way they can keep this up.

And “FOH” begins, the wall of guitars, and Mac asking “Did you lose something?”  I want to say I had begun to lose my belief in rock & roll?  But that’s out the window.  We hit the sing-along chorus, “How’s everything at the front of the house,” and I think perhaps I died in a car crash and I’m in heaven because there really is a God and he/she is a Mats fan, and he/she is thanking me for making “Color Me Obsessed” and this music is what we get to listen to every day.

I’m tempted to just hit the back button so I can hear the song again, and by this time sing along, and then Mac asks me, “What can we do?”

That is the title of the final track, the eleventh track, over six minutes long.  And much like “Slack Motherfucker” twenty-three years earlier Superchunk has given us an anthem.  The genius of a band firing in unison, a bit older, a lot wiser, probably more proficient on their instruments, and an answer to anyone who ever thought they were never coming back, “I’ve got wrinkles around my eyes/I’ll say I love you, I won’t say goodbye.”

And yes, Mac, Laura, Jon, and Jim.  I’m a sucker for brilliance.  The tears begin, and I start the album all over again, and crank it just a little louder this time.

And if you really want to know what you can do, as if the answer isn’t obvious: never stop playing music.

I’m seeing The Replacements in two weeks…

Let me try to explain what that means to me.  It would be like an extremely devout Catholic meeting the Pope.  Like a Chicago Cubs fan not only seeing their team make it into the World Series, but sweeping the other team.  Like a Jets fan seeing their team go undefeated.  Like buying that Powerball ticket and being the lone winner of a few hundred million dollars.  It’s a dream.  It’s unreal.  It could never happen.

But two weeks from now, on a Sunday evening in Toronto, they will take the stage.  Will they play a perfect set of their most beloved songs?  Will they be in cantankerous moods and play only parts of inconceivable cover songs?  Will they rock?  Roll?  Will they have mellowed with age?  Will they tear the non-existent roof off the fucking joint?  It doesn’t matter.  It’s a Replacements show.  We’re not supposed to know what to expect.  As long as they show up.

There are of course the naysayers.  Those who say, “This isn’t The Replacements, it’s just Paul and Tommy.”  To them I say, “shut the fuck up.”  Bob is gone.  Slim is ill.  And Chris just doesn’t want to be a part of it.  But still, this is Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson taking the stage and playing the songs that changed our lives, that in many cases defined our lives.  If you have issue with it, don’t go.  (Though I truly believe the naysayers are only naysayers because they can’t get to one of the three shows. Put a ticket in their hands and they’d be singing a different tune.)

I think about those I know who’ve never seen the band.  Those who came late to the show (and coming late is a hell of a lot better than never showing up at all), or those who were too young to see the band during their day.  The excitement they must be feeling as they think, I’m seeing The Replacements in two weeks.

I think of all the times one of their songs has figuratively saved by life.  The blaring of “Here Comes A Regular,” and it somehow making me feel just a tad better, because I was not that guy in the song.  The loud out-of-tune howling of “Unsatisfied,” knowing that I was not alone in the world.  I’m seeing The Replacements in two weeks.

I think of the joy songs like “Color Me Impressed” or “Can’t Hardly Wait” or “If Only You Were Lonely” have brought me over the years.  Always played a little too loud.  Often played on endless repeat.  Songs that still make me feel alive to this day.  Songs that make me feel young, invincible, loud, brash, horny, crazy.  The soundtrack to my personal life.  I’m seeing The Replacements in two weeks.

I think of the inspiration the band has given me.  Whether writing a book or working on a film, they were always there in the background.  The soundtrack to my professional life.  Stuck?  Put on a Mats tune. Need to wake up?  Put on a Mats tune.  Done?  Put on a Mats tune.  They were even characters in my first novel.  Not that this band needed to be fictionalized, they were always larger than life.  But what other band would God’s daughter claim as her favorite?  She is divine.  She knows everything.  She knows rock & roll.  Ilona Ann Coggswater would be so happy for me.  I’m seeing The Replacements in two weeks.

I think of the times I’ve seen them live.  One of my favorite musical moments, Paul Westerberg coming back alone for the encore at the Beacon Theatre.  A balloon in hand.  Sucking in the helium.  Singing “Hello Dolly” acapella, then leaving the stage, leaving us all wondering “what the fuck?”  The audience cleared out, and when the last fan had left the building, the band burst back onto the stage, and ripped into a rollicking encore, leaving all of us to rush back in from the street.  If was a moment I’ll never forget.  I’m seeing The Replacements in two weeks.

I think of my wife beautiful Kristine, by my side for thirteen of the fifteen times I’ve seen them.  Married for twenty years now.  Often times people would ask our secret.  I would ask Kris, “What’s your favorite band?”  She’d answer “The Replacements.  What’s yours?”  And I’d answer “The Replacements.”  And that would be the answer to the question.  We’re seeing The Replacements in two weeks.

And of course, I think of being able to direct “Color Me Obsessed, a film about The Replacements.”  Meeting and interviewing so many like-minded fans, some famous, many not, people who knew them, worked with them, produced their albums, wrote about them, were influenced by them, spent more time with them than any of their teenaged friends.  An honor.  I was humbled by the love, the devotion.  I never felt more connected to people in my life.  I was not alone.  And I’m seeing The Replacements in two weeks.

Are you really a “filmmaker?” Let’s find out…

A few questions for the filmmakers in the audience.  How many films by Jean Luc Godard have you seen?  What about Charlie Chaplin?  D.W. Griffith?  Have you watched Fritz Lang’s “M?”  What about Alfred Hitchcock, quick name me 20 of his films right off the top of your head.  (That’s right, twenty.)  What about Fellini, De Sica, Antonioni, how many of their films have you seen?  What’s your favorite Ingmar Bergman film?  Do you prefer Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” or Buster Keaton’s “The General?”  What films were most influenced by Kurosawa’s “Seven Samauri.”  Which is your favorite Ozu film?  Your favorite Truffaut?  Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, and why?  How many times have you watched each Luis Bunuel film, and which is your favorite?  Which is your favorite film about filmmaking: “8 1/2,” “Day For Night,” “Contempt,” “Man With The Movie Camera,” or something else?

I could easily go on and on.  But the problem with most young filmmakers today, they’d have no way to answer any of those questions.  They wouldn’t have a clue.  Sure, ask them about Tarantino, or Scorsese, or David Lynch, or Wes Anderson, and they could recite you passages from their film.  (Sorry to break it to you, “The Royal Tenenbaums” is not the greatest film of all time.)  But unfortunately films did not begin in the 70s.  If anything, the 70s are one of the most overrated period in the history of film, with the lone exception being the films of Woody Allen.

Cinematographers should be paying attention as well.  On “You Are Alone” I worked with a DP who didn’t even know Bergman’s “Persona,” one of the most influential films of all time, especially in terms of the way it was shot.  And even when I lent him the DVD, he still didn’t watch it, which is why I ended up using about 40% B-camera in the final edit.  As least the B-cameramen (there were three in all) had a clue as to what I was talking about.  One of the things I love about Adrian Correia, who shot my film “Friends (with benefits),” is that when I reference: “you know that scene in in ‘The Third Man’ when Orson Wells is standing in the doorway and the cat rubs against his shoe…?” and yes, he knows exactly what scene I’m talking about, and he can replicate the lighting exactly, or at least incorporate elements into the scene we’re shooting.  That’s what you want in a DP.  Someone who knows every beautifully shot scene that came before them.

How anyone can make a film, or even want to make a film, without knowing as much as possible about what came before is a mystery to me?  Just as how anyone can make a comedy without studying Chaplin?  How anyone can make a horror film without knowing every frame of “Psycho?”  (It sure seems as if people are repeating the schlocky horror formula of the 80s over and over again, ad nauseam, without a clue as to what is truly frightening, or compelling, or even entertaining…and yes, I’m talking to you CT filmmakers and people who seem to think “found footage” is a genius idea.)  How in God’s name can anyone film a character with swagger without having marveled at Belmondo in “Breathless?”  How can you film sexy without knowing Bardot?  How can you film a battle scene without having studied Kurosawa?  How can you film heartbreak without studying De Sica?  How can you break the rules without having seen “Citizen Kane?”

You can’t.

(Don’t try to argue, otherwise your answer to the above set of questions becomes, “It’s easy because I’m an idiot.”)

It’s why the majority of films today are so freaking bad.  And why the few filmmakers who are worth anything are such film geeks at heart.  Tarrantino and Lynch are great because their knowledge of film history is vast.  They know what works and what doesn’t because they’ve seen it before.  They know how to break the rules, because they’ve studied the rules.  Even Woody Allen understands that 90% of his humor comes from Chaplin and Groucho Marx, and his technique from Bergman.  He’s admitted as much countless times.  Knowing and understanding film is what makes their films classic.

You don’t even have to like them.  But you need to have seen them.  Not all, but at least a respectable amount, and as you get older you need to keep watching and learning.  I personally detest the films of Stanley Kubrick.  I think he’s made three watchable films.  Two starred Peter Sellers, so I give Sellers all the credit.  The other, “Paths of Glory,” was based upon a story that was so strong, even Kubrick couldn’t fuck it up.  (Yes, I know he’s listed as co-writer, but again, so was Jim Thompson.  So, who really wrote the script?)  But y’know what, I’ve seen all of his films.  I still give him the benefit of the doubt because so many filmmakers I respect in turn respect him.  I’m missing the Kubrick gene.  For me watching “2001” might be like watching paint dry, just as Godard is for a number of my filmmaking friends.  But we all understand the importance.  We all understand the history.  We understand they wrote the rules, broke the rules, crossing dangerous seas in the name of creating a new world of art.

And perhaps you don’t want to make art.  Perhaps you don’t want to make stories that resonate.  Perhaps you don’t want to shoot frames that take your breath away, endings that leave the viewer speechless.  Perhaps you’re content making “movies” (they certainly aren’t films) with your friends that only you and your friends will ever enjoy, or see for that matter.  (Putting your “masterpiece” up on YouTube does not count as distribution.)  If that’s the case, please stop reading my blog.  I’m not writing it for you.

I see so many films that held promise.  A great story.  A great cast.  But it’s wasted by mediocre filmmaking.  It’s ruined by people who have never studied great storytelling, so they haven’t a clue as to what to do with the full-of-potential tale in their proverbial lap.  How many times have I watched a documentary and thought, damn if only this story had been told by Errol Morris, if would have been brilliant.  The story was certainly there, but the filmmaking talent needed to tell it, was no where to be found.  Perhaps if the filmmakers had studied Morris, or Maysles, or Pennebaker, or even Alex Gibney, and took apart their technique to see how a story can and should be told (and there are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories), the film would not have had me scratching my head, wondering how such a captivating tale could end up so damn dull.

We all learn from history.  In politics, sports, hell, in our everyday family life.  Film is no different.  We learn from the successes and mistakes of others.  And for anyone to pick up a camera and try to make a film…for anyone to call themselves a filmmaker…without having studied the classics, what came first, is nothing short of stupid.  (It’s not brave, it’s not taking a risk, unless you consider walking right into the line of enemy fire naked and unarmed brave.) If you haven’t studied some of the filmmakers mentioned in here (and or course there are so many others who made a difference that I have not the time nor space to list), you’re not a filmmaker.  Not even close.  You’re a sad wannabe hack who wouldn’t know a story if it bit you on the ass.  And while that may sound harsh, I’m a bit cranky from watching too many miserable films from people who think they can direct (mumblecore, I’m talking to you).  Go back to square one.  Learn your history.  Understand what made Fellini or Hitchcock or Sturges great.  Only then will you perhaps be able to apply such knowledge to your own work.  Only then will you be able to make a film that is actually worth watching.  Only then will you be deserving of the title “filmmaker.”

How not to be a filmmaking douche bag – part 3

I’m always searching ebay for old manual AI or AIS Nikkor lenses in really mint condition.  I recently came across a listing for a bunch of them that had been used on a feature.  They were being sold as a package for a very good price.  (No, I mean a VERY VERY good price.  Like a crazy good deal.  A starting bid of about 30% of what they could possibly sell for.  Even the Buy It Now price was a steal.)  But only their focal length was listed, as in 85mm, 50mm, 35mm, etc..  No f-stop.  No condition.  No other details.

So I messaged the seller.

He asked for my phone number.  I gave him the office number.  He never called.

A few days later I get this message via ebay:

“I listed the numbers on line, they work well and thats all I know about them.”

I looked.  And sure enough the f-stops were now listed.  Not correctly.  But if you knew lenses, you knew what the seller was talking about.

I wrote back:

“Thanks.  You probably should find out about any imperfections on the lenses though, as I’m pretty sure people will ask.”

To which he quickly replied:

“If they r good enough to film a sold movie they are good enough like they are. “

At this point I’m thinking I’m sure this guy waited on me in an old Circuit City.

So I write back:

“Hardly, otherwise they would have sold by now.  Some people don’t care about dust inside the lens, or hairline scratches, but these all change the value of the lens.  A MINT 24mm could sell in the $500 range alone, one with dust, or oil on blades, or fungus, would be $200, maybe less.  And that’s the same for every lens.  So makes a huge difference.

But that’s just coming from someone who has 11 feature films that have been distributed, so what would I know?

Good luck with that attitude.”

OK, I was a little sarcastic.  But really, he deserved it.   (He deserved a kick in the face.)  He was the seller.  And I was asking very legit questions.  And if he wants to toss his “sold film” out there and play that game, so be it.

Looked up this “sold film” by the way.  Released in 2010.  No imdb reviews or stars.  But it was on Amazon Instant Video.  The 7 reviews were exactly what you’d expect.

He writes back, and I kept the spelling in tact:

“Oh name your films,  and if you were worth a shit you would not be looking on eBay for used lens.,,lol. Looser”

And he actually signed his name, as if it meant anything.

Now, I know I get relatively “loose” when I get a few drinks in me, but I’ve never been called a “looser.”  So I’m completely confused at this point.  Especially about the fact that this dude with a “sold film” is selling HIS damn lenses on ebay, so what the fuck is he talking about.

(The Urban Dictionary by the way defines “looser” as: “Idiotic way of spelling ‘loser.’ Most often used by teens and adults with no more than a 2nd grade grammar level.”  Seemed to fit.)

So, despite knowing better, I wrote back…

“Wow, you are rude and childish, especially to someone who had been thinking about buying the lens package and was asking legitimate questions about the lenses.

We run an indie production company.  We do many documentaries as well as narratives.  We film with DSLRs and are always looking for old manual Nikkor lenses.  Since they are not manufactured anymore, it’s sort of the only way to get them.

As for films.  Well, our best known one is our documentary on The Replacements, “Color Me Obsessed,” which played the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (you can check the screening list on the site for the other places it screened), and hit #11 on Billboard charts when DVD was released.

Our imdb:

Really, man.  The attitude is uncool.”

Could I have been a lot nastier?  Yes, of course.  He certainly deserved it.  But why bother?  You can’t argue with assholes and crazy people.

So, the filmmaking lesson to be learned here?  Put the fucking attitude away.  No matter where you are: at your world premiere at some film festival or trying to sell a lens on ebay or anywhere in between.  There’s no reason for it.  You never know whom you’re speaking with, or who will hear you.  And you’ll end up being just another douchebag filmmaker.  And though you might never have any fans for your work, you certainly will never be alone.

P.S. I waited to post this until the auction was over so I could gladly report that those lenses didn’t sell.

And since I know you’re dying to read them.  Here are parts ONE and TWO of how not to be a filmmaking douche bag.  Guess I’m going to have to make it a series.

If you want to meet industry professionals…

You want to be involved in film.  Whether in front of the camera, or behind.  But you don’t know where to start really.  Where to meet like-minded people.  People you can learn from, work with.  Filmmakers, actors, writers, producers.

Let’s start this lecture by me telling you where NOT to start: These so-called “Film Mixers” or “Film Industry Conferences” or whatever their promoters are calling them today.   They truly piss me off.  They are nothing but a rip-off for these people who sincerely want to work in film.  Their promoters take advantage of that desire, and what do they deliver in return?  Absolutely nothing.

Look at the people running these things.  Have you every heard or seen any of their films?  (If you have, did you actually make it all the way through before shutting the damn thing off?)  Have you seen films based on their scripts?  Do their acting abilities make you jealous?  Is there anything about their careers that makes you say: “Yes, that’s what I want for my life?”  Most likely not.  Most likely the people running and speaking at these meetups and mixers are not working full time in the film industry.  Mostly likely they’re producing wedding videos, or doing something completely unrelated to film to pay their bills.  Most likely they’re very similar to you, except that they’ve figured out a way to get you to pay $50 to listen to them speak.

Really, you are not going to find working filmmakers speaking at these things.  You know why?  We’re too busy making films.  And we respect the process way too much to watch innocent people get ripped off.  (It’s sort of like an agent or a producer’s rep who charges you for their services in advance.  Or a producer who charges you to audition.  NEVER.  NEVER.  NEVER pay fees in advance.  It’s the biggest scam in the business.)

You want to learn about film?  You want to rub elbows with filmmakers?  You want to hand a filmmaker your business card?  Then go to places where real filmmakers go: film festivals. And granted not every state has many films fests.  My home state of Connecticut really has only one real fest at this point, and it’s the nationally sanctioned 48-hour Film Fest.  But still, put that $50 instead into the team admission fee and actually make a film.  Not only will you be “mixing” with filmmakers, you’ll have something to show for it at the end.

But most states have great film festivals.  Big cities absolutely.  If you’re in Boston, New York, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, or Chicago, for instance, there are a bunch.  And most likely at these festivals you will find the director or producer or cast member from the film you just watched.  So, right off, you know their work.  You’ve just watched it.  You know if they’re someone you might someday want to work with, or someone you’d actually want to learn from.  (I’ve seen Godard do a Q&A after a screening at the NY Film Festival.  It was like watching God speak.)  And after the film, after the Q&A (ask a great question so the filmmaker remembers you), walk up to the filmmaker, offer to buy them a beer, or ask them for their email address, or just shake their hand and tell them you loved their film.  (That alone is more “mixing with a filmmaker” than you’ll get at any “mixer.”)  Talk them up.  They are there to schmooze, just as you are.  And they are in a position you want to one day be in.  Find out how they got there.  Pick their brain.  Trust me, filmmakers love talking about making their film.  Get a few beers in them, and you’ll have a lecture that will beat anything you’ll get in film school.

Or if a filmmaker lives in your area, reach out.  We all have websites.  We all have “email us” buttons.  There are a bunch of film students who reach out to me every year.  I’ll usually meet them for coffee in downtown New Haven, and answer their questions for an hour or so.  In a few cases this has led to me bringing them onto my film projects.

(Just don’t do what someone did a few months back.  They wanted to learn about making documentaries.  I agreed to meet them down town.  After sitting in the coffee shop for 30 minutes, I finally left.  When I got to my car there was an email from them telling me they’d over slept and could they come down now or reschedule.  The answer was no.  You don’t oversleep if something is important.  And my time is worth a lot more than that.  Remember the filmmaker is doing YOU the favor.  Not the other way around.)

Also, never be afraid to ask.  There really are no stupid questions.  Sarah Hajtol designed the FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS) poster, then the COLOR ME OBSESSED, A FILM ABOUT THE REPLACEMENTS poster and its amazing website.  But she then told me she wanted to learn to shoot.  I handed her a camera, and she shot all of the B-Camera for COLOR ME OBSESSED, and has gone on to be my go-to camera person for documentaries, shooting what is truly the most amazing footage in my Archers of Loaf concert film, as well as the majority of the footage for both EVERY EVERYTHING: THE MUSIC, LIFE & TIMES OF GRANT HART (which premieres in the US in October) and A DOG NAMED GUCCI, my animal rights doc currently in production.  During the production of COLOR ME OBSESSED she also asked about editing, and went on to not only design our kick-ass title sequence, but be my assistant editor on the film.

Or if there are no filmmakers in your town (and I’m sure there are), answer an ad on CraigsList or or whatever site in your area which hosts posts from filmmakers looking for Production Assistants.  Work on a film as a PA.  You might not get paid, but you’ll get fed, and not waste $50.  And you’ll actually see how a film is made, and meet people who are actually making them.  (But please first read my post on how to behave as a PA on a film set.)

Or watch audition notices in places like BackStage or  Go on as many auditions as you can.  Really, what better way to meet filmmakers, and other actors.  Even if you are trying out for the same part, the majority of you are in the same boat, you’re not going to get it.  If you want to work crew, check those same notices and tell the filmmakers about your passion for film, and how you want to learn.  Guess what, passion trumps almost anything in art.  You’ll be on set, working on a film, surrounded by people who are doing what you want to do.  (Not people who are talking about doing what you want to do.  There are those who talk, and those who do.)

Stop Talking Start Doing

What I’m trying to say (aside from saving you $50) is to “mix” with people who actually make films.  Films you respect.  Otherwise you’re paying good money to meet with people who are more or less no different than you…because the people you’re actually “mixing” with are the other people who paid $50 and are sitting next to you in the lecture hall.  It might make for interesting conversation, but it certainly won’t advance your career.

(Found this a few days after I posted this blog. Seems to fit.)