Sound Unseen

The line to see The Last Word at the Minneapolis Oak Street Cinema snakes down the block, splitting in two directions. It’s a pleasing sight, even after a week spent loitering around movie theatres. Of the numerous events I’ve attended, The Last Word (2003) screening has the highest draw. It’s a locally produced independent feature, directed by Tim McCusker and starring former radio personality and Minnesota music champion Mary Lucia and acoustic-pop duo The Flops—Matt Wilson and John Munson (both ex of Minneapolis art-rock band Trip Shakespeare). The Flops will perform a few songs before the film’s premiere. They’re local favorites who are barely recognizable outside of Minnesota. Why is this a big deal?

Because in Minneapolis, where music is the second most popular topic of conversation—behind the weather—the Sound Unseen Film and Music Festival has become a rite of fall. The last week of September is spent highlighting the festival program like a new course syllabus. Because music is sport—dissected in every bar and coffee shop in town, even when the Twins are having a pretty good season. Commercially, Best Buy is based here, offering a plethora of cheap promos. Record geeks flock to independent record stores like The Electric Fetus and Treehouse Records to pick over vinyl. The latter, nee Oar Folkjokeopus, figured prominently in the city’s mid-80s punk heyday of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum. And though the only regular Prince sightings are found in the new Purple Rain DVD, one can still visit the real First Avenue and watch live music on its now-legendary stage almost any night of the week.

And then there are the bands. You can’t throw a guitar pick in the Twin Cities without hitting a musician. During the painfully long winter months, the artists have to stay occupied. So they form bands or write about them. Minneapolis is an infamous breeding-ground for music critics, with homegrown bylines regularly popping up in prominent publications like Spin and Rolling Stone. In the cinema, attendants clap for the bands onscreen with the fervency of a club crowd.

Though the festival has expanded to ten days in its fifth year, with forty-plus films shown, it remains cozy and informal—an after-party compared to the opulent Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, which happens in the spring. Sound Unseen was founded in 2000 by former Minneapolitan Nate Johnson in an effort to bring underground music and film to Minneapolis, a city not typically regarded as a film mecca. Johnson, who now lives in northern Minnesota, handed over directorial duties to Gretchen Williams in 2002.

Sound Unseen has also scheduled small tours, which in the past have included weekend Midwestern “road trips” to Illinois and Wisconsin. At press time, a visit to Stockholm’s Popcorn Festival was planned for the end of October, where Sound Unseen will present a few films. Williams is mum at the moment, as the details are still being finalized, but said via email: “[We’re] checking out different cities, theaters and clubs so we can make some decisions about where our program would have the most success. We’ve spent about eight months researching and conversing with festivals, theaters and clubs but instead of diving in, we’d like to check it out first and go forward with a festival tour in 2005.” Further European trips are in the works, including visits to Germany, Denmark, and France. “European audiences really support festivals and attendance is always high, especially for American programs which have not screened there before,” she said.

Like an edgy mix-tape, Sound Unseen appeals to independent music fans of varying tastes. The festival coordinators work with a Seattle-based programmer who specializes in unearthing unusual and rare films. Primarily documentaries, the films shown this year range from profiles of behind-the-scenes innovators Robert Moog and Robert Haack, outsider artists Jandek and Wesley Willis, the offbeat culture of song-poem stylists, and much more. There are returning favorites: The Clash documentary Westway to the World (2000) and Can: The Documentary (1999); recent international festival smashes like Finland’s Screaming Men and classics like hip-hop mainstay Beat Street (1984). In between, there are a spate of visiting artists and presenters, including Mark Hosler of the California-based collective of sound and visual artists Negativland, WFMU DJ and curator of outsider music Irwin Chusid, and classical composer/hip-hop artist DBR.

Opening night’s Hop-Fu is every bit as whip-smart as it sounds. The concept: Brooklyn-based DJs IXL and Spae provide a live hip-hop score to vintage kung-fu flicks—in this case 1982’s Superninjas. Their intuitive production, which includes an unidentified sample shouting “The champ is here!” as the Sensei enters the picture, or IXL’s slip of 808-pop techno as the gold lame-clad enemy attacks, is enough to ignore the plotline altogether. Superninjas kitsch-factor is reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s work with the Beastie Boys. The DJs move with such precision as to make the fight scenes look choreographed.

Since the festival is curated rather than juried, the films are artfully arranged. A few films from a collection celebrating cult heroes have found resurgence in popularity in recent years. Julien Nitzburg’s low-budget video short The Wild World of Hasil Adkins (1993) provides an amusing snapshot of Adkins, the so-called “Father of Psychobilly” and inventor of “The Hunch”—a dance, which according to the guileful musician involves shaking “anything from the hand to the foot.” Nitzburg’s seemingly innocuous Saturday-night bar set-up frames Adkins as the accidental Casanova, caught in a Jerry Springer-esque catfight between two women over who gets to sit in with the musician onstage.

A Sunday-afternoon pairing of Jandek On Corwood and Privilege proved to be a great lesson in oppositional cinema. Chad Freidrichs’s feature on the mysterious Texas-based musician known as Jandek allows a cult of critics, indie record label owners, and college radio DJs to free-associate endlessly over the man who’s toiled in obscurity, whispering painfully over an un-tuned acoustic guitar. Jandek—for those not following Vanity Fair’s “Rock Snob’s Dictionary”—has released music from the invented “Corwood Industries” at a rate of about two per year. Jandek’s choice of artwork varies between naturalistic photographs and ‘70s-era portraits of the artist as a young reclusive. Friederichs’s job in illustrating the film is a difficult one, given the lack of photographic evidence and film clips. He intersperses Jandek’s album art between the doc’s talking heads, along with hackneyed and perverse visuals like brains and bloody sheets, suggesting that Jandek’s music is so depressing as to be suicidal. Freidrichs’s choice of visuals is the only drawback to an engrossing film about a figure in outsider music who is the most in control of his own image and fairly successful as a complete independent in the age of digital downloads and image-making glossy magazines.

Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), of the allegorical Privilege, couldn’t be closer to the burn of the spotlight. His image is emblazoned on every office wall and television screen like a piece of Warholian iconography. In this darkly humorous 1967 film, prescient in our era of Gawker media-manipulation, Shorter is a pop star manufactured by the British government in order to encourage Britain’s rebellious youth-quakers to return to the church. Jones is effective as the subtle, doe-eyed Shorter, who’s stripped of his own identity until he finally crumbles with the aid of a free-spirited painter (Jean Shrimpton). As Shorter develops a personality of his own, he’s allowed some semblance of privacy. Privilege is a piece of Op-Art with a brisk, newsreel-pace recalling Richard Lester adapting Brave New World. Even though it’s fictional (one of few fictional films in the festival), Privilege is more telling than several documentaries featured.

Mark Hosler stares into a crowd fashioned after his own image: pale, bespectacled audiophiles. Hosler’s lecture, titled “Adventures in Illegal Art,” combined highlights from Negativland’s twenty years spent manipulating media and testing copyright laws, beginning with childhood tape cut-up experiments inspired by William S. Burroughs and lapsing into a $40,000 lawsuit filed by U2. “It’s an amazing thing to go through,” Hosler says of the suit, which the band wrote a book about. “I highly recommend it.” Negativland’s films commonly collage print and television clips as subversive as their recordings. The Mashin’ of the Christ, created recently to accompany the 1991 college radio hit “Christianity is Stupid,” features footage from several films on Christ, mixed and arranged into the form of a “dumb hard rock video”. Appearances from sound-artists like Hosler have become a staple of Sound Unseen in recent years—they’re presented by Minneapolis mixed-media artist Jon Nelson, a musician who records under the name Escape Mechanism and produces the syndicated radio program “Some Assembly Required” for the University of Minnesota radio station Radio K. Since 2001, Nelson has presented some of the most prolific artists in the field, from Prague’s Tape-beatles to Canadian composer John Oswald, who coined the term “Plunderphonics,” which has become the umbrella-definition for tape appropriation.

To the gathering of musicians and visual artists, they’re the same kind of obsessives who stood behind me in line for The Last Word. I listened patiently as the woman behind me recounted Off the Charts, an offbeat look at the song-poem industry (in which ordinary people send in poems, and they’re arranged, performed, and recorded). I was a little startled when she said the LSD-fueled oddity “A Blind Man’s Penis” by rock critic John Trubee was one of her favorites, and someone else said he had it somewhere on a mix-tape. I wanted to turn around and tell her excitedly that Trubee was also in the Jandek documentary! And did she see it? But I kept that one to myself.

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