Music in Film, parts I & II
I. Music in Film
When artistic mediums collide for certain endeavors they can end up with either absolutely brilliant or altogether disastrous results. Of course, the combining of mediums isn’t a new concept by any means, though the way in which it is done has definitely changed with the times somewhat, at times for the better, and at other times for the worse. Truth of the matter is, the tools used to carry out such tasks are constantly becoming more and more advanced, not just making the job itself easier, but also widening the scope of possibilities to which we might assign any given project. Even so, it can still be done poorly. And if one is to succeed in one’s pursuit, it takes an abundance of vision and skill, not just the tools of the trade, so to speak.
Music in film is what this particular piece will focus on. Indeed, music and film, if combined properly, can do great things for one another. Probably goes without saying, it is preferable for the two mediums to coexist within the parameters of the project itself, where they end up playing off of one another to create a seamless mode of conveyance and expression, the landscape necessary to the soundscape, and the soundscape necessary to the landscape, ultimately creating a strong marriage of visual and auditory elements to evoke a significant inner response for those experiencing it. And that’s the sort of perspective to which I must assign this piece: that of one who has experienced such bodies of work and is now prepared to recount the lasting personal impacts thus visited upon him by them. A subjective task, to be sure, but art always is, whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not.
Since the dawn of marketed music, artwork has accompanied the recordings sold as covers and inserts and so forth. In the early ’80s music videos on television were all the rage, while in the ’90s it was not at all uncommon to have bands or singer/songwriters performing live for art showcases at galleries the world over, as well as at comic book stores and the like. And music has always had a part in filmmaking. In fact, I can think of a few different independent movies that have notable musicians and/or singer/songwriters who appear at some point throughout the story. Perry Ferrell, the frontman for Jane’s Addiction, had a brief appearance in the apocalyptic road movie “The Doom Generation,” while the one-man band legend Hasil Adkins showed up in the strange comedy horror B movie “Die You Zombie Bastards.” Back in his day, of course, Elvis Presley, the King of Rock’n’Roll himself, had leading roles in Hollywood films. More recently, the entire Las Vegas roots rock and rockabilly quartet Yeller Bellies appeared in the exploitation-style independent film “Killer Biker Chicks,” in which they also perform one of their songs, and throughout which Yeller Bellies vocalist Rob Bell shows off his ability to arrange an effective score.
In the case of this piece, however, I will be covering music as it pertains to independent filmmaking. You see, this past summer I discovered two filmmakers in particular whose work struck me as especially important, meaningful and worthwhile. Those two filmmakers are M.A. Littler of Germany and Adam Clitheroe of the United Kingdom. Each has his very own approach to filmmaking, just as each possesses his own idiosyncratic style and tightly held vision. And the work of each caught my attention in a big way, so much so in fact that I was compelled to e-mail each of them about possibly doing a piece about music in independent film in general and as it pertains to his work in specific. To my delight, they both proved willing participants, interested in working together and ready to dive headfirst into the endeavor. And thus the Music in Film idea was born.
II. M.A. Littler
*image courtesy of Slowboat Films
Some months back, while working on my ongoing press project called the One-Man Band Series, I was doing a piece on Swiss primitive rock’n’roll and blues trash singer/songwriter Reverend Beat-Man. At his record label’s website, Voodoo Rhythm Records, I happened upon the existence of the Germany-based independent film production company Slowboat Films.
Slowboat Films, established in 1999 and still going strong, is owned and operated by filmmaker M.A. Littler, whose diverse, uncompromising and painstakingly constructed pieces of what he refers to as “Maverick Cinema” have no doubt widened the eyes of numerous viewers throughout the years. Maverick Cinema is pretty much synonymous with Slowboat Films’ mission statement, the aim of which in his own words is to “become a self-sufficient film production company that could operate entirely independently and therefore create the basis for raw, unpolished and personal cinema. We do not follow trends, financial interests or audience expectations, and we ourselves in stark contrast to an age of watered-down and assimilated so-called independent cinema.” And in that mission, M.A. Littler and company have decidedly succeeded.
First thing I noticed about M.A. Littler’s work was that he oftentimes featured some of my favorite bands and singer/songwriters in both his films and music videos, such as John Konrad Wert of Possessed by Paul James, Reverend Beat-Man, The Dead Brothers, Delaney Davidson, King Automatic, Reverend Deadeye, Tom VandenAvond, Ghostwriter, Scott H. Biram, and so on. That really piqued my interest, to say the least. So I struck up a correspondence with Littler, first asking him for press copies of the two of his films that most intrigued me, “The Road to Nod” and “The Folk Singer.” He consented, providing me with the necessary materials. And after watching both films – one being very different from the other, mind you – I sat silent and thoughtful, certainly more impressed than I expected to be, and ready to write all about the experience of watching them.
Recently I caught up with M.A. Littler, at which time I suggested an interview. He agreed. And I have provided that interview here for you in its entirety.
As a writer whose main journalistic focus is the world of independent, underground and obscure music, this particular endeavor began as an exercise in exploring music in film – the marriage of visual arts and music, as it were. Now, even though it has become a bit more involved than that, the original focus remains. And I have dragged you aboard this leaky vessel adrift in a sea of madness, Mr. M.A. Littler, to discuss the part you have in all of this, specifically your films and the bands and singer/songwriters you work with for them. So…
Well, I reckon I’m a member of an ancient tribe – a tribe once referred to as outlaws, outcasts, misfits, pirates, rogues, etc. Mainstream society has very little appeal to me, and the same applies to mainstream music, literature, film and art. My work is simply an extension of my personality. The subject of my songs, poems and films is the world I know best, the subterranean world that exists on the margins of what most people refer to as the status quo. I never set out to make films specifically about music and I don’t really think I have ever made a film that deals specifically with music. They’re all about the human meat wheel and sometimes the protagonists happen to be musicians. They could also run junkyards or fix radios with a blowtorch – I’m interested in people who dance to their own beat.
To begin this interview, just to give the readers of this piece a better understanding of the artist with whom I am working, I would like to ask you to introduce yourself, and not strictly as a filmmaker, but also as an individual, a human being of this crazy world in which we live.
I’m a pirate, a jack of all outlawed trades and master of none. I was born in the old world, son of a cosmopolitan family, a kid encouraged to build tree houses and come home when he felt it is time. I grew up around junkyards, hotels, the racetrack, and restaurants of questionable reputation. It became apparent early on that I had very little talent to blend into mainstream society, so I tried to develop the skills necessary to live on the margins and to gather a tribe of kindred spirits with whom to live and work. The key focus of my work is a depiction of the subterranean world my peers and I inhabit. Now that the world seems to become more and more like a ship sailing across oceans of fire, a larger variety of people pay attention to the outlaw’s perspective. They know that there is something rotten in Denmark and that it may be time to extend your tentacles in search of alternatives.
When I first happened upon your project Slowboat Films and realized the sort of film ideas you were putting together, like “The Folk Singer” and “The Road to Nod,” I was immediately very excited to view them. After all, those two films, although very different both stylistically and conceptually, featured a small handful of my favorite bands and singer/songwriters. Possessed by Paul James, Alain Dead Croubalian, Delaney Davidson, Reverend Beat-Man, Ghostwriter, Reverend Deadeye, Tom VandenAvond, and Scott H. Biram. Having put all that on the table as a sort of preamble to the question at hand, I will now ask you: What influenced you to use musicians and singer/songwriters as actors in “The Road to Nod?” And in regard to “The Folk Singer,” what about John Konrad Wert (Possessed by Paul James) inspired you enough that you chose to follow him around Texas for a few weeks documenting his life and his music?
As I said, I make films that are set in the world I am familiar with and they feature people who inhabit that world. Robert Duvall was busy, so I had to find alternatives. I like to buy from my local butcher, and likewise I like to cast my peers. I don’t think “The Folksinger” solely depicts Konrad’s life. I was looking for themes that have universal merit. I merged fact and fiction, Konrad’s biography, and perhaps even a bit of my own. It was a mosaic.
Your current base of operations is in Germany, if I’m not mistaken. Has that always been the case? Or did you start out elsewhere?
I don’t really care where I set up headquarters. At present Germany is very suitable. Germany is odd, an acquired taste, but things work here. People are reliable. It’s not a have-a-nice-day nation; they’re serious people. I like that.
To date, you have done films centered on the Swiss primitive rock’n’roll and blues trash label Voodoo Rhythm Records, the Swiss funeral folk and death blues band The Dead Brothers, the German-born radical photographer and filmmaker and writer Miron Zownir, American bluesman and folk singer/songwriter John Konrad Wert, and a sort of alternative survivalist guide to the 21st Century. Now, you are clearly a very dedicated filmmaker, with an abundance of skill and vision, driven by a host of important, meaningful and worthwhile things. It probably goes without saying that these things mirror parts of your own life, whether internally or externally, deliberately or unintentionally, but…I guess I’m trying to ask you: What caused you to embrace the less trodden areas of filmmaking, the marginal or peripheral territories of thought and action, where the more radical and obscure people, places and things of the underground reside?
The margins chose me; I did not choose the margins. I’m not a journalist who lives on Park Avenue, getting paid to report on the fringes; I am from within the fringes. In my eyes, the inherent logic of our contemporary society is faulty. I seek a different logic and am interested in my own personal quest and the quest of others – so there you go, I reckon that is the fuel that runs the engine.
In your own words, what is it to be a Maverick Filmmaker?
The same as cattle: Some bulls don’t like to get branded or castrated.
How important is it to you to keep your work outside of the mainstream, to keep it, in your own words, “raw, unpolished and personal,” and to keep it an ongoing exercise in outlaw art? And why?
None of this is deliberate. You do things to the best of your ability and try to remain uncorrupted by the golden carrot. It’s like throwing all sorts of ingredients into a rusty blender – you never really know what the concoction you end up with will taste like. Some people seem to have taken a real liking to my flavor, while others prefer Starbucks.
In comparison to a good many of today’s artists in general and filmmakers in specific you are more than a little productive, with a body of work that dwarfs the efforts of many others, and with a high quality attached to each piece which speaks volumes about the standards you assign to your work. How are you able to do your film endeavor full-time the way you do? And what is your code in terms of the quality that each film can obviously claim on your behalf?
I make the films the best I can. And I don’t allow myself to surrender to the excuse of not having sufficient funds. Freedom increases proportionately to the decrease of one’s desire. If I have a million, I’ll spend a million. If I have a thousand, I’ll make it for a thousand. I have done dozens of projects for a variety of budgets. I see how much cash I can gather and then go out there with a pistol, a prayer and my crew. My crew is the key to everything. Our films are very aesthetic. Aesthetics usually cost an arm and a leg…unless you have a dedicated, professional and utterly demented crew. I owe it all to the people who have allowed me to seduce them onto this pirate vessel. They receive very little: a bit of salted herring, a bit of rum…and well, my eternal gratitude for whatever that is worth.
Are there any other artistic projects in the works going on right now or coming up in the near future, filmmaking or otherwise?
I got a novel on the boiler. I have a music project I call “The Redemption Family.” I wrote songs for the last Dead Brothers Record “The 5h Sin-Phonie.” A few poems here and there. And there are rumors going about that I’m supposed to write a circus/theatre play. They’re all a raggedy bunch of children, but they’re mine.
Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover, or if there’s anything you’d like to discuss or express, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Mr. Littler.
Raise the black flag.
*Up next: Music in Film, III – An interview with filmmaker Adam Clitheroe.