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February 12, 2007

Filmmaking Duo Goes Off Half-Cocked

Hawley and Galinsky revisit seminal indie rock drama for 10th anniversary revival at Anthology

Once upon a time, I was in a band. It was years ago. I don't think about it much anymore unless confronted with it head-on by friends or through some other direct cultural provocation, usually unwelcome. Not that it was a bad period; as anyone who ever gave up the dream would likely agree, it's just a self-contained era you pack away like holiday decorations or a B-grade heirloom, every story elegiac by definition. You couldn't entice me to a club show if you tried, and even a glowing, water-walking Jesus Himself couldn't drag me into a music store.

Which brings me in typically roundabout fashion to Half-Cocked, perhaps the quintessential narrative chronicle of mid-'90s indie rock trials, tribulations and lifestyles. Showcasing a troupe of musicians and other non-actors in a black and white as messy as it is crystalline, Brooklyn-based filmmakers Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky distributed the film via the same type of tour their subjects embarked on (OK, so the van from which they projected their 16mm film was not stolen); taking the film to Europe, the pair shot its second feature, Radiation, about a Spanish rock promoter (Unai Fresnedo) who manages an American performance artist (Katy Petty) on a misbegotten tour dotted with empty clubs, fizzled working relationships and drug deals gone bad. Both films acquired something of an instant legend for an authenticity and intrigue that transcended zeitgeist, with the former becoming a bootleg video hit and the latter traveling to more than 40 festivals following a Sundance bow in 1999. Packaged together, they recently debuted on DVD (via the filmmakers' Rumur Releasing imprint) and are back on the road; Hawley and Galinsky will present both films Tuesday night at Anthology Film Archives.

"Basically Michael had been taking all of these documentary photography classes, and he was really interested in documenting things" Hawley told The Reeler in a recent interview, revisiting the abstract development stages of Half-Cocked. "I was really interested in narrative and the classic aspects of Hollywood cinema. So that was the idea when we put Half-Cocked together: basically, to put this scene in a time capsule -- the indie rock scene that was going on. But we felt too close to it to be documentarians, and that wasn't really either of our backgrounds in film. So we decided to make a narrative document and show what was going on in reality -- but not have it be too serious or take it too seriously."

In doing so, the duo wound up in Louisville, Ky., in 1994, where the touring Galinsky had previously gotten to know bands including Rodan, The Grifters and Nation of Ulysses while staying at a hostel-esque domicile called the Rocket House. "It was just this sense of possibility," Galinsky said. "There were five bands staying there on tour, and none of them were playing in Louisville. They were all just kind of criss-crossing the country. So it was this hotbed of creativity. And one of the ideas of the film was to capture that and even glorify it, and say, 'Maybe this is a possible way to live -- just as a creative soul.' "

The moody anti-heroine Rhoda (played by artist and musician Tara Jane O'Neil) is a little more ambivalent in Half-Cocked, leaving the house and the entire town behind when she steals her parents' van -- and all of the gear inside it -- from outside the club where her brother (a laceratingly funny Ian Svenonious) and his band The Guilloteens has just wrapped a show. She flees Louisville with a quartet of friends who, as the noise group Truckstop, bluff their ways into an opening act in Chattanooga, Tenn. The indie idyll fades, however, with each milepost symbolizing less of a dream-chase than a living nightmare: sparsely attended gigs, deceitful club bookers, destitution and the general emotional and physical squalor of touring surmount the open road's early glamour. And at precisely the moment Truckstop discovers its potential (headlining on a bill with The Grifters, natch), reality derails the band for good.

For every dissonance struck in the live performances, Half-Cocked gets road life right at virtually every step. Even the absurdity of a waitress inviting a starving band to rob her restaurant makes as much rational sense as embarking on any tour with the illusion of breaking even, let alone making money. The film's most enduring accuracy may simply be its pathos; musicians can sympathize with its doomed subjects, while casual observers can just sympathize with the doomed.

Then came Radiation. "It was an attempt to have some kind of creative outlet," Hawley said. "We'd taken Half-Cocked on tour all over the US, and basically, the process was turning on the projector and turning it off every night, which is not very creative. So when Mike said we were going to go to Spain with this movie, I was like, 'Oh my God, you've got to be kidding.' He came up with the brilliant idea to make a movie while we were doing that."

"You realize, of course, that when she's says brilliant she's making a joke," Galinsky said.

"I'm rather sarcastic about this whole idea," Hawley said.

Galinsky laughed. "The idea was to write it based on what we had access to, because we didn't have any money," he told me. "It's not like we could go rent a theater to shoot. That's part of what makes it semi-documentary style; we just had to go with what's there."

What was there was a 60-minute feature with Spanish promoter Fresnedo trying to hold his business together after his American headliners -- the Boston band Come -- disappear following a series of contractual disputes. Fresnedo latches onto Petty, an aggressively poetic stage performer who is nobody's fool but nevertheless requires handling on an impromptu European tour. The two fall in and fall out around Spain, with Fresnedo narrating and ultimately succumbing to the instability of the rock lifestyle.

While neither film belongs would likely be classified as a comedy (if "Fair Warning" was a dramatic subgenre, Hawley and Galinsky would be among its poets laureate), the vague overlap of fact and fiction in Radiation makes the film a far darker ride than Half-Cocked. "In both cases, when we were playing improv music or trying to create a movie with non-actors, it was sort of a situation of letting the thing breathe and letting it become what it was going to become," Hawley said. "And just sort of going with it and trying to figure out what that was -- to help it along."

"And that leads to a lot of conflict with the different people collaborating on something, too, because everyone has a different idea," Galinsky added. "But I would say we weren't trying to write the perfect pop song, we were trying to make songs that were interesting."

Of course, as any self-respecting recovering indie rocker would -- or at least should -- be able to recognize, it's never simply about the music. In the end, for better or worse, the story is always the thing.

"The intention was always to put it out there as a document," Galinsky said. "I always knew that in 10 years it would be much more interesting in many ways than it was at the time. In some ways, it's much less insider-ish because everybody is going to be outside of that world in a way."



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Comments (1)

Neat article.

Re: "In some ways, it's much less insider-ish because everybody is going to be outside of that world in a way."

As far as I know, Ian Svenonius is still in that world - which is very cool, Ian is a fine artist from the DC area. I was a big fan of Ulysses, liked Make Up, have not yet checked out too much of Weird War, Ian's new band. Half-Cocked sounds interesting, will check it out when I get the chance.

Now I must figure out which band(s?) STV was in :)

- Sujewa
http://www.wilddiner.com/

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