Friday, June 17, 2016

A second take: Steve looks at The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse (2016)

This is the second of two takes on The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse. Yesterday Eden took a look at the film from the stand point of a big fan (Eden's piece is here- go read it). Today I look at if from the standpoint of a guy who just kind of knows about the group and its founder.

I don’t know Sparklehorse.

Well I knew of them. I know they were a music group fronted by Mark Linkous and that they dissolved when Linkous took his life in 2010. I know that because Eden is a huge fan and she would post and talk about them frequently. She is the reason I know of the group even if I don’t know the music.

A couple of weeks back Eden emailed me to let me know that there was a documentary on the group. She wanted to know if I could run the film down so that she could see it. I said I would and I reached out to Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass the directors who were kind enough to arrange it so that we could see the film

When we finished watching the film it was clear that how we each reacted to the film was the result of how we each view the group. Eden knew Linkous and the group and I knew almost nothing. Our reactions, while over lapping in some respects, were very different. While the original plan was to see the film and let Eden do the heavy lifting of a review, I found that my need to see the film a second time, and the fact it was lingering around the edges of my consciousness made it clear that as someone not a Sparklehorse fan before sing the film that I should take a run at the film as well.

I watched the film again, Eden watched the film again. A few emails and tweets were exchanged and then we both sat down to do the heavy lifting of writing. What follows here are my thoughts.

THE SAD AND BEAUTIFUL WORLD OF SPARKLEHORSE is not so much the story of the group but of Mark Linkous. Linkous kicked around in differing groups (we see a local NYC news story on one of his earlier groups Dancing Hoods) before he started to really rattle the pillars of heaven with Sparklehorse. The film is a combination of talking heads and trippy remembrance of Linkous and his music.

When you watch the film the first thing that becomes clear is that the film has a unique look and feel. Angela Faye Martin's narration is less narration and more a missive to Mark Linkous telling the musician about his life. It’s a move that creates a differing head space. It’s as if a some cosmic watcher or angel is taking stock of a life before sending the person to their heavenly reward. Her narration plays over downgraded film and video images shot in academy ratio (the interview fotage is widescreen). The sequences are hypnotic and at times other worldly. They feel like we are watching Linkous’s memories playing on the screen before us. The marriage of word, music and image creates a truly magical experience.

The trouble with the film, at least the first time though, is that the memory sequences are threaded between typical talking head sequences. The switch between the dream and reality can be jarring and I found that I wanted to go back to the dream. Why couldn’t we have stayed sleeping?

But life isn’t like that, life always intrudes on the dream and such as in the life of Mark Linkous whose life was occasionally shaken back to the reality of the world. Life and this film doesn’t always go as you expect and it takes a second or third viewing of SAD & BEAUTIFUL... to get handle on the film which drifts and goes in its own direction. Watching the story of Linkous and Sparklehorse play out the first time I was bothered by how the story arced. I wanted the film to go a different way, I wanted it to take a path I chose, I wanted a closure to the tale- but closure isn’t possible because that would require that all the loose ends be neatly tied up, and Linkous’s death muddied things and made tying things up impossible.

Seeing the film the first time I was haunted by the visual palette. The films dream like sequences rattled around in my head more than the story of Linkous and his music. All I remembered was the trip. This would be ideally seen in the dark with perfect sound since one can drift off to a special place. When I started to talk to Eden after seeing the film I realized all I wanted to do was talk about the look of the film. I quickly realized that I hadn’t really retained anything about the film beyond that other than I remember seeing the local TV piece previously. It was clear a second viewing was in order.

On the second viewing things fell more and more into place. I understood the drifts from what amounts to Linkous’s dream and our reality. The story of talented musician who struggled for years and then found success on a level and in ways unexpected touched me. The story that was unfolding on the screen before me was this cinematic representation of the life we live in out head with the reality of the world.

What also clicked the second time through was the ending of the film. The first time through the ending seemed to be a weird coast to the credits where things are not resolved. However in talking to Eden in the days after seeing the film for the first time and even after the second screening her thoughts about how the film feels “unfinished and incomplete” clicked with me. He comments were not meant to hurt the film, rather to reflect the unfinished and incomplete nature of Mark Linkous’s existence, when he died there were lose ends, things were left done, his life was not tied up in a bow.

What is strangely exciting about SAD & BEAUTIFUL and a few other recent documentaries is that it’s part of a mini movement in documentaries that don’t tie things up neatly. Threads are left hanging. Directors Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass are smart enough to give us an ending, but they rightly don’t give us closure. We are left feeling a loss. We sense that Linkous had more to give, more to achieve.

Over all I like SAD & BEAUTIFUL WORLD OF SPARKLEHORSE a great deal. There are portions of the film that I love. I think the directors Crowton and Dass are two guys who are ones to watch I love how they manage to create a unique head space and do so by not taking a well traveled path. In doing so they have made a film that is one that hangs with the viewer. It’s a film that challenges its audience, not just while the film is flickering before them, but also days and weeks later as the montage of sound and image re-emerge and invade the thoughts of the viewer.

A unique vision and a must see

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