The pioneers of aviation were never lonely
Who: Brecht Andersch
So, Brecht you are the original Dostoyevsky Wannabe. How did you get that part in Slacker back in 1991 and how old were you back then?
I was good friends with Rick Linklater. I’d co-founded the Austin Film Society with him, Lee Daniel (who later shot several of Rick’s films), and the auteurist film critic George Morris, during the latter part of 1985, and into 1986.
I had moved from my native California to Austin in the summer of ’85, with the intention of working as an apprentice union carpenter, and saving money to make films. I had just turned 19, and knew few people in Austin. One day, after work, I was reading the great alternative weekly, The Austin Chronicle, and saw an ad for an experimental film show, “Sexuality and Blasphemy in the Avant-Garde.” The whole ad spoke to me, and there was no question re. whether or not I was going. It was a done deal. The show was fantastic, and at the bottom of the program, it said something like “For those interested in getting involved in starting a film organization, please call Rick or Lee at —-” This was their first show. I called the number, and by the next show, I was their collaborator and roommate in the house towards the beginning of Slacker with the hand painted on its side. These were very heady times for me. I had a few years of serious self-education in film under my belt, but I was learning and contributing to the mix from and with Rick and Lee, and also from George, who became a very important friend and mentor. Lee was a very strong influence with his passion for experimental cinema and documentary, while George tutored me on many facets of classical Hollywood and European art cinema I hadn’t yet gotten to. Rick and I got pretty close. He was kind of like an older brother to me. The work for what became the Society was very involved, and also a lot of fun. In August of ’86, we had our first big series under the “Austin Film Society” moniker. This was Fassbinder X10, featuring ten of the late, great, New German Cinema wildman’s masterpieces. During preparation for this series, Rick went out of town for a month on a trip to shoot parts of his first feature, shot in Super-8mm, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books. George was working a day job, and Lee was camera assistant on Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, which took all his time, so promotion for this first big series was largely on my shoulders. It was a great success. The Society flourished, as it does even more today. I should also mention Chale Nafus, who recently retired as director of programming from AFS, was a supportive force from the beginning. He was chair of the humanities at Austin Community College, and some of our earliest shows were done in collaboration with him.
Our little group lived and breathed film, but we were also into other arts, especially music and literature. Rick was especially passionate about Russian literature, and while I’d already read a bit of Dostoyevsky, under his influence, I went full tilt, and read practically all of him over the course of several months. Dostoyevsky seemed to me at the time to have mapped all the unfortunate byways and lunacies of the human make-up. He was someone I talked about with Rick quite a bit, so several years later, when Rick made Slacker, a version of the Dostoyevsky Wannabe character, based both on ourselves and our ongoing discussions of literature and world events, came to Rick naturally. Besides the Film Society, I’d also worked with Rick a little on Plow, so we had a very easy working relationship, and I could trust in his guidance.
Can you tell us a bit about your experiences of working on that film? By definition of its unique form, there are a lot of people in it. Was it a whole group of people who knew each other in one particular area? I take it there were many non-actors?
There were very few experienced actors in the cast. I’d had more experience than most, having done some theatre in high school, etc. Most of those cast were in fact not people Rick’s group knew. It was a wide mixture. There were some friends, and friends of friends, but many responded to a recruiting flyer given out by members of the production. Rick quickly came to the conclusion that musicians tended to make interesting actors. Austin was chock-full of incredible bands at the time, which made for a bunch of interesting characters.
The whole Slacker project was exciting from the very beginning. Rick had been trying to put together a version of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, to be shot in Texas, but when that didn’t come together, he poured himself into this new film idea. One day he started letting his friends and associates know about the new project. We were shown the script, printed in tiny font across both sides of two giant white cards. At the time, it was called “No Longer/Not Yet,” and it had maybe ten times the number of scenes that appeared in the final film. The script seemed impossible and crazy to shoot, and all of us were a bit intoxicated. This was the kind of ambition that really made young peoples’ hearts pump, and it was somewhat easy for Rick to recruit a cabal to work for food and deferred wages. Lee had access to all the equipment on either a deferred or donated basis, and living in Austin was very easy and cheap in those days, so the wheels of the production were greased, and soon it was an engine in motion. I was trying to finish a no-budget feature of my own (which I eventually had to abandon), so aside from acting, I mostly stayed on the sidelines, but I did participate as crew just a little, and also supplied day-old baked goods from the excellent bakery I worked at during the day. (By the end of the production, people were complaining about how tired they’d become of these items day after day for breakfast.) The film was very much an all-hands-on-deck enterprise, and it was easy to get one’s hands in. I’d recruited the actress who plays the mother run over by her son towards the beginning of the film, for example, and for that shot, I poured out salsa from a jar of Pace Picante onto the street near by where she was lying. This served as the make-up effect representing the blood and gore emanating from this unfortunate downed woman’s head.
The film was shot very organically. Some scenes worked right off the bat, while others were dropped, or re-shot, and often combined with material from other evolving scenes. My scene was shot twice. The first version had material that later made its way into the Adam Goldberg character in Dazed and Confused, which was at least partially based on me (sad to say). Like many of the scenes, Rick then re-worked material from that scene with stuff from another. The actor who played the other character was dropped, our two characters were combined, and, as I recall, very late in the shoot, in November of ’89, the Dostoyevsky Wannabe scene was shot in Quackenbush’s Cafe early one morning. The character, like all the others, didn’t have a name at that point. These were decided upon during the editing, I believe. I delivered the lines I speak off-camera to D. Montgomery’s Nagra after my shot was done. In the sound-mixing, these lines were rendered a little high-pitched to simulate the camera’s distance from me. I was 23-years-old. The film would not be released in theatres until almost two years later.
This idea that musicians tended to make interesting actors, why d’you think that is? Is it just their essentially performative nature? Also, can we take this opportunity to ask you which members of which bands appeared in the film and what was the whole Austin music scene like back then?
Yep, their performative natures indeed. But also people in bands are often storytellers. A song is like a small film, and songwriters have worlds inside them that need to be expressed. The movie camera can read this like crazy, and many musicians are wildly charismatic onscreen, even when directed to emote at minimal levels, like, for example, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop. The greatest English director of the modern era, Nicolas Roeg, made three films (Performance, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bad Timing) starring rock/pop stars, and swore by them on this basis. Rick and I first saw Bad Timing in an ACC class taught by Chale Nafus which Chale allowed us to sit in on, and we probably talked about this stuff then. It really paid off for Slacker.
The Austin music scene in that period was wildly divergent. There was country/folk, a great blues scene at Antone’s, and lots of other stuff, but what mostly interested me at this time were the many different strains to be found in the post-punk scene. The two poles of the scene for me were embodied in two fantastically different forces, who ironically collaborated a bit. The first of these was Daniel Johnston, who was working at McDonald’s, and passing out his tapes to all and sundry. I remember the first time I ever heard a song by Daniel. It was at Waterloo Records, the town’s great record store, and “I’ll Do Anything But Breakdance for You, Darling”popped on. It was eerie, melancholic, weird, ecstatic, amateurish, and brilliant. Over the course of that listen, I became hooked. About a month or so later, I got home one evening to find Rick talking to some wildman wearing the green monster mask that was part of our decor. He was acting crazy, and making wild gesticulations. I was a bit put off. But then he pulled the mask off, and Rick introduced me to Daniel. He became a friend who stopped by semi-regularly, sometimes bearing tapes. Daniel has cameos in Plow, and also in Woodshock, the documentary of the underground music festival that Rick and Lee collaborated on. I wanted him to play the lead in that feature I later had to abandon, and planned on using several of his songs (for which I’d received his permission). I thought Daniel could be an American Bruno S., the star of two great Werner Herzog films, Every Man for Himself and God Against All, and Stoszek. He had a related emotionally honest and intense quality, and like Bruno, his being a bit touched was evident. Eventually, I realized he’d never be able to handle the sexuality of my film, which was at least somewhat frank, and then he tragically descended into madness, so I had to write off that idea.
The other “pole” of the scene were the Butthole Surfers. They moved to Austin shortly after I did, and their impending arrival was discussed in the Chronicle as something along the lines of a descent unto the earth of a micro-pantheon of gods. Their first EP was around the house, and it had performed something of a radicalization of my musical sensibility, so I was more than ready to be a worshiper. Before too long, Rick and I met one of their two drummers, Teresa Taylor, at a party given by George. She was wearing a Fassbinder T-shirt created by local man on the scene, Johnny Rat (John Slate). We became friends, and she put us in contact with Johnny, who helped us adapt his T-shirt design for our Fassbinder X 10 series. I well remember meeting her at Johnny’s, and her having a volume of Baudelaire tucked under her arm. Teresa later played the Madonna “Pap Smear Pusher” in Slacker, and she also graced the movie poster. She was a wonderful person, and still is. (The esteemed John Slate, by the way, played the “Conspiracy-A-Go-Go’ Author.”) One afternoon, she called the house, looking for psychedelic films to play over the band for their July 4th, 1986 show at the Ritz. I was able to oblige, so participated in that tiny way in a Buttholes presentation.
In Teresa’s scene, her partners were Scott Marcus (“Ultimate Loser”) and Stella Weir (“Stephanie from Dallas”), both members of the interesting art-rock band, Glass Eye. Another Glass Eye member, Kathy McCarty, played the “Anarchist’s Daughter” in a later scene. Kathy had previously lived at our house. I only met her one time, when she came by to pick up some of her paintings she’d left behind. She later put out an album of brilliant Daniel Johnston covers, Dead Dog’s Eyeball. Her version of “Living Life” was used by Rick for the end credits of Before Sunrise.
Around the time of Slacker, the only band surpassed for me by the Buttholes was the incredible Ed Hall, whose psychedelic metal-funk-punk made for many nights of brilliant, wondrous, joyous, ecstatic abandon. Their drummer at the time, Kevin Whitley (later guitarist for Cherubs), played the “Jilted Boyfriend” whose typewriter is tossed over the side of a bridge by a “friend” reading a passage from Ulysses. Ed Hall later appear as themselves as the band playing at the Continental Club, where, a couple years earlier, I’d put on my AFS series “Secret Cinema,” for which I programmed further Fassbinder, experimental films, film noir, etc.
Other musicians in the cast include Frank Orrall (“Happy-Go-Lucky-Guy”), and Abra Moore (“Has Change”) from Poi Dog Pondering, which later had some success. I remember when Poi Dog got to town, they’d introduce themselves, and announce they were from Hawaii, as if this entitled them to extra-cool points. They became very good friends with people I was close to, but I could never stand them, myself. I’d pass them by as they played on the sidewalk on the main university drag in the middle of the afternoon on my way home from work at the Texas State Library, and they’d be jumping up and down with cultish, joyous abandon. They filled me with disgust. I was still in my late adolescent throes, I guess, and drawn to darker and harder stuff.
There were a number of other musicians in the cast. A member of the post-punk band Nice Strong Arm, Kevin Thomson, was the “Handstamping Arm Licker.” The woman I recruited who played the mother ran over by her son was folk singer Jean Caffeine. There were others tangentially in the field, such as Austin Chronicle editor/South by Southwest co-founder Louis Black (“Paranoid Paper Reader”).
A regret I have concerns a music-video/film I remember Lee’s brother working on. Bill Daniel was cutting it on Lee’s Steenbeck. It was for this interesting band that had taken to crashing with him, or perhaps some of his friends, when they were in town. They’d play small venues like the Continental Club, and had what struck me as a pretty cool sound. A year or so later, and I’d caught up with their recordings, and had become a huge fan. They’d begun to hit big, though, and whatever opportunity I’d had to hang out with Sonic Youth had evaporated.
A funny music-related story from the earliest days of AFS: Lee and I were home one evening, having a good male-bonding chat, when the phone rang. Lee answered. I couldn’t tell who was on the other line, but Lee became tremendously enthused, and proceeded to have an ebullient conversation over the course of at least a half hour. When he got off the phone, he was exultant. It had been rock-n-roller, Billy Gibbons, in search of a videotape of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. As it turned out, we couldn’t help him, but nonetheless it was one of the sweetest moments from those times: who knew the ZZ Top guitarist/lead vocalist was such a huge Fassbinder fan?
Did you consider yourself a Slacker at the time? Do you identify with any particular generational tag?
Well, back then “slacker” was a fairly obscure term referring to someone who’d escaped military duty in their country’s time of need. That didn’t apply to me, although it possibly might have if there’d been some serious war, the sort of thing, which, aside from the Gulf War, my generation escaped. The word came to have the meaning it holds now through Rick’s film entering the culture, and its vernacular. I remember when I first heard the name change to Slacker. I have to say I was a bit confused. It sounded like Stalker, the title of a Tarkovsky film, and at the same time evoked a horror movie, the type of thing it had absolutely nothing to do with. The whole thing had to be explained to me, I think, by my friend Clark Walker, who worked on the film, and later co-wrote The Newton Boys. The new meaning of the word took shape as a joke on set, like being a crew member was like being in the military, and someone who was lazy was therefore unpatriotic. “Get to work, you slacker!” Ha ha. It finally began to sink in, I got the concept. In the summer of ’90, I saw Blondie perform at the Austin music festival Aquafest. I remember looking up at Debbie Harry as she sang “Call Me,” and thinking about how Paul Schrader had had this semi-inadvertent effect on the culture. These things are unplanned and uncontrollable. What I didn’t have a clue about, of course, was that in a small way I was already part of something that was going to have just such an effect.
I don’t necessarily identify with a generational tag, but these things are arbitrary, anyway. I don’t take them especially one way of the other, and certainly not seriously. “Generation X,” although artificial sounding, is a hell of a lot better than “baby boomers,” and at least has its origins in a band that was pretty cool. That’s fine with me. I do take a little pride in how some of my lines can be thought the slacker’s ethos: “Who’s ever written the great work about the immense effort required in order not to create? Intensity without mastery… The obsessiveness of the utterly passive.. And could it be that in this passivity, I shall find my freedom?” That was pretty good there.
Tell us a bit more about your early days? The name Brecht is very specific for instance. Is it a real name – the work of artistic parents, perhaps? Or a stage-name?
Brecht Andersch is absolutely my real name, it’s on my birth certificate. Bertolt Brecht was tremendously admired by my father, who was a Trostskyist, and, for a long time, fancied himself a revolutionary. He presented my mother with a few name choices; I came close to being named Fidel. Finally, Brecht won the day. My parents divorced when I was two, my mother became a hippie, and got remarried, this time to a former black revolutionary. She and I moved with him from San Francisco to his native environs of the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. I grew up there from ages 4 to 11. Unless I’m mistaken, I was the only white kid in the neighborhood. We lived about six blocks away from Spike Lee’s family. I was of course at an extremely impressionable age, and being a minority of one immediately after the semi-attainment of civil rights in the United States was necessarily an involving experience. I’m currently making notes for a memoir about my childhood, tentatively titled The People Just Don’t Know. When I was 11, we moved back to San Francisco. Then at 13, I moved in with my father and stepmother in the Bay Area suburb of Belmont. It was my first experience living in a largely white environment, and it was not edifying. While my parents affected my political perspective, my grandmother gave me a strong aesthetic bent. She had been a founding member of the San Francisco Ballet, where she danced principle dancer roles, and later taught at their school for many years. She was also a choreographer, painter, composer, and writer. We were very close. There was a lot of other stuff going on: my mother and stepfather were heavily into martial arts and eastern spirituality. They eventually moved to Texas to found an ashram. My step-grandparents were Sunni Muslim converts, so I grew up amongst a variety of spiritual perspectives and world views.
That’s an interesting early background. I’m a little younger than you and was born kind of at the tail end of what would be termed Generation X and had similarly alternative/hippie parents who divorced when I was very young. A couple of questions about that; Do you think that the various states of flux that came out of the Sixties and continued into the Seventies are something that you can in any way separate out from your own identity or do they completely inform you as a person? I ask because I find that I can’t really leave that time behind in some ways.
And, a related question, do you find the 21st century to be in any way alienating in respect of your upbringing? Inasmuch, as any idea of the avant-garde is very much a minority activity these days. Not that, by definition, the avant-garde was ever mainstream but it did seem to have a larger cache in wider culture back in the 70s, 80s and even the 90s. I mean, I don’t want to be cynical about ‘budding capitalist youth’ or anything.
I feel totally connected to many of the various themes and concerns of the 60s and 70s, and into the 80s, but not so much to what’s current. This obviously is a typical situation for many people pulling into middle-age. But those who have even a trace of a memory of those times, and were in some way connected to their currents, know that there was a time when surface-level stuff wasn’t the only thing being addressed, and when what one said and did mattered, and when things in general were imbued with meaning, which is the stuff that makes living feel worthwhile. Also, those were times in which individual feeling and thought were paramount. There was much collective thought and attitude going on, but nevertheless radicalism was informed by peoples’ personal experiences, and these were thought to be of consequence. Much of today’s “radicalism” is governed by an onerous conformism.
Do you still consider yourself an actor? A quick search online suggests that you are very much a film-writer and filmmaker these days rather than an actor?
I enjoyed acting as a kid, but now my involvement with it is in service to my activities as a filmmaker. I’ve done parts in friends’ films as requested. I didn’t get real training as an actor until 2001, when I spent a year studying at the Jean Shelton studio. I started writing on film in 2008, when I was invited to participate in an ongoing discussion of Berlin Alexanderplatz for the SFMOMA blog, Open Space. I’ve worked at the museum since 2000 as a projectionist, and was currently projecting Fassbinder’s great epic, and seeing it again for the sixth time. I later became a columnist for Open Space. In this capacity, I’m especially proud of a project dating back to my life with Rick and Lee. We’d traveled to Houston in 1986 to sit in on a class being taught by Stan Brakhage. In the class, Brakhage showed two films we’d never seen, or even heard of, before, by the great San Francisco Beat filmmaker/poet Christopher Maclaine. We were especially blown away by Maclaine’s The End (1953), which seemed to deliver the hidden goods on the underlying reality of living in a world constantly on the verge of apocalypse, which is how it had come to feel again in the Reagan era. After class, we pumped Brakhage for info on Maclaine, and immediately programmed a Beat film show around The End. When it came, we watched that film print over and over, until we had at least semi-memorized Maclaine’s brilliant voice-over narration, and we competed with each other to reproduce his dry, bitterly ironic deliveries. Many years later, I was able to interview Brakhage about Maclaine. This interview eventually appeared in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000. For Open Space, I produced a book-length study of The End, for which collaborator Brian Darr and I sought out its many barely-known San Francisco locations. Maclaine’s film is the story of five underground men right before nuclear annihilation hits, so it definitely contributed to the atmosphere of Dostoyevskyian intensity and passion I lived in with Rick, Lee, and also George.
As a film-writer and projectionist, are you a celluloid purist or do you embrace digital or a bit of both?
In those capacities, and as a filmmaker, I’m at least a semi-celluloid purist, it’s true. The cinema I fell in love with was as much about the media with which it was made as anything. The more deeply I got into film, the more I became cognizant of its medium-specific qualities. There are certain colors, for example, that you’ll only see when viewing certain film stocks, and digital will never be able to reproduce these properly. And there are many other factors that make film film, and keep me excited about the medium, and uninterested in digital. When I fell, it was totally, madly, deeply, and there still hasn’t been a reason to convert, other than to fit in. Digital was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist, for film, with all its supposed difficulty, was and is perfect. Out of my love for celluloid, I became involved in co-founding the Bay Area-based Film on Film Foundation, which seeks to encourage appreciation of projected celluloid film as central to the cinematic experience.
All this said, I don’t take some kind of militant stand on the matter: people should be free to work how they choose, in whatever medium for which they have an affinity. Rick’s currently working digitally, and more power to him. In making my own film, I decided to edit digitally, for lack of funds to do it on film. Two thirds of the film were shot by the great experimental filmmaker Paul Clipson, whom I’ve known since 1996. He was also supposed to edit the film, and when he dropped out of the project, I was forced to take on editing duties myself. I’d become a bit phobic about editing from my days of playing around on Lee’s Steenbeck, and editing digitally freed me up, and allowed me to fall in love with the editing process. I feel editing is now intrinsic to whatever I’d want to do in film. So maybe there is a solution to a problem digital provides, at that.
We read with interest that you’re putting the finishes touches to a low-budget feature-film amalgamating influences ranging from Cassavetes to Brakhage scheduled for release in 2017. This sounds fascinating. Can you tell us more?
It’s a period piece, set in San Francisco in 1995. It’s a story of outsider romance between two people who are flirting with insanity, and whose passions bring each other to the very edge. It’s a picture of the period right before computer madness would begin to wash over the Bay Area like a permanent tidal wave. It’s shot in black & white 16mm, and I hope to have it blown up to 35mm. It’s as experimental as a film can be and still hope find an audience in whatever remains of the arthouse scene. It’s taken me a long time to finish due to financial constraints. My small budget went to the shooting process, which was done over three summers, and over the course of three years. Slacker was definitely an inspiration, in that Rick’s ambition was a call to arms to live according to the “true call,” and he found the means to do what he had to do, however difficult this was. I shot my film organically, a bit like Rick did with Slacker. It’s evolved quite a bit over the course of time, with things getting re-worked in the shooting, and especially editing. I shot 30 hours of film, an expensive thing to do for a “no-budget” production, but it was necessary to get the film we have. Like any first film, it has many flaws, but I think it also has strengths that’ll make people interested. Like Slacker, it’s a call to arms (however ironically so) to reconnect to soul. This might change, but it’s currently entitled Bruno Underground, and, yes, the reference to Dostoyevsky is deliberate.
What kind of release could you possibly envisage for Bruno Underground?
My film is kind of a pocket epic, emphasis on the epic. It’s related to underground film, but it’s very much designed to entertain, or at least to engage a wide variety of emotions. I could be deluding myself, but I think it will have an audience, and hence (hopefully) distribution. I’d prefer it play mainly in 35mm, but as venues have gotten limited for that Queen of moving-image formats, I’ve gotten reconciled to it playing digitally as well. Thus far, for the people I’ve shown it to, a lot of emotions have been stirred up, mostly ones positive and/or cathartic. I’m sure there will be negative responses, too. I can’t wait to experience it with full-sized audiences. Most stuff these days is designed to massage, not challenge an audience. There’s quite a bit of lyrical stuff in Bruno Underground, too, so it’s not some unadulterated attempt to provoke. I’d like to think it’s complicated, and veers back and forth between engaging and challenging. It’s hopefully roughly equal parts of both, a complete package. I think there’s a quiet hunger for stuff that at least attempts to be the real deal, which so few films try for these days. We’ll see.
Brecht Andersch was interviewed by Richard Brammer.Warehouse Mixes, Unselected Poems 1975-2015 by Richard Brammer is available from Dostoyevsky Wannabe here.
Check which is the shallow end and note the point where you will be out of your depth.
Check which is the shallow end and note the point where you will be out of your depth.