Hey--What Am I Doing Up on That Screen?
It's not always a given that actors will make it to the premiere of a movie they've performed in, particularly in the low-budget world of independent film, but until I called Jack Brewer last week he didn't even know that My Char-Broiled Burger With Brewer, an off-the-cuff project he "stars" in with former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, was finished, much less that it would be making its world premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on Tuesday. "I thought the project had been canned," says Brewer, who's best known for fronting the 80s art-punk band Saccharine Trust, which recently reformed and opened a couple shows for Sonic Youth in California.
Filmmaker Jim Sikora, a local fixture who earned some critical acclaim for his 1996 feature Bullet on a Wire, admits that he hadn't gotten around to telling either Brewer or Watt about the completion of the video, which was shot over two visits to the Los Angeles area in 1996 and 1998. "I've been very busy," he explains. "I tried to get ahold of Jack with no luck."
The 45-minute piece was conceived by Joe Carducci, whose relationship with Brewer and Watt dates back to the mid-80s, when he worked at the label they recorded for, SST. For most of the 90s Carducci has run Provisional, his own film and video distribution company, which released most of Sikora's work. Sikora met both Carducci, who lived in Chicago from 1986 to 1996, and Brewer here in 1992, when the latter visited the former and played a few impromptu gigs with the local band Repulse Kava. In 1996 Carducci and Sikora went in on a digital video camera and decided to shoot My Char-Broiled Burger With Brewer to break it in. In a takeoff on My Dinner With Andre, Brewer and Watt, playing characters based on themselves, engage in a quasi-philosophical conversation about the meaning of their punk-rock days. Watt often has to pry responses from Brewer, whose behavior ranges from excruciatingly awkward to mildly indifferent--when he's not mumbling, he's nervously stuttering.
After the first shoot, Sikora sent some of the rough footage to Brewer, who was not pleased with the results. He says he told Sikora as much, but Watt persuaded him to come back and do some more. "They had this idea to do this movie so I went along with it," says Brewer. "It didn't work. The guy has made some really good movies, so I don't know why he would want to show this thing. For me it's really embarrassing. It's just some people speaking philosophically with nothing to say. I thought what would've helped it was to use some running commentary, like Beavis and Butt-head, to counter the pretentiousness of it. I'm not as stupid as I appear to be in the movie. I don't think I'm a person that expresses himself well verbally, which is probably why I write poetry and lyrics."
Watt says he's more troubled by the inclusion of early- and mid-80s concert footage of Saccharine Trust and the Minutemen--which is one of the best reasons to see the movie. "I don't know that we're really [playing] Minutemen or Saccharine Trust in the movie," he said. "To put the footage of those bands in there isn't fair to [guitarists] D. Boon and Joe Baiza. That's not really fair; that's vampire shit."
After the second round of shooting, Sikora turned his attention to other projects, directing the Carducci-scripted feature Rock & Roll Punk and directing a screen adaptation of The Critics, a popular play about theater critics by Reader theater critic Adam Langer. When an editor had to take a leave from that project, Sikora found himself with time on his hands and decided to finish the Brewer movie. "I was burning to finish it," says Sikora. "I'd hate to have it sit around for another few years."
About three months ago, he phoned Carducci, who now lives in Wyoming. Carducci says the submission deadline for the film festival was looming at the time. "He just wanted to steamroller it. There was no money invested in it and if [Brewer and Watt] didn't like what it was then it was up to us to convince them to move on with it or to shut it down. Jim didn't want to convince them. I told him that I couldn't lift a finger on it because he'd put me in this weird situation. As far as I'm concerned he doesn't have the artists' approval. They're not two clowns, they're playing characters, and that's why I have to give them veto power. It's not a bad performance, per se, but if people don't like it they're going to think these guys are idiots."
Despite Carducci's position, Sikora decided to proceed on his own. With the help of editor Seth Skundrick (who plays bass in the Nerves), he banged it out over the last three months, and it shows. There are a few laughs and a few pearls of wisdom in the leaden dialogue, but it's a curiosity piece at best. "I wouldn't take any legal action, 'cause I know it's not going to go anywhere," says Brewer.
My Char-Broiled Burger With Brewer will be screened Tuesday at 5 PM at the Fine Arts Theatres, on a program with Jeff Economy and Darren Hacker's hour-long video documentary about tribute bands, An Incredible Simulation.
More Music Movies
This year's CUFF lineup features a dozen other music-related programs, among them Rock Opera, a feature-length comedy about a "drug-addled" Austin musician trying to set up a tour for his band; A Tribute to the Scott and Gary Show, a retrospective of a 1980s New York public-access live-music show assembled by collaborator and Heavy Metal Parking Lot auteur Jeff Krulik; and Songs for Cassavetes, a not-particularly-insightful documentary about indie rock with a Pacific northwest bias.
There are also documentaries about El Vez, the Flaming Lips, and Johnny Thunders. But the documentary subject you're least likely to know anything about--Robert Dickerson, aka Benjamin Smoke--might be the most interesting of them all. Dickerson, the gay, cross-dressing, gutter-mouthed southern Oscar Wilde who fronted the wild, eclectic Atlanta band Smoke, was HIV-positive; he died in January 1999, not long after shooting was finished. In Benjamin Smoke, filmmakers Jem Cohen--who also directed the 1998 Fugazi documentary Instrument--and Peter Sillen capture his corrosive charisma, his debilitating insecurities, and his gargantuan lust for life. Benjamin Smoke will be screened Tuesday at 6 PM at the Fine Arts.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.