The thing about going to see a movie — as opposed to most other spectator experiences — is that there often isn't any reason to clap at the end. Sure, if it's an old film and the projectionist was probably dealing with splices and the like, then you cheer the projectionist for not starting a fire in the booth. Or if the filmmaker happens to be in the room; sure, you've gotta clap then. Same goes for silent film accompanists, pounding away at an upright until the final frame. But your ordinary show at the cineplex — or even your ordinary screening at a space like The Toby — well, it's just kind of time to head home afterwards.
I put forward these somewhat banal observations to create a contrast between the ordinary filmgoing experience and Saturday night's presentation of Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then. It was a show to clap for, featuring a full band led by Gravity director Brent Green accompanying his at-turns-whimsical and metaphysically heavy true story of a man who tried to turn his house into a healing machine, building it ever closer to the heavens so that he might save his wife from cancer. Green's film was a marvel in itself — lensed in his backyard, where he and his colleagues realized a replica of the house — and the accompanying performance gave the experience renewed immediacy and emotional intensity, with Green's shaky-voiced, sometimes stream-of-consciousness, fast-paced narration leading the charge. Plus, it's always fun to see someone doing live foley or playing the Theremin. Or a member of Fugazi — drummer Brendan Canty — out in the wild.
In a brief introduction to the film, Green noted that the film "looks like it was made in his backyard" — which is true, but in the very best kind of way. Borrowing techniques from the greats of the American avant-garde — notably, the choppy, frames-missing, diary-like approach of Jonas Mekas — Green made the most of his resources, showing glimpses of the house where a typically crafted narrative film might have opted for a wide shot, making a virtue of his DIY approach with hand-drawn title cards and hand-crafted furniture, his style perfectly in line with his subject matter (being an eccentrically constructed house plotted in the middle of Old Weird America). It's a charming and fast-paced film that gestures towards Michel Gondry (in its magically realistic stop-motion animation sequences), Guy Maddin (intertitles; general weirdness) and Stan Brakhage (backyard home movies with an assertive, muscular camera).
Green gets into the head of Leonard Wood, the appropriately titled builder who has the clinically compulsive notion that, by continuing to build and modify the house he and his wife, Mary, lived in — by numbering stairs and painting windows, by building a 30-foot-high laundry room — he might cure her cancer. But, of course, the film doesn't judge; one has to admire Wood's ingenuity and indefatigability while pitying the way he's redirected his grief, just as one admires Green's efforts in reconstructing the entire house, rickety ceilings and human-sized birdhouse and all, for this film. One reads into Leonard's efforts what one will — Green, who narrates the film in a straight-forward, sometimes autobiographical way, explicitly parts ways from Leonard by declaring his atheism towards the end of the film, but he obviously admires Leonard in all kinds of ways, perhaps chiefly for his efforts to build his own world, by his own rules and aesthetic sense.
But enough about the film itself — the musical accompaniment was equally distinctive, accomplished by Green (on acoustic guitar and narration) with five backing players, including Donna K. (who played Mary in the film) on live foley. The band warmed up by accompanying Green's Carlin, a short film which follows a life-size puppet in a wheelchair around an old house, with images from old science books spliced throughout. It's narrated by Green in a breathless, so-many-ideas-and-memories-at-once-that-I-can't-say-them-all style, with factoids learned from old science books taking equal place alongside memories of a sick aunt and other Gothic thoughts. That one was a slow-builder, the band and Green gradually building up in volume and intensity towards the close; they had as careful a command of dynamics when it came to the score for the main film, which rocked when it needed to, stuck in the region of rustic folk at other times and generally had an elegiac feel. The band also dropped out for long periods of time, giving the main characters some space to breathe and be awkward when they meet for the first time (their dialogue being the only recorded element of the soundtrack).
And check out Donna K's blog entry on her time in Indy, including a very nice write-up of the IMA (which she admittedly didn't see much of, but was intrigued by just on the basis of brochures and the like).