Noise Pop Review:Too Much Johnson and Oddsac

by Chris Piper on March 1, 2018

Too much Johnson in my Oddsac

Joseph Cotton shows absolutely no respect for his suit.

Joseph Cotton shows absolutely no respect for his suit.

Let me say right here, at the outset of this double review, that I had no intention of deliberately pairing Too Much Johnson and Oddsac together for any comedic purposes. Yes, it’s very easy to “put too much Johnson into the oddsac” or snickeringly flippant to say something like “too much Johnson, the story of oddsac’s life.” Nope, not having it. You can’t pin it on me. Sure, accuse me of being wildly naive, but when I looked through the film offerings when the Noisepop 2018 schedule was released, I picked these two purely for what I thought was their cinematic possibilities. Too bad the best things about these two offerings are the many jokes that can be made from their titles.

The San Francisco festival, which improbably has run since 1993, boasts that it champions independent culture. Back in 1993, way before the Internet, or the death of record stores, or the passing of seemingly hegemonic corporate FM radio, “independent” may have seemed important, or at least marketable, but today, with virtually anything available everywhere anytime, and with even the smallest bands finding some stage and fifty people to show up, the term seems woefully out of date

But soldier on the Festival must, I suppose, and I ever the optimist, perused the schedule with an open mind. “How would the Festival define ‘independent’ today,” I asked myself. “How would it program offerings to intersect ‘independent’ with music and film,” I wondered. The extreme dearth of these types of offerings in the schedule should have been a warning, and the fact that the only cinematic event of the Festival that sold out was a exhibition of photos from Noise Pops past should have been another.

Let’s begin with Too Much Johnson, which owes its entire existence – and ninety percent of the reason I showed up to see it – to the fact the the inarguably great Orson Welles shot it, and the also inarguably great Joseph Cotton starred in it. The story of how the film got to the Alamo New Mission, where it was screened as part of the Festival, is at least somewhat interesting.

As we all should know by know, in 1938, Orson Welles was the boy wonder of the East Coast theater scene, but had not yet given the world The War of the Worlds or Citizen Kane. His Mercury Theater, aided and abetted by John Houseman, had Cotton, but had not yet been blessed with Agnes Morehead, and was brimming with success and ideas. Welles, ever the experimenter, wanted to merge a late nineteenth century farce with the brilliant physical comedies of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. The play, by William Gillette based on a French farce, centers on Augustus Billings, who, posing as wealthy Cuban plantation owner Joseph Johnson, is having an affair with married Clairette Dathis. Augustus is able to get away just before Clairette’s husband, Leon Dathis, comes home. But Leon finds out about the affair. With Augustus’s photograph in hand, Leon goes on a search for his wife’s lover.

Welles rented a theater in Connecticut and shot loads of footage for his planned cinematic interlude, but realized too late that the film could not be shown in the theater (head smacker). Undaunted, he tried to continue with just the stage parts. The play was an unmitigated disaster, and closed in only a few weeks.  Shortly thereafter, a fire at a villa Welles had been renting was thought to have destroyed the film. However, in 2010 a working print, including eight minutes of edited film, was discovered in Italy and preserved. This working print made its way to film societies all around the world. In 2014, William Tyler composed and performed a live score featuring guitars and dobros for a screening in Nashville. That was that until Noise Pop 2018.

What I saw wasn’t a finished film, or even close. It was the working print. So the thirty or so of us us unlucky enough to be in that theater had to sit through take after take after take of Cotton scrambling over roofs and around stove pipes in the late ’30s New York City meatpacking district, with Tyler on the corner of the stage, earnestly trying to find some kind of a musical connection. You can get a great approximation of the pain of this by downloading the working print here, then watching it accompanied by Tyler’s excellent 2016 album Modern Country (Pitchfork gave it an 8.0!). Clearly this entire experience should have stayed in the film school/film society realm, and never been screened to an unwitting audience on a chilly February evening. I guess there wasn’t enough Johnson in this Too Much Johnson.

My dashed hopes rose somewhat with the prospect of viewing Oddsac, a 2010 visual album by director Dennis Perez with Animal Collective. According to Perez, the idea of a visual album took shape over a few years with the band, and filming actually began in 2004. Money troubles and competing priorities elapsed six more years before it screened to an audience in 2010. Whoever put up that extra money did the cinematic and larger cultural world a great disservice.

As a piece of music, the soundtrack is not exactly textbook Animal Collective, but very close. It veers from quiet and contemplative, to loud and abrasive, and owes more than it wants to admit to early Eno/Fripp and Mike Oldfield. As a soundtrack to a film, it offers no musical themes from track to track, nothing to help coalesce around even a few basic ideas. The imagery varies from different evolving abstracts (think early aughts animated shapes and patterns) to short narrative pieces about – wait for it – a violet-haired vampire who massacres a camping family while they roast marshmallows, only to die a frothy death as the sun arises, to what appears to be a coven of witches who gather in an abandoned forest shed for a food fight, only to be meekly harassed by a Donnie Darko-esque evil bunny. Oh and somewhere in there is some sort of spindly haired creature who sets up, then incoherently bashes away on, some drums on a twilight river bed. But hey, don’t just take my word for it. Check out the entire fifty-two minute masterpiece here. Perez has said that he wanted to make a film that was “challenging” and “angry” and not “easy.” It seems he leaned heavily on Mathew Barney’s Cremaster cycle (check out Cremaster 3, The Order) to fill in the meat of those three words. I’m no Mathew Barney fan, but at least the films in that cycle allow for some amount of interpretation by a more or less orderly evolution of imagery and (very sparse) narration. In Oddsac, any attempt at interpretation — any effort to weave anything through each of the sections — becomes impossible, because the shifts are so abrupt and without any logical sense.

Little freaky drummer boy

Little freaky drummer boy in Oddsac.

Which brings me back to Noise Pop –  still a significant event on the San Francisco cultural calendar. I do think there still is a place for “independent” and “film” and “music” to find expression in works during the Festival, and I’m excited to see how the Festival can recover in 2019. I can only imagine that, in world where lush narrative stories can be created on iPhones, and whole musical universes can emerge from basement studios, there has to be something out there worth the Festival’s schedule.



Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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