“Happiness lies in the hope that happiness exists.”
We find ourselves living in an age in which indie cinema is ostensibly flourishing, an age in which access to inexpensive video technology has ensured that anybody with a dream, a camera, a couple of credit cards and more than a couple of buddies willing to work cheap, who might also be able to furnish an apartment in which to shoot, can position themselves as the next Kevin Smith or Aaron Katz or Andrew Bujalski and make what might in some circles reasonably pass in 2012 as a movie. Ever since the cultural ascendance of festivals like Sundance and Slamdance and SXSW, among countless others, filmmakers have been churning out one visually perfunctory D.I.Y. dramedy and thematically outrageous horror movie after another, few nearly as edgy or accomplished as they seem to think they are. The result has been an emerging indie cinema in which festivals can end up looking and smelling like the same old factory models, only with a more visually degraded sausage than would have ever passed muster in the slick world of Hollywood filmmaking past being squeezed out the product end.
Even more distressing is the tendency of some filmmakers to treat American indie cinema as a proving ground, a stepping stone to bigger budgets and diminished opportunities for genuine self-expression. (“My film won the audience award this year, but what I really want to do is direct Green Lantern 2!”) Much fewer and farther between are the movies that hew only to the heartbeat of their filmmakers, regardless of audience expectations or previous formulas for success, the movies that feel when you’re watching them as if the filmmaker believed they had to be made, that his or her artistic survival were at stake.
Jim Akin’s After the Triumph of Your Birth (2012) is one such film. It's a work that recognizes the value and influence of the past but lives in a languid, pulsating present, its eyes forever glancing at and absorbing its surroundings in ways that make them seem at once intensely familiar and yet imbued with unexpected shadows and nuances and elements of surprise, and always looking further down the road with quizzical anticipation and yearning. Described by writer-filmmaker Kent Adamson as “a road movie on foot” and critic Jeremy Richey as “an elaborate puzzle box with a beating human heart in the middle,” ATTOYB fleshes out the journey of discovery of one Eli Willit, played by musician/actor Tom Dunne, whose effective and engaging presence, as Tony Dayoub smartly observes, bears a striking resemblance to that of Tom Noonan. Eli is a man with demons to spare and the aching desire to reconcile them with his thirst for independence and his questioning spirituality, and his seven-day journey from the Pearblossom Highway desert, over Mt. Baldy and westward to the Pacific Ocean in search of the sense of meaning that has eluded him his entire life will cause him to cross paths with a strange and unlikely cast of misfits and seekers, sometimes glancingly, often in ways that will mark him forever.
Dunne is joined by a capable roster of largely unfamiliar performers who dot the highways and bars and back roads and hostels along Eli’s journey, highlighted by Tessa Ferrer as Eva, a desperate, aimless woman who makes an unexpected emotional connection with Eli; burlesque performer Kristina Nekyia as a hobbled succubus who haunts Eli (and the film) and redefines the erotic possibilities of leg braces in a manner which both J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg would approve; and most compelling of all, young Dean Ogle as a 12-year-old boy who startles his music teacher to attention with the pained and soulful flagellations of the songs he writes and shows to her. (“God should give me nightmares,” he sings plaintively in one of the movie’s most chilling and memorable sequences.)
The conduit for much of the movie’s open spiritual questioning is the Answer Man, a angelic/demonic figure who most clearly recalls the sort of demonic chorus member Robert Blake embodied in Lost Highway. The Answer Man is made comparatively benign, yet still ominous flesh by ex-Possum Dixon member Rob Zabrecky, following closely on Eli’s heels for the duration of the movie, threatening him with portentous proclamations and temptations and prodding him into a constant state of existential upheaval, and he is the movie’s diciest conceit. Zabrecky often flirts with preciousness, occasionally tumbling over into it, and yet Akin still manages to weave the character as a compelling, mysterious thread throughout the film that binds it through its relatively phantasmagorical conclusion.
Unlike those blurry three-characters-and-a-futon generational dramas that permeate so much of indie film culture, cinephiles will luxuriate in Akin’s vision, which echoes eclectic inspiration from all corners of the most genuinely intellectual and emotionally independent cinema of the past four decades. (Akin served as his own cinematographer, and the movie, shot on a budget that wouldn’t pay for the shoestrings on a Joe Swanberg picture, looks absolutely gorgeous—Akin has a hell of an eye for fleetingly beautiful compositions and the poetry of a dusty back road.) And yet ATTOYB is the furthest thing from a shallow game of spot the references. Akin intends to draw meaning from the film style that occupies his line of sight, but those allusions are never an end in themselves. Instead, they blend into a rich, vibrant, yet never mannered tapestry of geographical sensitivity and rare observational eloquence—this is a vision of Los Angeles that at once seems alien and yet strangely familiar, urban and yet unexpectedly rural at times (there are a couple of lovely sequences where characters walk down what look like country paths, the horizon of the city barely, pointedly masked by the top of the frame). It’s as if the unsettled dreamer Robert Altman who fashioned the undulating high desert landscapes of Three Women decided to hit the road with Wim Wenders, Alex Cox, Don Siegel, Hal Hartley and Sergio Leone, and they all ended up wandering along the night-blackened, brush-entangled margins of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, where all the secrets and the answers the characters seek remain hidden just out of view. (One hopes if Los Angeles Plays Itself ever gets an update that Thom Andersen will devote some much-deserved space to this gorgeous, gritty, often diaphanous and ethereal film.)
Yet After the Triumph of Your Birth is also clearly a movie made by musicians, a movie of profound, fleeting beauty that glides and drifts and darts and sweeps to its own internal rhythms in the manner of a classically structured, lyrically slippery Leonard Cohen song, or a boundary-busting Radiohead experiment, or a regionally attuned Ry Cooder melody. It has the spirit of inquiry that only the best pop music, with its ability to be alarmingly direct and yet also plumb the inner workings of the heart in ways that often cannot be articulated, can respond to in kind. I use the plural “musicians” because Akin’s key creative collaborator is Maria Mckee, the celebrated Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who achieved initial fame as the leading light of the ‘80s band Lone Justice, and who also happens to be Akin’s wife. In addition to occupying a supporting role in the cast as a character whose spiritual despair provides one of the film’s central thematic support beams, Mckee and her director have woven a powerful musical accompaniment for the film that often blissfully derails the proceedings from dirt-encrusted, poetically enhanced realism into the realm of a full-on post-modern (to say nothing of post-MTV) musical. And of course it is music that courses most freely through the veins of the characters Akin and his able and fascinating cast have imagined; all are in one way or another performers along the gravel and asphalt paths of existence whose stymied hearts are best displayed while strumming, singing or dancing their lives away.
That quest for a sense of identity and order that so compels the people of After the Triumph of Your Birth is fundamentally illuminated by the bitter aftertaste of the film’s title. All this humanity swirling and flitting about the incandescent possibilities implied by the celebratory trajectory that accompanies every person’s messy entrance into the world must eventually give way to endless opportunities for disappointment, rejection, persecution, bittersweet reconciliation (if any) and, of course, death, the ultimate destination of any life. Which is not to say that the movie sourly rejects the joys inherent in life—hardly—but it does approach them with a refreshing maturity, one that does not feel the need to sugarcoat the difficulties of being human in order to find genuine sweetness. In fact, one of the best ways to think of After the Triumph of Your Birth might be as a soaring musical, Nashville seasoned with Kerouac, on themes of spiritual despair and confusion. It’s a paradoxically blissful movie about the search for a God who is indifferent and perhaps unreachable; how art can actively inform and function in and clarify the procession of a life; and even our ever-shifting perspective on what constitutes success in an America obsessed with the mantra of acquisition and selfishness of the 1%, even by the remaining 99% whose lives are defined, undermined and devastated by the same sort of economic and philosophical subterfuge. If After the Triumph of Your Birth proves anything, it’s that having a prescribed agenda and direction when approaching matters of theological, political and poetic significance is probably the road best not taken. It is the journey, the asking of the questions, that proves far more compelling and rewarding than the spoon-feeding of solutions.
Any movie that stirs up this kind of emotional carnival of ecstatic rumination in the mind of the viewer, while at the same time transporting them on a tattered magic carpet through shimmering, heightened, ruined landscapes of vibrant humanity the way this movie does, deserves an audience. And yet the very quality of searching and refusal to adhere to prescribed formulas in which these sorts of questions are most frequently posed (if they are posed at all), and the sense that the movie was not made with one eye on the audience, sets it firmly outside the boundaries that define the independent film experience of the 21st century. The irony is, of course, that it is precisely these qualities that should, in a perfect, or a less imperfect world, ensure that it finds an audience that would rise to it on its own open, adventurous, rhapsodic terms.
Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, in introducing the film at its Los Angeles premiere in August at the Cinefamily, called it “pretentious, but in a good way,” tying it to a whole, largely lost tradition of independently oriented American films that once routinely swung for the fences in terms of style and content, displaying damn little fear that their efforts would fall short, and often emerging as richer and most revealing as works of art in spite of, and sometimes because of their shortcomings. After the Triumph of Your Birth will likely remind you of all that we have lost in American film culture, and you could hardly be blamed for mourning that loss. But at the same time it instills within the receptive viewer a sense of hope that film as a genuine medium for artistic expression, one that doesn’t have to provide a punishing experience for the audience in order to qualify as art, is hardly dead. In the hands of filmmakers like Akin and Mckee, whose urgency is beatific and celebratory as much as it is contemplative and solemn, you might even be forgiven a sliver of optimism.
After the Triumph of Your Birth plays a one-night return engagement on the big screen this coming Thursday, September 13, at the Aero Theater in Los Angeles, and just as it was at the Cinefamily this past summer the movie will be followed Thursday night by a concert headed up by Maria Mckee, Jim Akin, Tom Dunne and other cast members in a rousing set of songs featured in the movie, as well as some deep cuts culled from Mckee’s brilliant musical career and the odd and happy surprise or two. (In the video below, the band knocks out a superlative cover of the Carrie Nations’ “In the Long Run” from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.) Tickets are still available for what will undoubtedly be yet another haunting and heartening evening in the presence of these wonderful artists. If you are in Los Angeles this week and have not yet purchased a ticket, let me urge you to buy one now and ensure that you won’t miss one of the most memorable film and music happenings of the year.