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In the year 2000, Kerthy Fix, co-director and producer of Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields, joined Gail O’hara in documenting live performances, rehearsals, and interviewing the band. A decade later, Fix would finally be able to premiere the documentary at South By Southwest Film Festival 2010. This started an international screening schedule, and Chicago will finally get two chances to see the film at the Gene Siskel Film Center on January 15th and 20th.
Fix, obviously a big fan, says that following the band for 10 years revealed many layers of Merritt’s process and interpersonal relationships. A large portion of the film’s focus is on the relationship between Merritt and friend, band-manager and creative muse Claudia Gonson.
“Claudia helps bring him to his audience,” she says. “It’s her creative-management genius and friendship with him that allows his music to reach his audience. I felt like they were really working in tandem and their relationship itself was so fascinating – I haven’t seen this type of ‘gay man/ fag hag’ 20-year friendship profiled anywhere.”
“I thought that was an interesting thing to profile in pop music – what are the relationships and process in making this kind of work? He’s known Claudia since he was 14. Things happen in the film where you are not sure if their relationship is going to withstand the changes. He’s very reserved, and Claudia’s very outgoing and emotionally open and really funny. She kind of functions like the heart of the film because I think she’s the heart of the band.”
Having once interviewed Stephin Merritt myself, and eventually commiserating with my fellow journalists about what a hard time we had doing so, the concept of Merritt allowing someone to follow him around with a camera for ten years seems almost implausible. “He’s doesn’t plug in well to the 20 minute interview,” Fix says. “It’s sort of required as a musician – you put out a record, you go on tour (which Stephin doesn’t like to do) and you have to do a million interviews and answer the same questions over and over.”
“Stephin’s much better when you engage him on a topic. I remember the very first question for the very first interview I did with him, I was very nervous. And he has this habit of pausing for a really long time before he answers a question, but he’s actually formulating the answer to the question before he says it because he’s so thoughtful. So, I ask him what he’s reading, like as a warm up question. And he pauses for a long time and I’m getting more nervous, and he says ‘What can I say that I’m reading right now? Because I don’t want to tell you what I’m actually reading because I’m writing an opera about it.’ He pauses again and then says ‘Oh! I like your shoes.’”
“He knows that he’s making me nervous but he knows that complimenting my shoes will put me at ease and give him time to think. And we put that segment at the front of the film because it’s kind of symptomatic as to how he’s misread. He’s just not great for the quick sound-bite. He’s great if you want to hang out and talk about any kind of music or film or books. People in the press who interview him, what do you get? You get 20 minutes of this excruciating arrangement which will end badly. And so he gets this reputation of being difficult, which is not really justified. When you see the film, you’ll see a different side of him.”
Press materials for any of Stephin Merritt’s recordings usually contain the name “Cole Porter” and a statement about how in the future, Merritt’s catalogue will be revered as iconic, standard American pop music. But why not now? Why isn’t a new Magnetic Fields record greeted with reverence for a living legend in the same way that a new Bruce Springsteen record is?
“Yeah, he has an outsider status, I think,” Fix says. “He writes from different points of view. The album Distortion was written from the point of view of an overweight Midwestern housewife. He writes from these different perspectives, and as human beings, we all have that kind of shifting persona.”
“We are asked by our culture to lock down on a solid persona but the internal experience is much more complicated. As a straight white woman, I might feel like a gay man inside. Or someone who’s black and likes country music might not feel culturally comfortable with the Black Panther kids he grew up with in the ’70s and feel like an outsider.”
“There’s all kinds of different ways to feel like an outsider, and I think in that way, Stephin’s writing from different characters and different points of view is very much of our time. But in terms of mainstream success, are the most important artists the most popular? I don’t know if that’s a criteria. He makes a living off of his music – but it’s an artisanal craft like a fine wine or a fine cheese. Do you want to eat Kraft American Cheese? Probably not. I think he’s right where he wants to be situated. He’s influential without being popular.”
Kerthy Fix will be hosting a preview of the documentary at Stardust on Thursday, January 13th at Berlin Nightclub, 954 West Belmont Avenue. Co-presented by CHIRP Radio and featuring CHIRP DJ Erik Roldan and special guest DJ Kim Ann Foxman (of Hercules and Love Affair), the event goes from 9pm to 4am, $7 cover.
Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and The Magnetic Fields screens at The Gene]http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/">Gene[/url] Siskel Film Center on January 15th at 8:00 pm and January 20th at 8:30 pm.
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