Movie Review: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields at NWFF

Northwest Film Forum, Dec 10 – Dec 16
Directed by Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara, USA, 2010, HD, 82 minutes. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature at the Los Angeles Outfest


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“The cactus where your heart should be,” go the lyrics from the song with that for the title, sung in a weary baritone upon a plume of plucked guitars and tinny-sounding keyboards, “has lovely little flowers.”

The song comes up halfway through the Northwest Film Forum’s next installment in their excellent Music Movies series, Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, a docu-devotional to an ornery bard and wry showman, the “fag hag” musician/manager who urges him to keep his t-shirt on and not sell it for ten bucks during a concert, the fan flock who clamors for it, and his fellow collaborators who fear him.

The lyrical juxtaposition of images both self-defensive (cactuses are mostly known for pricking you) and disarmingly attractive (the unexpected bloom of buds) pops up after a scene which may mean the most to the heart-thrumming throng that will watch this artist’s history over and over again. Shortly before relocating to Los Angeles to work on the Distortion album, and away from Claudia Gonson’s long-time, nurturing but intense collaboration with him, Merritt piles his journals on the floor. There he shuffles through pages of notes and drawings, fragments of song lyrics and the gobs of bad poetry a writer must spew to get anywhere near a good line (and eventually a good piece or song). “It was raining broken glass in the forgotten part of town,” Merritt smirks through one line picked at random. Meanwhile, people who love the idea of wallowing around in Merritt’s messy creative scraps will find this scene just as thrilling as the wonderful concert footage of “Papa Was A Rodeo” and “Come Back From San Francisco.”

While the music is succinctly described in Strange Powers by professor Tim Page as “80s pop, 70s bubblegum, and 20s and 30s show tunes,” the definition of Merritt’s personality is a little conflicted. Comedian and friend Sarah Silverman describes Merritt the way most people do, as someone who is very sweet on the inside but with a very mean exterior. Jokes are made about Merritt making Lou Reed seem like Little Orphan Annie. Yet Peter Gabriel praises Merritt’s “conversational simplicity,” but with so much “emotion and wisdom.” So is he a twisted fuck or a mashed up marshmallow heart?

It’s taken for granted that most performers (especially those of cult status) is reflected to some extent by his or her followers, At one point in the film the average Magnetic Fields fan is described by Merritt collaborator, friend, and author Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) as “young, heartbroken, probably a Liberal Arts graduate, looking like they come from Manhattan or Brooklyn in hipster clothes.” Earlier Handler says that Merritt avoids direct emotional honesty in his songs, and Gonson confirms this by reading from Merritt’s own “Formulist Manifesto” from a couple decades back, where he extolls “the perfection of the Top 40 pop song … formulism is the artist as smart shopper … removing the self-deception of striving through novelty.”

The joke (OK, one of many inside jokes) is of course that this disingenuousness is somewhat disingenuous. It’s not that Merritt, the son of “fake tropical troubadour” Scott Fagan (who he’d never met when filmed during the ten years this documentary was in production) and a hippie mother who tried fixing radiators by rubbing them with green bananas, the sort of songwriter who takes it as a given his songs are about and for people with enough freedom and money (broke but not poor) to go to San Francisco to write their novels, who spends eight hard-working hours a day writing while drinking a cocktail and smoking while listening to disco music he claims not to like, writing about people drinking cocktails and smoking, is against honesty. He just hates the “fake honesty” of 70s cinema, asserting that the filmic elegance of Marlene Dietrich and Rock Hudson is just as authentic. Journalists caught up in the arguments about “authenticity” are missing the whole point that good writing is always a little autobiographical, but also exaggerations and mishmoshes of archetypes, ironies, influences, and grievances. It’s the mystical stew called creation, and even a bourgeois Hula dancer and ukulele collector will fiddle away his time with all of this in order to create his own religion. It’s the same faith, if that’s what you call it, as many in his 1983-with-a-mohawk hanging out generation; doing what you love for yourself, with your friends and for others who understand this deontology, even if the major labels try to force production and marketing skills upon you. Which, in Merritt’s case, is most likely never going to happen — he’ll write an opera instead, and piss off a hundred more journalists who can’t keep up with his DIY rhythms (both musically and conversationally).

Such knowledgeable wit and the “strange power” to attract and fluster the attention of so many smart people, who help him play or listen to his songs, is probably why Merritt’s a perfect choice for such a doting, delighted documentary. And it’s delightful viewing, even with the occasionally sharp pricks (from bon mots and quips).

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One Comment

  1. Scott Fagan
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Why would some one in as wonderful a place as Seattle, be so un-necessarily cruel in describing Stephin’s Mother, a woman that the caring and creative people of Seattle would more than likely find interesting and simpatico in every way, and how could he or she presume to know enough about me and my life to be so stupidly and naccurately cruel in their description of me?
    Scott Fagan

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