City/Ruins: Art in the Face of Industrial Decay (Stephen Petrus, 2010)
[note: review originally published 16Dec2010]
How do you review a movie you’re in? The simple answer to this question is that you don’t; everything you say is going to come off sounding either like you’re a slavish marketing drone (join a couple of book-related websites and write a few intelligent reviews; you will find people like this coming out of the woodwork at an alarming rate) who loves everything about the movie, or you’re going to come off sounding way too critical in order to avoid sounding like a slavish marketing drone who loves everything about the movie. At the risk of pissing off pretty much everyone I know, I believe the latter is always the safer tack.
For some reason, over the last couple of years, there’s been an explosion of noise documentaries, from the incredible nine-minute short Noise, featuring Wolf Eyes and Lightning Bolt (and made by a sixteen-year-old!) to Tom Hovinbole’s groundbreaking Nor Noise, which sits on my list of the thousand best movies ever made. Noise docs have moved into your neighborhood, plopped themselves down on your front lawn, and now sit there in their boxers, scratching their asses and guzzling beer, daring you to call the cops to come move them from the old engine blocks they’re perched on. City/Ruins, an examination of the current state of the Cleveland noise scene, is the latest entry into the genre. It’s the same as the others in some ways, it’s different than the others in other ways, but the bottom line: if you like noise documentaries, you’re going to like this one. If you don’t, there’s probably nothing here that’s going to suddenly convince you that noise is an art form in which you should immerse yourself. (I should know, I’ve been looking for that particular magic bullet for almost twelve years now.)
It’s the same as others in its technical approach; it alternates interviews with performance clips. Each block of interviews centers around a certain topic, and various and sundry folks from the Cleveland scene give various shadings of an answer. (To clarify my opening statement above: while I perform in the flick, I didn’t interview. I hate cameras and avoid them whenever possible.) This is right in line with People Who Do Noise or Nor Noise, though it focuses a bit more on the history of this particular scene, whereas most noise docs tend to try and give you a more general overview. That’s often a mistake; noise is a massive topic, and focusing on the Cleveland scene was a good way of narrowing the field and not losing track of the topic at hand.
While I’m on technical-approach, though, it’s here the movie’s greatest weaknesses show up. And again I will say that I am way, way too close to this, and I know way, way too much. And I should also point out that, as cameraman Aaron Vilk told me at the premier, the cut I saw is not the finished cut, so a lot of these things could easily be changed by the time anyone sees a finished, pressed DVD. [ed. note: I have since revised this review to take the finished DVD into account, and the screenshots in this review were taken from the DVD.] But there were two things that stood out to me:
1. The performance clips were all much shorter than I thought they should have been, with one exception (Fascist Insect’s) that was presented complete due to its brevity. The fades on the clips were for the most part artificial, and seemed arbitrary; I’d have preferred losing some of the interview footage and getting a lot more performance. (For the record, my wife feels exactly the opposite and would have preferred more interview footage, so take this with as much salt as necessary.)
2. This was a seriously no-budget production, and I know that, but stretching the dollars and hiring a professional editor would have been a really, really good idea. The film’s current running time is just about 150 minutes; easily twenty minutes of that could have been cut by getting rid of the few seconds of “um, ah…” that pop up in between actual statements made during interviews. (I had this exact same problem with the black metal doc Until the Light Takes Us, for what it’s worth, every time Fenriz was directly addressing the camera.) And harking back to point 1, that could’ve been twenty minutes of extra concert footage, and I’m all about that, even though I am well aware that laptop-and-suitcase kids are kinda boring to watch perform.
And I am the most boring of the lot, but here’s where I start talking about the movie’s upsides, which outweigh the downsides by a pretty heavy factor. I’m only in the movie myself for about three minutes, in a performance clip from this summer. I’m in the middle of the history section, right in between the reminiscences about the old guard and discussion about the new breed of noisemongers who popped up after all the clubs we used to play closed down and we didn’t know there still was a noise scene. And suddenly there I am, concentrating on my laptop, looking up briefly to salute someone walking in (Rob Galo, if memory serves), and then the camera pans around and standing behind me is Wyatt Howland, the guy behind Skin Graft and one of the first (and most popular) members of the new guard. It got a few chuckles form the crowd, but you know what? It works, and it’s a great symbol. I hate seeing myself on camera and it’s still one of my favorite bits in the movie simply because it’s such a great symbol.
But as far as I’m concerned, and once again I know this is subject to debate, but my favorite part of any noise doco is going to be the performance bits. I was at all but three of the shows where this was taped and I still loved watching the footage, because so many bands brought their A games to these performances. (Those I missed were Contamination Diet, Order of Melchizedek, and Glacial 23, and all turn in performances of the same quality as the rest of the acts.) The sound was off on a few of the sets, though (again, I know too much); Fascist Insect, for example, are a whole lot heavier on the bass than they come off here when you see them live, while Nyodene D’s high-end electronics will normally have you leaving a venue with blood dripping from your ears. Why they came off sounding flatter than the other bands represented, I don’t know. (As far as I am aware, the same audio and video equipment was used to record every set depicted here.)
All this may sound nitpicky, and rest assured, it is, as I said back in the opening paragraph. City/Ruins is easily on a par with People Who Do Noise. It’s not Nor Noise, but then very little is. If you’re a noise kid, it’s worth your time; if you’re a noise kid who’s involved with, or have ever been a part of, the Cleveland scene, it’s must-see TV indeed. *** ½
For trivia purposes: you can find me briefly starting at 1:15.